Fred W. McLafferty

May 11, 1923 ~ December 26, 2021 (age 98)


Fred W. McLafferty, the Peter J. W. Debye Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Cornell University, passed away on December 26, 2021 in Ithaca, NY. He was 98 years old. He was an eminent scientist, a decorated veteran, and known for his quick wit, self-deprecating and friendly manner, and devotion to his wife Tibby and their family.

Born on May 11, 1923 in Evanston, IL, his family moved to his mother’s family farm in Nuckolls County, Nebraska following the start of the Great Depression. These difficult times included the death of his father, due to a staph infection when Fred was 16. His mother eventually got a job teaching in Omaha and he graduated from Omaha North High School in 1940. He entered the University of Nebraska that year and graduated in 1943 to enter the Army and WWII. On the front lines with the infantry, he fought in France and Germany. He received a purple heart and five bronze medals for valor. His unit received the Presidential Unit Citation and liberated a concentration camp in Germany. After the end of the war, he returned to the University of Nebraska where he received an MS in Chemistry in 1947 and met his wife Elizabeth “Tibby” Curley. As her teaching assistant in a chemistry class, his expert instruction raised her lab scores from “good+” to “exc.” through the semester. They were married for over 73 years. He received his PhD in Chemistry in 1950 from Cornell University, and did post-doctoral work at the University of Iowa. He began his professional career at the Dow Chemical Company, where his pioneering work with mass spectrometry began. He, with Roland Gohlke, built the first Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS). He was the founding Director of the Dow Framingham Eastern Research Lab. In 1964, he joined the faculty at Purdue University as a Professor of Chemistry and, in 1968, he moved to Cornell University. His pioneering work in mass spectrometry included the study of gaseous ion reactions, instrumentation, high-resolution analysis, data interpretation, and the collection and use of reference spectra. In 1959, he wrote an article that insightfully described a complex chemical rearrangement. This became known as the “McLafferty Rearrangement”. With this and subsequent articles, he brought a new understanding to many areas of chemistry beyond mass spectrometry. He co-authored/edited over 500 articles, five books, and a widely-adopted registry of mass spectral data. These approaches and innovations are widely used in analyzing, developing, and detecting compounds from environmental pollutants to pharmaceutical products to RNA. His book, Interpretation of Mass Spectral Data, remains a leading text in the field. More recently, he pioneered new techniques for identifying and characterizing large, complex proteins. In recognition of his scientific advancements, he was awarded honorary doctorates from the Universities of Nebraska, Liege and Purdue, along with numerous international medals and honors. He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He will be deeply missed by his wife, Tibby; his children Ann (Koko Diaz), Martha (Jonathan Skinner), Joel, and Sara (Avijit Ghosh); daughter-in-law Vera; and ten grandchildren. He was

predeceased by his son Samuel A. McLafferty, parents Joel E. and Margaret Keifer McLafferty and his sister Lucy and brother Charles.

A symposium in his honor will be held in the future, when conditions permit. Burial will be family-only at Lake View Cemetery in Ithaca.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Fred McLafferty Fund in Chemistry and Chemical Biology (#0009443), Department of Chemistry, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850. 

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