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John B. Fenn Annual Lecture


The Fenn Lecture is presented each Fall and honors VCU’s only Nobel Prize winner.  Dr. Fenn joined the faculty at VCU in 1994 and received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for the development of electrospray ionization.  The invention revolutionized the study of large biomolecules including proteins and DNA.    He is remembered as a spirited colleague who was devoted to innovation and education.

John Bennet Fenn was born in New York City on June 15, 1917. He received a B.A. in Chemistry from Berea College and earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale University three years later. Fenn spent over a decade in industry, first at the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Anniston, Ala and later at Experiment Incorporated in Richmond, Va., where his work led to employment as the director of Project SQUID, an Office of Naval Research program focused on jet expansions. His first faculty appointment came in 1957 at Princeton University as a Professor of Aerospace Sciences; he returned to Yale in 1967 as a Professor of Applied Science and Chemistry. During his tenure at Yale, Fenn’s research focused on molecular beam and supersonic jet expansion experiments. Presented by colleagues with the problems involved in ionizing large biomolecules for mass spectrometric analysis, John Fenn, at nearly 65, embarked on a new research trajectory, one which would lead to the development of a practical electrospray ionization source.

In 1994 he moved his research lab to Virginia Commonwealth University where he was appointed Research Professor of Analytical Chemistry. This move allowed Fenn to continue his research program, producing more than 20 additional papers. It also provided the opportunity to interact with students and faculty on a daily basis, as he continued to inspire undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues. Fenn’s research garnered wide recognition across a variety of fields with the ultimate honor being a share of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Fenn’s professional honors include the ASMS Distinguished Contribution Award (1992), the ACS-DAC award for Advances in Chemical Instrumentation (2000), election to the American Academy of Arts and of Science (2000), and the Thompson Medal from ISMS (2000).