November 25, 2012

Prof. Emeritus Robert Finn ’41 Remembered for ‘Great Vision,’ Helping Invent Penicillin, After His Death

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Hailed by his peers as a scientific pioneer, Prof. Emeritus Robert Kaul Finn ’41, chemical and biomolecular engineering, died on Nov. 3 at the age of 92.

Finn died in his sleep at his home in Ithaca.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Cornell, Finn worked at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical company, helping produce the world’s first antibiotics –– penicillin and streptomycin –– as the United States entered World War II. In 1946, Finn left Merck to work toward a Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a minor in applied microbiology at the University of Minnesota, according to a Univerity press release.

Finn was the first person to research how cells in bioreactors — or a system in which a chemical process is carried out — can be damaged by exposure to air, according to Prof. Michael Shuler, biomedical engineering.

“He had a great vision for what might be possible,” he said, adding that Finn’s work represented “the first attempt on the topic in the field.”

After finishing his Ph.D., Finn became known as one of the few chemical engineers working in the field of biotechnology, according to Cornell’s engineering magazine.

“Biotechnology was a brand new thing,” Finn told the magazine in the spring. “All of a sudden we found out that, ‘Hey,’ these bugs could not only make penicillin and streptomycin, but they could make a whole lot of other products.”

In 1955, Prof. Charles Winding, then the director of Cornell’s Department of Chemical Engineering, invited Finn to teach at the University. Finn immediately accepted the offer over the phone and worked on biomolecular engineering research at Cornell for the next 50 years, according to the magazine.

Through his work at Cornell, Finn established himself as a pioneer in the field of biochemical engineering. He worked on applying theories in the field long before they were popular topics to research, according to Shuler.

“He was one of the most imaginative engineering scientists that I knew,” Shuler said. “One of the four or five pioneers in the field, he was a very generous individual and he always wanted to help other people, students specifically.”

Shuler said that Finn’s work was one of the major reasons “why I came to Cornell.”

“He was very influential in that way … being a kind, gentle and caring person,” Shuler said.

A memorial service celebrating Finn’s life will be held on Dec. 2, at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, according to a University press release.

Original Author: Manu Rathore