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Sheehan joins others from MIT in Inventors Hall of Fame

The late MIT Professor John C. Sheehan, who was the first to synthesize penicillin and was credited with saving millions of lives, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at the organization's annual ceremony last month in Akron, OH.

During World War II, Professor Sheehan was among more than 1,000 scientists in 39 labs who sought to synthesize penicillin, which had first been extracted from mold in 1928. The extraction process was long and costly and the need in the war years for more of the medication was urgent. However, the war ended before the molecule's structure was known, and funds for the research ended. But Professor Sheehan continued the work, and in 1958 he achieved a general total synthesis. The patent is numbered 3,939,151.

Among his many honors was the John Scott Award and Medal for inventors benefiting mankind. The citation credited him with "saving millions of lives" through his work.

In its induction material, the National Inventors Hall of Fame said:

"Several of the newer penicillins are effective against resistant strains of staphylococci, and another (ampicillin) is broad-spectrum, useful against a wider range of infections than can be controlled by penicillins produced directly by fermentation. The usefulness of Sheehan's synthesis to industry has been made apparent by the $28 million in royalties paid to MIT for rights to the patent. Those funds have supported further research and education at MIT."

Professor Sheehan's work in another field-explosives-made a contribution to the war effort, the Hall of Fame material continued. In 1941, while at the University of Michigan, he and a colleague devised a new and practical method of making the important military high explosive RDX (cyclonite), which replaced TNT as the basic explosive for rocket, bomb and torpedo warheads.

Professor Sheehan taught at MIT for 31 years. He died in 1992. He was awarded more than 40 patents and he was the author of some 150 scientific publications.

There were two other links to MIT at the Inventors Hall of Fame ceremony.

One is Dr. Forrest Bird, also inducted into the Hall of Fame last month. Dr. Bird, a medical doctor as well as a PhD and an ScD, took undergraduate courses at MIT just before World War II but did not enroll. He studied with Jerome Hunsaker, the aviation pioneer, who introduced him to Bernoulli's theorem, which deals with the movement of fluids and gases and which is the basis for aircraft-wing design. That knowledge, Dr. Bird said, also helped him invent the first highly reliable, low-cost mass-produced medical respirator, the accomplishment for which the Hall of Fame honored him. In 1970 he introduced a respirator for low-birthweight babies and within two years infant mortality for those with respiratory problems improved from 70 percent to less than 10 percent worldwide.

The other MIT link involves Loch Ness in Scotland. An oil painting based on underwater photographs of "large, animate targets" made at Loch Ness 20 years ago, an activity in which the late Professor Harold E. (Doc) Edgerton played a role, has been hung at Inventure Place, part of the Inventors Hall of Fame. It will be on permanent display, according to an announcement from a public relations firm in Hawaii, where the artist lives.

The painting by Thomas Deir was commissioned by Robert H. Rines, president of the Academy of Applied Science of Concord, NH. Dr. Rines, an engineer, scientist and inventor, is a member of the Class of 1942 and a lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He led academy expeditions to Loch Ness to search for the lake's legendary inhabitant.

In 1975, Professor Edgerton joined Dr. Rines in this effort, which used high-definition sonar to explore the lake. Detected were what Dr. Rines describes as "large, animate targets that did not seem to break the surface of the water very often." The oil painting is based on a photo made in 1975 which Dr. Rines says shows "the forward body, long neck and head of one of these animals, unbelievably strikingly resembling a plesiosaur, a carry-over from the age of the dinosaurs." The photo and a paper were published in the March/April 1976 issue of Technology Review and later in Nature.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 1995.

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