Happy 96th to a science standout

Howard G. Tennent takes a break from the rigors of scientific research.

To say that a Kennett Township man has crammed nine decades of accomplishments, most of them scientific, into two decades is accurate, albeit a bit misleading. Howard G. Tennent was born on Leap Day, which means that today he turns 24 — or 96 — depending on the computation.

Tennent, who holds multiple patents, is a chemist who has devoted much of his career to working in a miniscule dimension while making a big impact — in the opinion of others. “He would never call attention to himselfr,” said Jean Tennent, his wife of more than 60 years.

Howard Tennent is considered a pioneer in nanotechnology, the science of things on the scale of billionths of a meter. In the 1980s, a group of scientists won a Nobel Prize for creating soccer-ball-shaped molecules they called Buckminsterfullerene or "buckyballs." That discovery spawned the invention of nanotubes, sometimes called buckytubes, and Tennent was at the forefront of that research, said Bob Hoch.

Hoch is the technology director at Hyperion Catalysis International, Inc., in Boston, where Tennent still works as a consultant. “I was just on the phone with him yesterday,” Hoch said yesterday. “He’s still very much involved.” In the mid-‘80s, Tennent, who previously worked at Hercules Inc. in Delaware, would commute to Boston. He spent his days at the company and his nights at a laboratory at Harvard University, where he used an electron microscope to view his samples, Hoch said. “What differentiates a great research guy is that they don’t just grab the result and run with it … They look at it in a fundamental way. They roll it around in the brain,” Hoch said, adding that Tennent’s command of material enhances his analytical skills.

Since the original synthesis of carbon nanotubes in 1983, Hyperion Catalysis has devoted resources to improving the technology of their manufacture and developing their use in a variety of automotive and electronics applications, according to its web site. Less than a year ago, the company was assigned a patent for a "method for preparing single-walled carbon nanotubes from a metal layer," a procedure developed by Tennent and two other scientists. Hoch said having a researcher of Tennent’s calibre at a small company like Hyperion is a coup. “He could certainly find a new job, but I hope he isn’t looking,” Hoch said.

Dave Barkan, one of Tennent’s five grandchildren, said his grandfather counts many Nobel Prize winners among his friends and was a former colleague of the late Linus Pauling. In World War II, Tennent helped develop technology to prevent fighter-plane windshields from fogging up. He has patents on chemicals that are used in McDonald's milkshakes as thickening agents, his grandson said. Barkan, who just completed his doctoral work in biology at the University of California in San Francisco, said Tennent passed genes for persistence and inquisitiveness to his four children, all of whom excel in science-related fields. “He was always imparting the importance of understanding how things worked and why that knowledge mattered,” Barkan explained.

Jean Tennent acknowleged that the DNA for technology did not come from her, although she does like reading an occasional "Scientific American" magazine and definitely enjoys her husband’s stories.
One family favorite involves Howard Tennent’s doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin. He was collaborating with a group in Europe who had prepared a set of samples of powdered DNA from the private parts of bulls and wanted the Americans to put it in solution and measure molecular weight and size by determining the sedimentation properties. Half of the samples were lost at sea when the ship carrying them was sunk by a German submarine, leaving an insufficient amount to measure. Tennent’s lab-mate succeeded in getting fresh supplies from an Oscar Mayer factory. He transported the material in a bucket by bus back to the university, prompting some unprintable exchanges when people asked about the contents.

Jean Tennent said her husband was both captivated and humbled by the recent obituary of Gladys Flamer, an effervescent Coatesville native who died at the age of 105. “He said, ‘I haven’t even hit 100 yet,’” his wife recalled.

Although some have suggested that Howard Tennent’s daily 5 o’clock martini might represent one of the keys to his success, Jean Tennent isn’t so sure, especially since her husband has cut back a bit on that regimen in recent years. But she said another longstanding routine has never wavered. “He has peanuts and beer every day for lunch,” she said.