James E. Fearn, 81, a chemist who worked for the National Bureau of Standards for 23 years before retiring in 1980, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma June 9 at his vacation home in Severna Park. He also had a home in the District.

Dr. Fearn, who had been a Bureau of Standards chemistry project leader, had worked on physical organic chemistry research dealing with such topics as chemotherapy, rodent repellancy and fluoropolymers. His work helped lead to the synthesis of more than 70 new chemicals and plastics.

He was a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Washington Academy of Science and the Michael Faraday Society.

Dr. Fearn, a native of Chattanooga, was a 1949 mathematics and chemistry graduate of Howard University, where he also received a master's degree in chemistry. He received a chemistry doctorate from Catholic University.

During World War II, he served with Army Air Forces in the Mediterranean theater. He also studied aeronautical science in the Tuskegee Airmen training program.

Before coming to Washington in 1947, he had worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was a research chemist with the National Cancer Institute from 1950 to 1955, then spent two years with the Patuxent Research Refuge before joining the Bureau of Standards.

He also had taught chemistry courses at Howard University.

Dr. Fearn had been a member of Flotilla 13 Auxiliary of the U.S. Coast Guard as a commander. He also had taught sailing and power boating classes in Glen Burnie and Severna Park and enjoyed cruising.

His marriage to Kayte Marsh Fearn ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, the former Rheba Galloway, of Washington and Severna Park; three children from his first marriage, Kathleen Fearn-Banks, James Jr. and Mickey Fearn, all of Seattle; and four grandchildren.