February 2013

Robert J. Cotter (1943—2012)

Click here to see 20 years’ worth of research by Robert J. Cotter in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Bob Cotter was not only a pioneer in the development of mass spectrometry and its application to difficult biological problems, but also he was an outstanding teacher, scholar and citizen of the larger scientific community as well as a fantastic resource and colleague for the Johns Hopkins University community. Bob will be remembered mostly for his inventive applications of mass spectrometry to biomedical science, his novel instrument designs and his leadership within the mass-spectrometry community. He will be sorely missed.

Bob grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1965. He obtained his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, where he worked on gaseous ions with Walter Koski. After completing his Ph.D., Bob took a teaching position at Gettysburg College, where after three years he was denied tenure and his contract was terminated. Bob overcame this setback by re-entering basic research in 1978, initially as a senior postdoc in the Johns Hopkins Medical School Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, where he worked with his future wife, Catherine Fenselau, who also is a world-leading researcher in mass spectrometry. Bob soon was promoted to the faculty because of the exceptional promise evidenced by his inventions of clever new methods to analyze biomolecules in mass spectrometry. Bob had a highly productive career at Johns Hopkins, where he rose to the rank of full professor in 1992, co-authoring two books on time-of-flight mass spectrometry and more than 334 papers during his career. Bob remained at Johns Hopkins until his passing.

Bob is most well-known for his invention of the curved-field time-of-flight ion separation method, known as the reflectron, which was commercialized by Kratos. He helped to develop miniaturized time-of-flight mass spectrometers for use by NASA in the exploration of space, in particular in efforts to find life on Mars. His contributions to biomedical research are legion, but his most recent work contributed to our understanding of the histone code, antigen presentation and the regulation of cell division. Bob’s love of science and infatuation with time-of-flight mass spectrometry is best illustrated by the lyrics to a song he composed called “Time-of-Flight”:

It’s all right
Measures every ion in sight
Start pulse here
Stop pulse there
Looks at masses
Our resolution’s growing every day!
‘Cause those peptides and proteins are making big ions

So keep your eye on my flight tube
Gonna stand the world on its ear
And you’ll see just how much we’ve grown
When we start mapping
Your proteome!

Line of sight
Reflectrons make the energy right
We use UV
And matrices
Any wavelength
That you please
Our resolution’s growing every day!
‘Cause those peptides and proteins are making big ions
Those peptides and proteins are making big ions

Time-of-flight, it’s all right
Yes, and it’s out of sight

Photo of a young Robert Cotter Photo of Robert Cotter at the piano
Left: Bob Cotter, sporting his lab’s Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry Facility shirt, in 1985.
Right: Cotter doing a little entertaining in 2006.

The loss of Bob will affect adversely the research programs of his many collaborators. His expertise and insights greatly enriched the scientific value of many diverse areas of research and led to many discoveries that would not have been possible without his involvement.

Bob received many well-deserved awards over the years, but some of the most prestigious were the American Society for Mass Spectrometry’s Award for a Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry (2011), the American Chemical Society’s Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry (2011), and the American Chemical Society Divison of Analytical Chemistry’s Award in Chemical Instrumentation (2009). Bob served as president of ASMS from 1998 to 2000 and held multiple positions within the United States Human Proteome Organization.

Bob received worldwide recognition for his incredible record of achievement. But he was more than the sum of his many accomplishments. He was a delightful colleague, and he particularly loved department social events. He started a musical group, the Pharm Boys, which played easy-listening songs at Christmas, and he directed and acted in humorous skits that lampooned his colleagues and himself.

Bob loved to tell the true story of how he learned that his promotion to full professor had gone through. In those days, the department faculty contributed financially to the departmental holiday party, with an assistant professor giving $20, an associate professor $35 and a full professor $50. Bob, an associate professor at the time, was spotted by the department administrator in the hall armed with her checklist of who owed what. She nonchalantly asked Bob for a $50 contribution. Irritated that he was being asked for more than the expected amount, Bob complained that associate professors had to pay only $35. The administrator shot back that Bob had just been promoted, disarming Bob from a further reply except for handing over the required larger amount.

We all have lost a great friend, teacher and intellectual leader.

Gerald HartPhilip ColeGerald W. Hart (gwhart@jhmi.edu) is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an associate editor for both the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Molecular and Cellular Proteomics. Philip A. Cole (pcole1@jhmi.edu) is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

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