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Papers of John B. Fenn

Identifier: 2012-003-001

Scope and Content

The Papers of John B. Fenn contain the personal and professional papers of American analytical chemist and Nobel laureate John B. Fenn. The materials in this collection mainly document Fenn’s career at Yale University. To a much lesser extent, his tenures at Princeton University and Virginia Commonwealth University are also covered in this collection. The collection is arranged into the following nine series:

  1. Biographical
  2. Correspondence
  3. Reprints & Drafts of Papers
  4. Research (Topical)
  5. Grants & Proposals
  6. Conferences & Symposia
  7. Academic Career
  8. Patents, Awards, Consultancies
  9. Legal


  • Creation: 1909-2010
  • Creation: Majority of material found within Bulk 1970-1990


Access Restrictions

There are no access restrictions on the materials for research purposes and the collection is open to the public.

Copyright Information

The Science History Institute holds copyright to the Papers of John B. Fenn. The researcher assumes full responsibility for all copyright, property, and libel laws as they apply.

Background Note

John B. Fenn (1917-2010) was an American analytical chemist and Nobel laureate. He was best known for his work in the development of electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, for which he was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002.

John Bennett Fenn was born in New York City on June 15, 1917. During the Great Depression, Fenn moved with his family to Kentucky, where he attended Berea College. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1940 and went to work in the research department of the Phosphate Division of Monsanto Chemical Company in Anniston, Alabama. Two years later, he accepted a position with the Research Department of Sharples Chemicals in Wyandotte, Michigan.

In 1945, Fenn went to work for James W. Mullen, a former Monsanto colleague, at Experiment, Incorporated, a start-up research and development company that concentrated on jet engine technology. Fenn’s work with Experiment, Incorporated led to his first academic appointment at Princeton University in 1952. At Princeton, Fenn worked on Project SQUID, a United States Navy funded program in the field of jet propulsion. In this capacity, he mainly studied molecular beams. Fenn was named director of Project SQUID in 1959. In addition to his work at Project SQUID, he also served as a professor of mechanical engineering (1959-1963) and aerospace sciences (1963-1966).

In 1967, Fenn was appointed to the faculty of Yale University, where he served as a professor of chemical engineering with a joint appointment in chemistry. At Yale, he taught and conducted research at Mason Laboratory. In addition to his teaching and research work, Fenn was heavily involved in the reorganization of the School of Engineering, a subject dear to his heart as he always regarded himself as a “nut and bolts” man rather than a pure theoretician. Although he never held a top administrative position at Yale, his opinion was valued by his colleagues and he served on committees dealing with such issues as faculty pay and evolving Yale copyright policy.

It was late in his tenure at Yale that Fenn conducted the research leading to his development of electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. At the time of his research, mass spectrometry could not effectively be used to analyze the chemical make-up of large molecules, such as proteins, which previously could not be ionized. In 1988, Fenn demonstrated that when a test sample is sprayed with an electrical field, small charged droplets are formed. When the water evaporates, ions in gaseous form remain, which allows large molecules to be accurately analyzed via mass spectrometry. Due to this technological breakthrough, electrospray ionization mass spectrometry is now a commonly used technique for analyzing large molecules and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry.

When Fenn reached Yale’s mandatory retirement age of seventy in 1987, he found himself limited in regard to both lab space and resources. In response to this, he relocated to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia in 1994. At VCU, Fenn held joint professorships in the Department of Chemistry (analytic chemistry) and the newly formed Department of Engineering (chemical and life science engineering). It was while serving at VCU that he was named a co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, which he shared with Koichi Tanaka and Kurt Wuthrich. He remained at VCU until his death.

Although Fenn’s final years were crowned by his shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry, they were also darkened by the death of his first wife Margaret Wilson (Maggie) Fenn while he was on a working holiday in New Zealand. He also became embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with Yale University and a former graduate student over patents relating to electrospray ionization mass spectrometry technology.

Over the course of his career, John B. Fenn was the recipient of a number of awards for his contributions to science, which include the following:

  1. American Society for Mass Spectrometry – Award for Distinguished Contributions in Mass Spectrometry - 1992
  2. International Society of Mass Spectrometry - Thomson Medal - 2000
  3. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Shared with Koichi Tanaka and Kurt Wuthrich) - 2002
  4. Yale Graduate School Alumni Association – Wilbur Cross Medal - 2003

He was an active member of several professional organizations, which include the following:

  1. American Chemical Society
  2. American Society for Mass Spectrometry
  3. Sigma Chi
  4. National Academy of Sciences

Fenn presented speeches and papers at a number of scientific conferences and symposia. He was also the author of a number of scientific journal articles. He was awarded several patents over the course of his career.

John B. Fenn passed away on December 10, 2010. He was survived by his second wife Frederica Fenn, two daughters, and a son.


Noble Prize Website - Papers of John B. Fenn, Science History Institute Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


26.6 Linear Feet (20 Boxes)

Language of Materials



Biographical materials, correspondence, scientific files, research files, professional files, patent files, and legal files of American analytical chemist and Nobel laureate John B. Fenn.

Acquisition Information

The Papers of John B. Fenn were donated to the Science History Institute (formerly the Chemical Heritage Foundation) by John B. Fenn in 2012.

Related Materials

The Photographs from the Papers of John B. Fenn are preserved at the Science History Institute Archives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Processing Information

The Papers of John B. Fenn were processed by Andrew Mangravite in 2014.

Papers of John B. Fenn
Finding aid created by Andrew Mangravite and encoded into EAD by Kenton G. Jaehnig.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2020, 2021, and 2023: Finding aid revised by Kenton G. Jaehnig

Repository Details

Part of the Science History Institute Archives Repository

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Philadelphia PA 19106 United States
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