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.

It should be no surprise that Kennedy was selected to become a Hamilton Kuhn professor and head of the department of biological chemistry at Harvard Medical School in 1959. He continued his research on phospholipid biosynthesis and outlined a detailed picture of phosphoglyceride and triacylglycerol biosynthesis. But his contributions are not limited to these discoveries. Kennedy went on to make significant discoveries regarding the biogenesis and function of membranes, translocation of phospholipids, periplasmic glucans and cell signaling in bacteria.

Kennedy served on the editorial board and as an associate editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He was also the president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1970. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including election to the National Academy of Sciences (1964), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1976), the University of Chicago Distinguished Service Award (1966), the Boehringer Ingelheim Heinrich Wieland Prize (1986) and the Pasano Award (senior laureate, 1986).

We tell our graduate and post-doctorial students that the job of a scientist is to discover new knowledge and make significant contributions to his or her field of study. Kennedy has set a very high bar indeed – one that we all should strive to achieve. His accomplishments go well beyond what can included in a brief outline of his work. Kennedy will be missed, but his work always will remain influential.


1.      Kresge, N., Simoni, R.D., and Hill, R.L. (2005) J. Biol. Chem., 280, e22.

Lipid_News_RabenDaniel Raben ( is director of the ASBMB Lipid Division and a professor in the department of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

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