In Memoriam: John B. Fenn

Former Yale professor and Nobel laureate John B. Fenn died on Dec. 10, in Richmond, Virginia, at age 93.

Fenn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002 for developing a technique known as Electrospray Mass Spectrometry (ESMS) that sped up the discovery of new drugs and the study of the molecules of life.

Fenn, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale in 1940, was a professor of chemical engineering, with a joint appointment in chemistry. He taught and conducted research in Mason Laboratory at Yale from 1967 to 1987, when he was named an emeritus professor. In 1993, he moved to Richmond and became affiliated with the Virginia Commonwealth University Chemistry Department.

Fenn was world-renowned for his pioneering research with molecular beams prior to his work on ESMS. In recognition for this early work, he was the honorary president of the VIth International Symposium on Molecular Beams (1977) and the first fellow of the International Molecular Beam Symposium (1985). He also received the U.S. Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany (1982). A Fennfest symposium was held at Yale in his honor in 1983. Speakers that day included Nobel laureates who acknowledged Fenn’s contribution to their own research. In a note to Fenn, then-Yale President Bart Giamatti said, “With deepest thanks for the brilliance, dedication and citizenship - we are all in your debt.”

It was only after his “retirement,” when Fenn was in his 70s that he published the research on ESMS that resulted in his Nobel Prize, focusing on a new way to identify proteins and other large biological molecules. He shared the prize with two other scientists, Dr. Koichi Tanaka and Professor Kurt Wüthrich.

Fenn improved a technique known as mass spectrometry, which accurately determines the mass of ionized molecules. Previously, mass spectrometry was unsuitable to study large biological molecules, which could not be ionized. When Fenn’s Electrospray Ionization method removed this barrier, the precision and speed of mass spectrometry was finally brought to bear in biology.

One of the areas revolutionized by Electrospray Mass Spectrometry was proteomics, in which scientists are trying to catalogue the interplay of hundreds of thousands of proteins in human cells. “The possibility of analyzing proteins in detail has led to increased understanding of the processes of life,” the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said in its citation for the 2002 prize.

At the time of the award, then-dean of Yale Engineering, Paul Fleury, said: “It may be the first time that work done in an engineering department has been recognized with a Nobel Prize.”

During his years at Yale, Fenn stimulated groundbreaking research in the Departments of Chemistry, Molecular Biology, Chemical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, and in the School of Medicine.

His impact on Yale Engineering is also manifested in the faculty team he assembled and nurtured in chemical engineering, including professors Gary Haller, Daniel E. Rosner and Csaba Horvath, and in the inspiration he provided to colleagues in mechanical engineering, including professors Juan Fernandez de la Mora and Alessandro Gomez, who have been working on various aspects of electrospray research.

Fenn is remembered by his many friends and colleagues for his wit, honesty, charm and directness; his genuine concern for students, colleagues and friends; and his passion for science and intellectual curiosity throughout his long life. Fenn continued to work in his office up to only a few weeks before his death.

Fenn received a B.A. in chemistry in 1937 from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. After earning his Ph.D. at Yale, he spent 12 years (1940-1952) working in industry at companies such as Monsanto, Sharples and Experiment Inc. Fenn was the director of Project SQUID, U.S. Navy research program at Princeton (1952-1962). He joined the Princeton faculty as a professor of aerospace science in 1959 until moving his laboratory to Mason Lab at Yale in 1967.

Fenn wrote a book titled “Engines and Entropy - A Thermodynamics Primer” and published over 100 papers in scientific journals. He received 19 patents, some with co-inventors. He was a visiting professor at the University of Trent, Italy (1976) and at the Univerity of Tokyo (1979). He was the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecturer at Tel Aviv University (1984), the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (1987), the Kistiakowski Lecturer at Harvard (1991) and the Distinguished Visiting Scientist at Latrobe University in Australia (1992).

Among his many awards, Fenn received the Award for Distinguished Contributions in Mass Spectrometry from the American Society of Mass Spectrometry (1992), the Yale Science and Engineering Award for Distinguished Contributions to Basic and Applied Science (1999), the Award for Advancements in Chemical Instrumentation from the American Chemical Society (2000), the Thomson Medal from the International Society of Mass Spectrometry (2000) and the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Biomolecular Technologies from the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (2002).

In 2003, Fenn received the Wibur Cross Medal, the highest honor of the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association. On that occasion, President Richard C. Levin wrote: “Your scholarly research began with your graduate studies at Yale and later continued during your long tenure here, and the University is enormously proud of the success you have achieved. Your remarkable work in mass spectrometry is extraordinary and inspiring, and your receipt of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was a wonderful recognition of your outstanding achievements in this field. By your actions and commitments, you affirm the ideals of the University, representing before the world what Yale holds most dear.”

Fenn was a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Sigma Chi, the American Association of University Professors and the Alexander von Humboldt Association of America. He became a fellow of the American Academy of Sciences in 2000 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003.