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December 13, 2010
Updated Dcember 15, 2010

John Fenn Dies At 93

Obituary: Chemistry Nobel laureate helped develop method for analyzing large biomolecules

Celia Arnaud

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John B. Fenn, 93, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work that aided the mass spectrometric analysis of proteins and other large biological molecules, died Dec. 10 in Richmond, Va. Information about the cause of death was not disclosed.

"John was first and foremost a warm human being, willing to discuss passionately science and life with everyone and anyone. He was a friend and mentor to me and countless others," says David C. Muddiman, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University. "The Nobel Prize did not change John: he was the same man before and after, always showing a strong sense of humility and constantly inspiring others."

Fenn is best known for the development of electrospray as an ionization method for mass spectrometry (MS). In electrospray, an electric field disperses a solution into a fine mist of charged droplets. As the solvent evaporates, solute molecules are released as free gas-phase ions. The process is gentle enough that large biological molecules can be ionized without breaking apart. The ions are then detected by MS. Electrospray has become one of the most common MS ionization methods.

"Electrospray ionization has become the largest driver of the remarkable extensions of MS into the life sciences over the past two decades," says R. Graham Cooks, a chemistry professor at Purdue University. "There is growing use of spray methods in imaging MS, and one can foresee, as John did, that electrospray ionization will form the basis for the extension of MS from an analytical method to a preparative procedure."

Fenn did the work for which he received the Nobel Prize while at Yale University, where he was a professor of applied science and chemistry from 1967 to 1980 and a professor of chemical engineering from 1981 until his retirement in 1987. After a few years as an emeritus professor, Fenn moved to Virginia Commonwealth University as a research professor in 1994. In 2005, Fenn lost a dispute with Yale over the patent rights to electrospray MS, according to the New York Times.

Born in New York City in 1917, Fenn moved with his family to Berea, Ky., as a teen. He attended Berea College, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1937. He earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale in 1940.

Following graduation, he worked in industry, with stints at Monsanto in Anniston, Ala.; Sharples Chemicals in Wyandotte, Mich.; and Experiment Inc., a small company in Richmond. In 1952, he moved to Princeton University as the director of the Navy-funded Project SQUID to sponsor pure and applied research related to jet propulsion. While at Princeton, he served as a professor of mechanical engineering from 1959 to 1963 and of aerospace sciences from 1963 to 1966.

In 1992, Fenn received the Award for Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry from the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. He was a member of the American Chemical Society for 69 years.

He was preceded in death by his first wife, Margaret Wilson Fenn. He is survived by his second wife, Frederica Mullen Fenn; one son and two daughters; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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