ASMS News & Views

Apr 19, 2013

Frank H. Field, Pioneer in Mass Spectrometry and the Study of Gaseous Ion Chemistry, Dies at 91

Frank H. Field, Ph.D., Camille and Henry Dreyfus professor emeritus at The Rockefeller University, died Friday, April 12. He was 91.

Field was renowned for his contributions to mass spectrometry and the study of the reactions, energetics, and kinetics of gaseous ions, which are electrically charged molecules, radicals, or atoms that have lost or gained one or more electrons. Throughout his career, Field worked to improve and extend the uses of mass spectrometry, a technique by which ionized atoms, molecules and molecular fragments are separated by mass and charge and analyzed.

Field was a major contributor to the development of mass spectrometry as a tool for the analysis of biological materials. Beginning in 1972, with support from the National Institutes of Health, his laboratory at Rockefeller provided a unique mass spectrometry resource to biomedical workers in the United States for the analysis of biological macromolecules.

In his early career, as a scientist in the petroleum industry, Field helped to advance the analysis of materials of potential economic significance through the use of low-voltage electron ionization mass spectrometry and chemical ionization mass spectrometry, a technique he developed at Esso Research Laboratories in the mid-1960s with Burnaby Munson.

“Frank was the father of the second method of ionizing molecules after electron ionization,” says Brian T. Chait, Camille and Henry Dreyfus Professor and head of the Laboratory of Gaseous Ion Chemistry, who joined Rockefeller in 1979 as a research associate in Field’s laboratory. “This was a huge accomplishment because it allowed for the tuning of how much energy flowed into the molecular system during ionization and represented the first of the ‘soft ionization’ techniques that have revolutionized the study of bio-macromolecules.”

Later in his career, Field’s basic research in physical chemistry used high pressure mass spectrometry and massive particle impact mass spectrometry. He and his coworkers at Rockefeller devoted a significant portion of their time to the successful development and refinement of novel instrumentation, methodology and applications.

Field was born in Keansburg, New Jersey, on February 27, 1922. He received B.S. (1943), M.S. (1944), and Ph.D. (1948) degrees, in chemistry, from Duke University. From 1947 to 1952 he taught at the University of Texas at Austin as an instructor and then as an assistant professor. From 1952 to 1966 he worked as a research chemist at Humble Oil and Refining Company in Baytown, Texas, and joined the Esso Research and Development Company in Linden, New Jersey, in 1966, rising from group leader to senior research associate. From 1963 to 1964, he was a John Guggenheim Fellow at Leeds University, in England.

Field was appointed a professor at The Rockefeller University in 1970 and the university's first Dreyfus Professor in 1988, under a grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. He became emeritus in 1989.

He was a member and past president of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry and a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Phi Beta Kappa, and Sigma Xi.

In 1983 the American Chemical Society established the Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, in honor of Field and the late Joe L. Franklin, his colleague for many years at Humble Oil and Refining Company in Texas. Field received the award in 1988.

Field coauthored, with Franklin, the volume Electron Impact Phenomena and the Properties of Gaseous Ions (Academic Press, 1957) and was one of six compilers of a compendium of energy values, Ionization Potentials, Appearance Potentials, and Heats of Formation of Gaseous Positive Ions (National Standards Reference Data System, 1969).

Field is survived by his wife, the former Carolyn Wilson, of Durham, N.C., two sons, Jonathan in Georgetown, TX, and Christopher in Kingston, TN, three step-daughters, one grandson and several step-grandchildren. In addition to his scientific and family activities, Field was an ardent amateur violinist and violist, who with his wife played in various chamber music groups and community orchestras.