John Bennett Fenn

Sunny Chung | September 1, 2010

Some Nobel Laureates say that the research finding that led to their Nobel Prize arose from “a stroke of genius.” John Bennett Fenn, the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, however, has a more realistic point of view about his research, which involved the development of a new form of mass spectrometry called electrospray ionization. He claims that his success was derived mostly from determination with a little luck thrown in.

Fenn was born in 1917 and grew up in New York City. Although he did not enjoy science when he was young, chemistry piqued his interest when his father took him to his factory. While there, he looked in one of the big tanks and encountered a recoiling smell of cuprammonium solution. This trip revealed to him the “secrets that only chemistry can solve” and sparked his future career in chemistry.

As an undergraduate, he attended Berea College in Kentucky, where he majored in chemistry. Fenn’s introductory chemistry professor, Professor Julian Chaps, inspired his choice of major. Professor Chaps “made the subject live, and seduced him” with the wonders of chemistry. However, chemistry was not always easy for Fenn; he claims that “gravimetric analysis gave [him] fits.”

After graduating, Fenn had to choose between attending Northwestern University or Yale University for graduate school. At first, Fenn had his heart set on Northwestern but was persuaded to attend Yale by his German teacher. His German teacher told him that Yale had a better international reputation and that Fenn would enjoy his time there. Fenn decided to attend Yale as a graduate student and found truth in his former teacher’s claims. Fenn had a great experience at Yale, claiming that the university “was a revelation. The buildings were magnificent, and there was just so much diversity. Essentially, I learned half of what I know now from the people [at Yale]. They gave me a whole lot of new perspectives.”

Yet, Fenn’s memories of Yale during his student years are not wholly positive. Fenn thought that the teaching at Yale was horrible. Furthermore, he asserts that his frustrating dissertation research experience “shattered [his] illusions about original research.” While doing his dissertation, he realized that research was tedious and not always rewarding. Once Fenn received his Ph.D. degree, he left Yale slightly disillusioned and decided to enter industry.

Eventually, Fenn did return to academia. In 1962, he joined Yale’s faculty. Here, he developed electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, which later earned him the Nobel Prize. The technique uses an electrospray of ions to obtain a mass spectrum of a sample and is currently widely used in labs around the globe. Fenn, however, still believes today that it was not one fundamental point that led to his prize; he claims, “It was a whole bunch of little things.”

John Bennett Fenn is now a member of the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is a journal reviewer and guest lecturer. To aspiring Yale chemists, he would like to offer the following advice: “Chemistry is everywhere. Try to do anything you can to get interested in it. Keep your head facing your goal, and don’t get bogged down too much.”