November 2011

Eugene P. Kennedy (1919 – 2011)


It is unfortunate that sometimes this column must communicate unwanted news. Such is the case now, when I must share the sad news that the lipid community has lost another icon. Eugene Patrick Kennedy passed away Sept. 22. It’s unlikely that there’s anyone working in the lipid field today who doesn’t know of his work. The Kennedy pathway for the synthesis of some of the major phosphoglycerides remains one of the hallmarks of lipid biochemistry.

Kennedy was born in 1919 in Chicago. He enrolled at De Paul University in 1937 to pursue a degree in chemistry and in 1941 began his graduate studies in organic chemistry at the University of Chicago (1).

To pay for school, Kennedy worked during those war years at the meatpacking facility Armour and Co. to obtain pure bovine serum albumin, which at the time was thought to be useful for treating shock in wounded soldiers. The effort was abandoned by 1942, at which time the Red Cross began collecting blood from human volunteers. Kennedy transferred to Armour’s new Fort Worth location in 1942 to focus on fractionation of human blood. He worked there until 1945.

The experience sparked an interest in biochemistry, which Kennedy continued to pursue upon returning to the University of Chicago. It was then that Kennedy started working with a new assistant professor in the department of biochemistry, Albert Lehninger, and developed an interest in lipid biochemistry. Despite some reservations (1), Kennedy began to study fatty-acid oxidation for his thesis work in 1947. It was during this work that Kennedy made one of his seminal discoveries that, in addition to oxidative phosphorylation, fatty acid oxidation and the reactions of the Krebs cycle occurred in the mitochondria.

After completing his graduate work, Kennedy went to the University of California, Berkeley, to study with Horace A. Barker. It was there that he, along with Earl Stadtman, who was then a graduate student, studied the ability of soluble extracts of Clostridium kluyveri cells to produce short-chain fatty acids from ethyl alcohol.

In 1950, Kennedy did a brief stint with Fritz Lipmann at Harvard Medical School to work on mitochondrial energetics.

He re-joined the University of Chicago a year later after obtaining a joint appointment in the department of biochemistry and the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research and began his groundbreaking work on phospholipid biosynthesis. That work eventually led to the formulation of the now famous Kennedy pathway, which remains true to this day.


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