Jean H. Futrell

Born: October 20, 1933 | Grant Parish, LA, US

Jean H. Futrell was born in Grant Parish, Louisiana. He majored in chemical engineering at Louisiana Tech University, and also enrolled in the Air Force ROTC. Futrell attended the University of California at Berkeley for graduate school, where his thesis research was in radiation chemistry. He was introduced to mass spectrometry as an analytical technique, playing a vital role in Futrell’s research. After graduating, Futrell was a radiation chemist exploring applications of radiation processing of petroleum fractions. Required to complete his military service obligation, he was assigned to the Aerospace Research Laboratory and published more than twenty papers. Futrell accepted an appointment as Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Utah, influenced by the fundamental theory underlying mass. Futrell continued to build his own versions of spectrometers as unique research tools for exploring the frontiers of ion chemistry. In 1987 Futrell accepted the position of Department Head of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware. In 1998 Futrell was recruited by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to lead the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory as Director. In 2013 he retired and became the first Battelle Fellow Emeritus at PNNL.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0706
No. of pages: 176
Minutes: 479

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
28 and 29 October 2012
Futrell’s home, Richland, Washington

Abstract of Interview

Jean H. Futrell was born in Grant Parish, Louisiana. He grew up in a household that included his parents and two grandfathers. His father farmed and ran a small grocery store and gas station until the Depression, when he began work for the railroad; this job enabled Jean to travel on free passes. His mother, a housewife, liked to read; both parents encouraged education. Futrell was drafted shortly after entering Louisiana Tech University, where he majored in chemical engineering, so he quickly and retroactively joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). He spent summers working at Humble Oil and Refining Company, where he met Joe Franklin. Franklin urged Futrell to get a PhD in chemistry. Using his free railroad pass Futrell visited a number of colleges, finding University of California, Berkeley, to his liking. He worked on radiation chemistry in Glenn Seaborg’s lab, with Amos Newton as his supervisor. Luckily, he was able to postpone his Air Force service and could work at national labs for his summer weeks of service. He was introduced to spectrometry but was not interested at the time, relying instead on primitive gas chromatography. Futrell’s first job was at Humble again, where he was not permitted to work in mass spectrometry or ion chemistry, but had to stick with radiation chemistry. Nevertheless, he spent much time with Frederick Lampe, Frank Field, and occasionally Joe Franklin, and began experimenting on a discarded spectrometer. After eight months and with a number of publications to his credit, he finally had to complete his military obligation, and was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There he had more freedom to do gas-phase chemistry and fell in love with mass spectrometry. He published more than twenty papers during his military time there and remained at Wright-Patterson as a civilian scientist. He adapted instruments when he could and made his own when he had to do so. Told that his funding would go further in academia he began to look around. Accepting the University of Utah’s offer, Futrell was tasked with building up the department and acquiring instruments. He worked with Marvin Vestal and William Johnston, having fun making ions. He continued to build his own versions of spectrometers and studying collision-induced dissociation with Anil Shukla. Futrell began working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, identifying toxins and testifying before the U.S. Congress. His foray into pyrolysis for National Science Foundation’s Flammability Research Center provided information for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Futrell left Utah for the chairmanship of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, where it took him two years to get the department set up. He met and married Anne Krohn Graham, an artist. He became president of American Society for Mass Spectrometry and active in Council for Chemical Research. He resigned the chair to return to teaching and research and even began thinking about retirement. Using the Pimentel Report as a guide, which hoped to establish a national strategy for developing chemical sciences, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recruited Futrell to be director of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), whose funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and Battelle Corporation. In his three years as director, Futrell doubled their funding and increased the computer capacity by a factor of twenty-five. He also continued his own research and his own designing of spectrometers. Eventually Futrell retired (defined loosely), but he continues to be involved in federal agencies and committees of the National Academy of Sciences. He is still helping to develop a new, advanced FTICR for EMSL. Futrell considers the mass spectroscope the “ultimate chemical and physics lab.” In a next-day recap of his interview, Futrell discusses how he got interested in chemistry; the importance of communication; how much he loved to “help” others when they made mistakes; the confusion arising from his name’s spelling; women in science; mentoring; competition; creativity; changes in mass spec; the public perception of science; and information overload.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1955 Louisiana Tech University BA Chemical Engineering
1958 University of California, Berkeley PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Exxon Mobil Research Center

1958 to 1959
Research Scientist

US Air Force

1959 to 1961
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, First Lieutenant and Captain
1961 to 1966
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Senior Scientist, Aerospace Research Laboratories

University of Utah

1966 to 1967
Associate Professor, Chemistry
1967 to 1986
Professor, Chemistry

University of Delaware

1986 to 1990
Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry
1986 to 1997
Chair, Chemistry and Biochemistry
1990 to 1998
Willis F. Harrington Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry
1993 to 1998
Professor, Chemical Engineering

Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

1998 to 2002
2002 to 2013
Battelle Fellow
Battelle Fellow Emeritus


Year(s) Award

American Chemical Society Delaware Section Research Award


International Symposium on Atomic and Surface Physics Erwin Schrödinger Gold Medal


First American honored by special issue of the European Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Honor Symposium in Konstanz, Germany


PNNL Director's Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science and Technology


Honor issue of International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Physics


Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry by the American Chemical Society in Mass Spectrometry


Elected to the Inaugural Class of American Chemical Society Fellows

Table of Contents

Early Years

Rural upbringing in Grant Parish, Louisiana. Loss of family land; father’s work for
railroad; free passes. Visiting relatives in California. Mobile library program. Both
parents encouraged education. Liked chemistry; first practice teaching science while
still in high school.

College Years

Chemical Engineering at Louisiana Tech University. Air Force Reserve Officers’
Training Corps at Louisiana Tech. Summer jobs at research centers of Phillips
Petroleum in Oklahoma and Humble Oil and Refining Company in Texas; Joe
Franklin. Toured schools; Impressed by Dean Kenneth Pitzer at University of
California at Berkeley, his choice for graduate studies.

Graduate School

Seaborg’s research group. Senior Scientist Amos Newton supervises his research in
radiation chemistry. First experience with mass spectrometry. Discussions with
physics Nobel Laureates Ernest Lawrence and Emelio Segre. Air Force service
postponed; substituting visits to national laboratories and military research
laboratories for required summer two-week tours of duty. Meeting Samuel Lind.

First Job

Developing interest in mass spectrometry. First job at Humble Oil. Coffee breaks and
lunchtime discussions with Fred Lampe and Frank Field; Occasional meetings with
Joe Franklin. After-hours baseline experiments with discarded mass spectrometer.
Meeting Peter Debye.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Military assignment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; research scientist at
Aerospace Research Laboratory (ARL). Publications; international recognition.
Appointment as civilian scientist, head of the physical chemistry division of ARL’s
Chemistry Laboratory. Life on base; adapting from military life to civilian.
Installation of CEC 21-103. Funding. Double focusing mass spectrometer. Discussion
of instrument manufacturers. Tandem mass spectrometer.

University of Utah

Opportunity to work with Henry Eyring and Austin Wahrhaftig. Three research
grants. Summer at Berkeley as a Visiting Professor prior to joining the Utah faculty in September. Promotion to full Professor at the end of his first semester. New research directions, including the first interfacing of a mass spectrometer to a laboratory computer. Forays into applied science; joint appointments in the Colleges of Engineering and Medicine. First triple quadrupole spectrometer. Frequent travel to
Washington, DC; engagement in science policy. Election to leadership positions in
professional societies, Sabbatical leaves at the Joint Institute of Laboratory
Astrophysics, University of Paris, Fulbright Professorship at the University of
Innsbruck and Exchange visits to Prague and Moscow.

University of Delaware

Accepts chairmanship of department. Two years to get lab equipped and set up.
Pitzer’s advice. Burnaby Munson and Douglas Ridge. Met and married Professor of
Fine Art, Anne Graham. Elected Chair of the Council for Chemical Research;
promoted Congressional visits by scientists and engineers. Invited by Battelle
Memorial Institute and the Department of Energy to serve as Director of the William
R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) in Richland,

Returning to the West

Accepts directorship of EMSL. Defining his mission. Many trips to Washington, DC.
Finishes semester at Delaware. Safety standards and cost considerations at a national
lab. Funding from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Battelle Corporation.
Futrell and Richard Smith become two of only six Battelle Fellows. Three years at
EMSL; doubled funding, increased computer room by factor of five. Continued own
research. EMSL’s reorganization; becoming Chief Scientist for Fundamental and
Computational Sciences Research Directorate.


“Retired but not.” Still involved in federal agencies and National Academy of
Sciences committees. Collaborating and competing with Alan Marshall; 21-tesla
FTICR instruments. Vicki Wysocki. Surface-induced dissociation (SID). R. Graham
Cooks. John Fenn. William Hase. Considers mass spectroscope “ultimate chemical
and physics lab”.


Importance of mentoring, competition, and creativity in education and advancement
of science. Changes in science and technology. Public perception of science.
Overwhelming amounts of information with varying degrees of integrity now

Appendix: My Story

About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his BS degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his MS in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.