Nov. 21, 2012

Professor Emeritus Robert K. Finn dies at age 92

Finn

Robert Kaul Finn '41, a pioneer in the field of biochemical engineering and professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell, died in his sleep at home in Ithaca Nov. 3. He was 92.

Born May 3, 1920, in Waukesha, Wis., Finn earned a B.Chem. degree in 1941 and a chemical engineering degree, in 1942, both at Cornell. After graduation, he worked at Merck and Co. in the dawn of the antibiotic age and became engaged in the large-scale production of the first antibiotics -- penicillin and streptomycin -- using submerged culture of molds, which played vital roles in World War II. 1946 he left Merck to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a minor in applied microbiology at the University of Minnesota.

In 1949 he joined the University of Illinois as assistant professor and joined Cornell in 1955. During his 50-plus years at Cornell, Finn explored measuring the cell damage caused by aeration; developed a patented process for treating wastes low in nitrogen with bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere; and hunted for useful microbes, sampling soil all over campus. He retired in 1990.

"He thought of a lot of problems and did a lot of things before they were ever really popular in the field. Twenty years later people came back and saw they were important," said Michael Shuler, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Chair of Biomedical Engineering and Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Chemical Engineering. "He was one of the first people that did work on shear sensitive cells in bioreactors. He did it with protozoa, but it became extremely important when people wanted to use mammalian cells in culture. Bob's was the only prior work that anybody could look at."

Later, instead of hunting for useful microbes, he worked to alter them to produce compounds more effectively, or even make completely new products. "He was one of the first ones that did what we call metabolic engineering," said Shuler. "Bob was a real pioneer in that area as well."

Finn was predeceased by a daughter and is survived by his wife, Lucile, and four adult children, five grandchildren and numerous other family members.

A memorial service celebrating Finn's life will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 2, at the First Presbyterian Church, Ithaca. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, 521 N. Broadway, Nyack, NY, 10960.

Robert Emro, assistant director of communications in the College of Engineering, contributed to this article.