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Marvin L. Vestal

  • Born: September 8, 1934, Pendleton, Indiana

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0680
Interview Date: March 3, 2012
Location: Orange County Convention, Orlando, Florida
Interviewer: Michael A. Grayson
No. of pages: 145
Minutes: 289
Sponsor: American Society for Mass Spectrometry
American Society for Mass Spectrometry

  Abstract of Interview

Marvin L. Vestal grew up in Pendleton, Indiana, one of two children.  Vestal’s father was a farmer and self-taught engineer whose father refused to allow him to attend high school.  He encouraged Marvin and his brother to get an education, because they were “too damn lazy to work for [a living].”  Marvin obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Engineering Sciences from Purdue University, taking a break after two years to volunteer for the draft; he was assigned to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  He finished his undergraduate degree and master’s degree on the GI Bill, coming out of Purdue with no college debt.  During college he worked part time at Johnston Laboratories, meeting there Henry Rosenstock and Merrill Wallenstein, who had studied at the University of Utah under Austin Wahrhaftig and Henry Eyring, and who developed the quasi-equilibrium theory (QET) of mass spectrometry (MS).  Rosenstock left Johnston Laboratories, so Vestal continued the coincidence time-of-flight (TOF) project on which the two had been working; he also improved the machine with his invention of an electron multiplier.  

When Johnston Labs moved to Baltimore, Maryland, Vestal also moved.  He began a physics PhD program at Johns Hopkins University but quit after two years to work full time at Johnston.  He left that company to found Scientific Research Instrument Corporation (SRIC), with cofounders Gordon Fergusson, William Johnston (of Johnston Labs), and Bob Jones.  The company licensed the new process chemical ionization (CI) from its inventors, Burnaby Munson and Frank Field, and Vestal was the first to commercialize it.  Ever restless, Vestal decided that the academic world held appeal, so he went to the University of Utah for a PhD in chemical physics, studying under Wahrhaftig and Futrell.  He published some papers along the way; he built a triple quadrupole MS for photodissociation.  With Calvin Blakely he built a crossbeam MS for his dissertation.

PhD in hand, Vestal accepted a position at the University of Houston, where he stayed for eleven years.  During those years he invented and patented thermospray and started another company, Vestec, which did so well he had to leave the University to work at Vestec.  The company commercialized MALDI/TOF instruments and sold “a bunch” all over the world.  Vestec’s merger with PerSeptive, led by Noubar Afeyan, eventually led to the merger with Applied Biosystems.  Internal problems caused MALDI to be sold to ABSciex.  Vestal retired from ABSciex but soon came out of retirement to found a new company.  Virgin Instruments, working to find the theory for optimizing any MALDI, has produced instruments in sizes from desktop to two-story vertical.  At AB Vestal and his coworkers were again first, this time to commercialize the revolutionizing delayed-extraction MALDI/TOF and then to develop the first commercial TOF/TOF.  

Vestal discusses his views of a number of things:  sources of innovation; grants; biases of reviewers; increasing complexity of science; dearth of American graduate students; persistence of professional managers and wasteful meetings (“less talk and more do”); interesting people he has met through science; publishing; friendly competition; his wife’s career; patents (he has at least fifty), licensing, and lawsuits; women in science, particularly MS; influences of Rosenstock, Wahrhaftig, and Futrell on his thinking; his influence on others; and the Distinguished Contribution to Mass Spectrometry award given him in 2010 by the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS).

Vestal concludes his interview with a discussion of his newest company and his ideas for the future.  He thinks biology is extremely important and has already driven a huge expansion of the field; he hopes his instruments will continue to drive research into biological applications.  He talks about electrospray and MALDI’s superiority, but thinks MALDI is reaching its limits.  His company will have a new instrument within a year.  His advice to young would-be scientists is to do science for love, not money.  Thinking about his own career in science, he says he has always “followed [his] nose.”


1958 B.S., Engineering Sciences, Purdue University
1960 M.S., Engineering Sciences, Purdue University
1975 Ph.D., Chemical Physics, University of Utah

  Professional Experience

U.S. Army

1954 - 1956

Signal Corp, Fort Huachuca, Arizona

Johnston Laboratories, Baltimore, Maryland

1958 - 1967


Scientific Research Instruments Corp., Baltimore, Maryland

1967 - 1970

Senior Scientist and Founder

Scientific Research Instruments Corp., Baltimore, Maryland

1970 - 1976


University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

1970 - 1975

Research Instructor, Chemistry

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

1975 - 1976

Research Associate Professor, Chemistry

University of Houston, Houston, Texas

1976 - 1981

Associate Professor of Chemistry

University of Houston, Houston, Texas

1981 - 1987

Professor of Chemistry

Vestec Corporation, Houston, Texas

1983 - 1993


PerSeptive Biosystems, Framingham, Massachusetts

1993 - 1997

Vice President, Mass Spectrometry

Applied Biosystems/PerSeptive Biosystems, Framingham, Massachusetts

1997 - 2001

Scientific Fellow and Vice President, Mass Spectrometry

Applied Biosystems, Framingham, Massachusetts

2001 - 2004

Principal Scientist, TOF Mass Spectrometry Research

Virgin Instruments, Framingham, Massachusetts

2004 - present

Founder, CEO, CSO



Lester W. Strock Award


Scientific Fellow, PerSeptive Biosystems


Field and Franklin Award for Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry


Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Born in Pendleton, Indiana.  Family background and occupations.  Liked to read.  Liked math; won state contest.  Farm work.

College Years 7

Matriculated at Purdue University in Engineering Sciences.  Married.  Mid-career joined U.S. Army.  Secret Agency School, then Electronic Proving Ground in Fort Huachuca.  Returned to Purdue on GI Bill.  Henry Rosenstock and Merrill Wallenstein.  Austin Wahrhaftig.  Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Engineering Sciences.  Johnston Laboratories.

Johnston Laboratories 24

Quasi-equilibrium theory.  Rosenstock and Wallenstein.  Coincidence time-of-flight.  Rosenstock and Wallenstein leave for Board of Standards.  Wahrhaftig consults for Johnston; QET corrects major problem in TOF.  Jean Futrell funding.  Moves to Baltimore, Maryland, with Johnston Labs; starts PhD in physics at Johns Hopkins University, but doesn’t finish.  William Johnston of Johnston Labs, Gordon Fergusson, Bob Jones, and Vestal start Scientific Research Instruments Corporation (SRIC).  Chemical ionization just patented by Frank Field and Burnaby Munson; licensed to SRIC.

University of Utah 32

Decides academic world appeals, but needs PhD.  Enrolls at University of Utah, where Jean Futrell, Austin Wahrhaftig, and Henry Eyring are.  PhD in chemical physics.  Publishes many papers.  Eyring’s absolute rate theory.  Builds triple quadrupole.  Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL).  Photodissociation.  Calvin Blakely.  Crossbeam mass spectrometer for dissertation.  Hee-Yong Kim.

Job Search 41

Accepts position at University of Houston.  References from Joe Franklin and Frank Field.  Ownership of crossbeam; James McCloskey arranges compromise.  Futrell’s tandem MS, probably first, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  Eleven years at Houston.  Patents thermospray; not much interest from others, so starts Vestec, Inc., with wife, Christina, and Gordon Fergusson.  Builds first machine on kitchen table.  Business too good; loses National Science Foundation funding.  Leaves University of Houston to work full-time at company.  John Fenn.  Sold many instruments to Shimadzu, Hewlett Packard, Finnigan.

Impending Demise of Thermospray 57

Hears Fenn’s talk on electrospray.  Beginning of matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization/time-of-flight (MALDI/TOF).  Vestec builds “a bunch” and sells to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, Baylor University, University of Texas Medical Center.  Randy Nelson, his “do all guy.”  Electron multiplier Vestal had invented at Johnston Labs.  Competitors in MALDI.  Merger with PerSeptive.  Noubar Afeyan.  Merger with Applied Biosystems.  Move to Framingham, Massachusetts.  Internal problems; MALDI sold to ABSciex.  Siena, Italy.  Founds new company.

Virgin Instruments 70

Theory for optimizing any MALDI.  Sizes from desktop to two-story vertical. Accelerator MS for bone studies to permit hospital use for patient’s lifetime; cost so far “down to a million.”  How Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) scores proposals.  Ideas for better MALDI and TOF/TOF.  William C. Wiley and I.H. McLaren.  Linear vs. reflector MS.  Franz Hillencamp and delayed extraction.  R.S. Brown and John J. Lennon.  Vestal first to commercialize MALDI/TOF/delayed extraction.

Thoughts on Innovation and Science 84

Innovation comes from smaller companies, less from universities.  Grants more difficult to get.  Review committees’ makeup, biases.  National Institutes of Health’s propensity to fund known quantities.  Science more complex and expensive.  Biology very important.  Much research to be done with DNA.  Too few American graduate students.  Meeting interesting people from all over the world.  Management style, his and others’.  Wasteful meetings.  Professional managers and the persistence thereof.  Publishing.  Reviews of his own work generally fair.  Friendly competition in MS.  Publication credit.  Wife’s career from University of Utah through University of Houston to new company.  Patents are defensive, protective.  Thirteen patents in new company.  Licensing, lawsuits.


Surface-enhanced laser desorption/ionization (SELDI), surface-enhanced neat desorption (SEND).  Most important publication about theory of TOF and MALDI; 150 equations in paper.  Getting award for that paper.  Patents on TOF-TOF; its importance to development of instruments.  Believes more important ideas in future.  Recaps influence of Rosenstock, Wahrhaftig, and Futrell on his own thinking.  Steve Hayden, his “right-hand guy.”

Retrospection and Introspection 105

Thinking about his career in science.  His new company to do things he wants to do.  Less talk, more do.  Advice to young would-be scientists:  do it for love, not money.  Women in science.  Only two women in his field when he began.  Tries to engage, not mentor.  Competition good in science.  Enormous growth in MS due to biological applications.  Electrospray and MALDI.  MALDI better for addressing difficult problems.  Electrospray approaching its limits.

Bibliography 119

Index 131

  About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his B.S. degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his M.S. in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.

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