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In Memoriam: Eugene Kennedy
February 15, 2012
Eugene Patrick Kennedy, Hamilton Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology Emeritus. Kennedy was the preeminent researcher of his era in defining the biosynthesis of the major classes of glycerophospholipids, the core constituents of membranes in all cells. He died on September 22, 2011 at the age of 92.
Kennedy joined HMS as the Hamilton Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry in 1960, a professorship he held until his retirement in 1990.
Born in 1919 in Chicago to Irish immigrants, Kennedy, a voracious reader, began studying chemistry at DePaul University in 1937. At the University of Chicago, in 1941, he began graduate work in chemistry but switched to biochemistry following four years of wartime work on plasma fractionation at a meat packing company, with the aim of devising blood replacement products.
In doctoral and postdoctoral studies between 1946 and 1951, Kennedy worked with giants in 20th-century biochemistry: Albert Lehninger, on fatty acid oxidation; Horace Barker, at the University of California at Berkeley, on microbial fermentation; and Fritz Lipmann, at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Kennedy was the first to show that fatty acid oxidation, oxidative phosphorylation and Krebs cycle reactions took place in organelles then only recently isolated: the cell’s power stations, mitochondria.
At the University of Chicago in 1951, Kennedy became a towering figure in lipid biochemistry with his identification of CDP-choline and CDP-ethanolamine as activated intermediates in membrane phospholipid biosynthesis. Moving to HMS in 1960, and while completing the definition of phospholipid biosynthetic pathways, Kennedy’s lab explored membrane biogenesis and the role of membrane proteins, adopting E. coli as a model organism for biochemical and metabolic studies rather than animal tissues. Kennedy learned bacterial genetics for this purpose and identified lactose permease as the first protein involved in transport of a solute across lipid membranes.
Kennedy trained many leaders in lipid and membrane biochemistry. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1964, named president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1970 and won the Gairdner Foundation Award in 1976. He served as chair of what was then known at the School as the Department of Biological Chemistry from 1973 to 1976.
Reflecting upon his deep appreciation for the interconnected patterns of scientific discovery in 1992 in the Annual Review in Biochemistry, Kennedy observed: "Fortunately, no problem is ever really solved, it simply opens to reveal another."
Kennedy’s wife of 56 years, Adelaide Kennedy, passed away in 1999. He is survived by daughters and sons-in-law Lisa and Mark Helprin, Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich, and Kit Kennedy and Matthew Diller, as well as six grandchildren: Alexandra and Olivia Helprin, Ava and Francesca Violich, and Michael and Peter Diller.