- October 9, 2002
John B. Fenn, a Berea College graduate, is one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing methods that allow scientists to more accurately identify substances that contain large biological molecules.
Fenn, 85, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, developed an Electrospray Ionization (ESI) technique in the late 1980’s. Fenn’s ESI technique is used by many scientists to determine the mass of larger biological molecules, such as proteins, in order to identify the contents of a given sample. This technique is essential to proteomics, which has developed as a result of work on the Human Genome Project. It has proven to be invaluable in clinical research, environmental and forensic science.
“ Can you imagine? This happens to so few people,” Fenn told the Associated Press. “So many other scientists dream about it. The odds are one in 100,000 or one in a million.”
Fenn grew up in Berea, where he attended the Berea Academy and later graduated with a B.A. in chemistry from Berea College in 1937. After earning his Ph.D. from Yale in 1940, Fenn helped found Experiment, Inc., a contract research and development company in Richmond, Va., that played a large role in the U.S. Navy’s development of the ramjet propulsion system.
After his tenure in the private sector, Fenn was named director of Project SQUID, a U.S. Navy program of basic and applied research in jet propulsion administered by Princeton University, where he became professor of aerospace and mechanical sciences in 1959.
Fenn joined the Yale faculty in 1967 as professor of applied science and chemistry, a position he held for 13 years. Later he served as professor of Chemical Engineering before taking his current position at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In 2000, Fenn was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1992, Fenn received the American Society for Mass Spectrometry’s Award for his contributions to the field.
In 1987, Fenn received the Berea College Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. While attending Berea College, Fenn was a member of the Glee Club, Band, the swimming team, and the boy scouts. Fenn also worked on campus as an Assistant in Freshman and Analytical Chemistry Lab, Clerk in the Registrar’s Office, and bugler and counselor at summer camp.
The Nobel Prize for chemistry will be formally presented in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, who established the awards. According to Nobel, the award is given to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”.
Receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Fenn joins such notables as Marie Curie (1911), for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, and Otto Hahn (1944), for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.
The prize carries a cash award of about $1 million. Sharing this year’s award with Fenn are Koichi Tanaka, 43, of Shimadzu Corp. in Kyoto, Japan, and Kurt Wuethrich, 64, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA.
Jennie Godfrey, 859-985-3024