On leaving school he became a junior laboratory technician for Dr Hans Krebs at the University of Sheffield who encouraged him to study further and apply for a scholarship at the same university. He graduated with a BSc Honours in Chemistry in 1949. His interest had now moved to biochemistry and he studied in the Faculty of Medicine, receiving a PhD degree in 1953 for a thesis entitled Studies on gastric urease.
A Commonwealth Fund Exchange Fellowship of the Harkness Foundation enabled him to travel to the USA and work in several biochemistry laboratories. He then returned to the UK where his mentor Hans Krebs had moved to Oxford University and offered him a post there. This partnership produced a paper in Nature and a joint book which was the first major publication on biological thermodynamics. In 1960 he was appointed to the first Chair in Biochemistry at the University of Leicester, which he held until 1975 when he was elected to the Sir William Dunn Chair of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.
From 1982 to 1995 he was Master of Christ's College, Cambridge.
In 1995 he left the Cambridge chair to take up a position as a Professor of Biology at Boston University, USA, where he teaches biochemistry. His major research area is the nature and regulation of carbohydrate transport in micro-organisms.
Professor Kornberg is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.
He was President and a keen supporter of the Boat Club while he was Master of Christ's College, Cambridge: the Boat Club has one boat Sir Hans named after him, and another Lady K after his wife.