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John B. Fenn, Virginia professor who won Nobel Prize in chemistry, dies at 93

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 8:28 PM

John B. Fenn, 93, a Virginia Commonweath University scientist who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in chemistry, worked into his last decade and believed that college courses "ought to be fun," died Dec. 10. The place and cause of death were not reported.

Dr. Fenn, who was a longtime professor at Yale University before moving to VCU 16 yeas ago, developed new techniques of chemical analysis through mass spectrometry. His methods provided highly detailed information about proteins and other large and complex molecules.

Mass spectrometers use electrical and magnetic fields to bend a beam of charged particles. The amount of bending, which can be readily measured, depends on the particles' mass and charge. Knowing the charge reveals the mass, from which other important data can be inferred.

But getting large and complex molecules to remain intact while affixing a charge had been difficult. Dr. Fenn was able to overcome such obstacles through a process known as electrospray ionization.

"It's probably safe to say that every new drug that comes to the market today has a fair amount of electrospray mass spectrometry in its background and development," Dr. Fenn told Investor's Business Daily in 2002.

He shared his Nobel prize with Japanese scientist Koichi Tanaka and Kurt Wuthrich of Switzerland.

"There's an awful lot of luck in this," Dr. Fenn said after winning. "To succeed as a theorist, you have to be good. To succeed as an experimentalist, you only have to be lucky. As an experimentalist, you can go through life kicking over a lot of stones, and, if you're lucky, you'll find something."

John Bennett Fenn was born June 15, 1917, in New York and graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1937. He received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale in 1940.

In an autobiographical essay, he described the experiments he performed as a graduate student at Yale as "a boring chore with few redeeming features."

But he found other rewards in graduate school, including friendships, "many interactions with interesting people," and learning "to play bridge, to drink beer and to smoke a pipe."

After obtaining his doctorate, Dr. Fenn worked for the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Anniston, Ala., and later for a company in Richmond before becoming a professor at Princeton University in 1952. He went to Yale 15 years later.

Dr. Fenn invented his process at Yale and left the university in 1994 after chafing at its mandatory retirement age of 70.

"That made me angry, because we were right in the middle of things," he said, "and so I fought tooth and nail."

He and Yale battled for a decade over the rights to his prize-winning invention, and in 2005 Dr. Fenn was ordered to pay Yale $545,000 in royalties and penalties, as well as the university's legal bills.

His wife of 53 years, Margaret Wilson Fenn, died in a car crash in New Zealand in 1992.

Survivors include a son.

In an interview published last year in the Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry, Dr. Fenn expounded on his views about chemistry education.

"Courses ought to be fun," he said. "I don't care whether we cover everything in the periodic table or not. . . . There's no fun any more!

"I wish we cold somehow get it across that the purpose of education is to develop young peoples' minds, not fill them up with a lot of facts," he said. "Teach them how to think."

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