Professor Walter Goodrich Jennings: A Remembrance

Sep 01, 2012
Volume 30, Issue 9, pg 800


Walt Jennings, 1922–2012
We note here the passing of pioneering American gas chromatographer Walter G. Jennings on July 5, 2012. Walt, as he preferred, died peacefully at home surrounded by family. He was 90 years old.

Walt was known as a tireless researcher, innovator, entrepreneur, and teacher who, while at the University of California at Davis and throughout his long career, was a strong advocate of gas chromatography (GC) and its utility as a practical tool for solving many problems in a wide range of scientific areas. Although his academic and business accomplishments are significant, he is best known for the relationships he made with the scientists and colleagues he touched as a teacher, collaborator, and mentor who supported investigators with his experience, thought provoking instruction, helpful advice, and encouragement.

Walt was born on March 2, 1922, in Sioux City, Iowa, and spent his formative youth in Glendale, California. From 1940 to 1942, Walt was on a survey crew for the Union Pacific railroad, often traveling by mule across the unforgiving terrain in southern Nevada, California, and Arizona. In 1942, world events set in motion a course that defined the remainder of Walt's life. He served with decorated distinction in combat from 1943 to 1945 in the US Army in Europe. Upon returning home to Glendale, he followed the advice of relatives who owned a family dairy in southern California and used the GI Bill to finance an education in dairy science.

The educational path that led Walt to UC Davis turned into a 38-year academic career that went from undergraduate student to emeritus professor, with a bachelor's degree in 1950, a master's degree in 1952, and a PhD in 1954. His initial areas of research were in chemical sanitation efficiency and kinetics associated with food processing equipment, but Walt's interest in flavor chemistry became a driving force to develop new technologies to unravel the chemical composition of flavor. He quickly came to understand the role that GC could play in this research, and his team successfully identified the critical flavor components in the Bartlett pear, which was a significant accomplishment in 1965. With support from the US Department of Agriculture, he built the first GC system at the university in 1955. At that time, discovery and innovation in GC became as important to him as the flavor work. Over the next 20 years there was a continuous string of innovations, including developments in carbon dioxide extraction, inlet liner technology, ferrule technology, and column and phase technology. During a visit to Europe in the late 1960s, Walt was exposed to glass capillary chromatography and he instantly realized its potential. On his way home from Europe he made a side trip to purchase and bring home one of Klaus Hupe's earliest glass-drawing machines. Immediately, his team in Davis began drawing tubing and developing excellence in capillary GC and column making. Capillary columns were in great demand from forward-thinking chromatographers and the columns from Walt's Davis lab were much sought after in the US. In 1974, Walt and a graduating student, Rob Wohleb, founded J&W Scientific, manufacturing capillary GC columns from a garage. The company became quite successful and began innovating in the field of column technology, developing chemically bonded stationary phases, improving deactivation, and developing a range of phases that are the standards in the industry today. At the time of its sale to Agilent Technologies in 2001, J&W Scientific was the world's leading manufacturer of capillary GC columns and employed more than 150 people at its location in Folsom, California.

Walt was a productive researcher, with more than 200 publications in the GC field including eight books and several book chapters. His books Gas Chromatography with Glass Capillary Columns (Academic Press, 1978) and Analytical Gas Chromatography (Academic Press, 1997) are considered classics in the field. He and his students made significant contributions in flavor chemistry, coupling capillary GC and mass spectrometry, selectivity tuning in capillary columns by phase blending, computer modeling of optimum and practical gas velocities, and the achievement of ultrahigh resolution (2,000,000 theoretical plates at 4000 plates per second!) with recycle chromatography.

Walt also became a highly sought after lecturer in this new field. To the consternation of the university, his schedule was very full as he traveled around the world giving lectures on the advantages and practical aspects of capillary GC. Walt often delivered more than 30 lectures and workshops a year at leading chemical companies, symposia, research centers, and universities. He enjoyed these activities immensely, and his lecture style and enthusiasm for the field captivated audiences of analytical scientists. Walt continued lecturing, albeit at a reduced pace, well into his 80s.

In his career, Walt was recognized with many awards for his contributions in GC. Notable among these were The Humboldt Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1973, The Founders Award in Gas Chromatography from the Beckman Foundation, The M.J.E. Golay Award from the International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography in 1996, the Keene P. Dimick Award from the Pittsburgh Conference in 1997, the A.J.P. Martin Gold Medal from the Chromatographic Society in 1997, and the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from LCGC.

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