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Berea alumnus and Nobel Laureate Dr. John Fenn Dies

John B. Fenn, Berea College alumnus and Nobel Laureate, died Friday, December 10, at age 93, in Richmond, Virginia. At this time, there is no information regarding a memorial service.

Dr. John Fenn

In 2002, John B. Fenn, then 85, was 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 (that he called “elephants”). Fenn, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, had developed an Electrospray Ionization (ESI) technique in the late 1980’s. Fenn's ESI technique has been 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, and has contributed to the development of new pharmaceuticals.

View a photo gallery of Dr. John Fenn.

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. He had a number of family ties to Berea College. John Fenn's parents were both College employees. His mother Jeanette was a member of the boarding staff and assisted in the Chemistry Department and his father taught auto mechanics in the Foundation School and later taught in the Physics Department. Dr. Fenn's brother Norman graduated from the Berea Academy and his aunt Helen Dingman was a professor in the Sociology Department. His wife of 53 years (now deceased) was Margaret Wilson who was an assistant registrar at the College.

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 a 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.

Fenn received the Berea College Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1987. While attending Berea College, Fenn had been 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. Fenn stated that he credits the Berea schools (Academy and College) with giving him an excellent educational foundation.

Fenn was presented the Nobel Prize for chemistry in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 2002 (eight years to the day before his death and 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.” Fenn shared half of the $1 million international prize with Koichi Tanaka of Japan. The other half went to Swiss scientist Kurt Wethrich.

Fenn was featured in the Winter 2003 issue of the Berea College Magazine

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