Robert Cotter, Mass Spectrometry Pioneer and Pharmacologist, Dies
Robert Cotter, an acclaimed Johns Hopkins pharmacologist and molecular scientist, died on November 12 of an apparent heart attack at his home. He was 69. Cotter’s pioneering work in mass spectrometry led to its development as one of science’s most potent laboratory tools for analyzing both chemical and biological entities — as well as a device for deciphering the contents of dirt samples on Mars.
“Bob has been an institutional resource for Hopkins and beyond for dozens of collaborators in mass spectrometry,” said Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences in the school of medicine. The breakthroughs he achieved “have led to major discoveries in cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and metabolic syndromes.”
Along with colleagues at Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, Cotter received a $750,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2007 to create a shoebox-sized mass spectrometer that could fit on a Mars Rover and search for signs of previous life there by probing samples of the red planet’s soil for evidence of proteins or nucleic acids, which carry genetic information.
Cotter earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Hopkins in 1972 and joined the faculty in 1977. He was director of the school of medicine’s Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and also “trained a legion of outstanding students and postdocs that now occupy leading positions throughout the world,” Cole said.
Mass spectrometry devices are used to identify individual components in samples from unknown chemical sources, as well as analyze known chemical samples in immense detail.
Cotter’s accomplishments earned him some of the highest honors in his field. In August 2009, he received the American Chemical Society (ACS) Analytical Chemistry Award in Chemical Instrumentation, and in September 2010, he received the ACS’ Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, considered the top accolade in the field.