A white haired man poses beside a white cockatoo.

Daniel Kemp, professor emeritus of chemistry, dies at 83

Categories: Faculty, MIT News

Organic chemist and MIT professor for over 40 years was “a sui generis renaissance man.”

Daniel S. Kemp, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry, died peacefully and comfortably from respiratory complications due to COVID-19, after a battle with dementia, on Saturday, May 2. He was 83.

“Dan’s broad research reached across disciplines and he was famous for his ability to captivate both students and faculty with his insight and enthusiasm,” said Professor Troy Van Voorhis, head of the Department of Chemistry, upon learning of Kemp’s passing. “He will be long remembered for his devotion to students and his influential contributions to our department.”

Born on October 20, 1936 in Portland, Oregon, Kemp was a longtime resident of Boston, MA. He completed his undergraduate studies at Reed College in 1958, and earned his PhD, under the supervision of Professor and Nobel Laureate RB Woodward, from Harvard University in 1964. Kemp subsequently began an illustrious teaching and research career as a Professor of organic chemistry at MIT that would span nearly half a century, culminating in his transition to Professor Emeritus in 2009.

During his decades as a member of the Chemistry Department faculty, Kemp’s impact was felt by his peers as well as his students. Gregory Petsko, now an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University, recalls Kemp as a titan of encouragement and integrity when Petsko was a young, newly recruited MIT Chemistry Department faculty member. “The encouragement and support, both intellectually and emotionally, of a senior colleague can make all the difference in your life,” Petsko said. “Dan Kemp was the source of that support for me. He believed in what I was trying to do and encouraged me to follow my own path no matter what. I watched him do the same for a number of others over the years and observed all of them try to be a little like him. English Poet and Playwright, Robert Browning, said in effect that the best measure of the height of a person’s mind was the length of the shadow it cast. By that measure, Dan Kemp was a giant. I have spent my life surrounded by smart people, but Dan had the best developed intellect I have ever encountered. He had both an intellectual and a moral integrity that I have always admired. Like everything of value, it was not without cost, but it was a price he seemed willingly to pay, and we are all richer for it.”

Nicholas Galaktos (PhD ‘84), now the Global Head of Life Sciences at the Blackstone Group, carries similar memories of his mentor’s commitment to leading by example. “Dan’s extraordinary intellect, curiosity and thoughtfulness that extended well beyond science, as well his deep caring and consideration of others will be with me forever,” said Galakatos.  “He laid down the foundation of my scientific training when I was a summer intern, and mentored me through my PhD and beyond.  I will never forget working the night shift for several months to align with his book writing project, [which was] probably the most productive learning experience I ever had.”

“He was the finest educator I ever encountered, with strong interests in both undergraduate and graduate teaching,” recalled Professor Emeritus Frederick Greene.  “Following major changes in the core requirements adopted by MIT in the late 1960’s, Dan created a splendid one-semester course in chemistry, required of all entering students. Dan went on to create new first- and second- semester courses in organic chemistry, to the high acclaim of many, many MIT students. Dan was a master in the lecture hall and in the material he presented.”

Kemp made several seminal contributions to basic science, organic chemistry and protein biochemistry. In his early years, the eponymous Kemp’s triacid, the Kemp elimination and decarboxylation reactions were among his developments in organic chemistry. Having switched his interests to protein biochemistry in the second half of his career, Kemp contributed significantly to the basic understanding of the intrinsic rules governing protein folding and stability.

“Dan Kemp made everlasting contributions,” said Firmenich Professor of Chemistry Ronald T. Raines (SB ’80). “He was not only a gripping teacher, who infused his classroom with the elegance and excitement of chemistry, but also a brilliant and prescient scientist, who founded the (now vibrant) fields of templated peptide ligation and nucleated helices and sheets.”

Novartis Professor Emerita JoAnne Stubbe carries fond memories of enjoying Boston Classical Symphony outings with Kemp and others, and hailed him as a teacher extraordinaire. “Given my most important contributions have been in teaching, I aspired to be a ‘Kemp’,” she said.  “We met frequently, either at the junk food machines located in the tunnels of MIT, or walking along the Charles River, rain or shine… I still remember the day at a Gordon Research Conference in Bioorganic Chemistry when he told me how much he enjoyed my lecture. I am reminded of him every day because of a huge oriental rug he gave away, which graces my living room in Arlington. His bird had eaten off all the fringe on each end.”

Another element of Kemp’s legacy is a successful Organic Chemistry textbook, first published in 1980, of which he was the leading author. His research was widely awarded, and among his numerous honors are the Everett Moore Baker Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, and the Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry.

Scott E. Denmark (SB ’75), now the Reynold C. Fuson Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, credits joining Kemp’s research group as “unarguably the most influential experience of [his] undergraduate career.”

“Dan was a sui generis renaissance man,” recalled Denmark. “Fiercely private, once he trusted you, he would open up to reveal his vast knowledge of so many dimensions of scholarship. In my nearly 50 years of studying and practicing chemistry, I have met many brilliant scientists, but no one with the combination of intellectual breadth and depth of Dan Kemp. My fondest memories of the MIT years are the midnight hours spent in his basement office sitting on beanbag chairs just listening to him talk about literature, poetry, music, gemstones and of course chemistry. One IAP session, Dan did dramatic interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Is it any wonder why his Chem 542 lectures were so legendary? A truly beautiful mind.”

Kemp’s impact on his students transcended generations: Daniel Harris (SB ’68). and his son, Doug (SB ’98), both had the pleasure of being taught by Kemp in their first years at MIT. Kemp’s influence on the father and son duo proved to be the gift that kept on giving.

“Dan Kemp’s inspired teaching set my son Doug and me on our paths as chemists when we took his organic chemistry class as freshmen at MIT one generation apart,” said the senior Harris. “[For this reason,] in 2007, my wife Sally and I established the Daniel S. Kemp Summer Fellowship.”

An avid reader and student of human nature, philosophy and culture, Kemp traveled the world extensively. He spent sabbaticals at the University of Oxford, UK and the Technical University of Munich, Germany, as an awardee of the prestigious Humboldt Research Fellowship. A contemporary of the late Julia Child, Kemp also had a passion for cooking and food, in particular French cuisine and baking. He loved gemology, an art that allowed him to combine his passion for science, art and design, and over the years he built an impressive collection of self-cut gemstones.

Kemp’s life was driven by his intellectual brilliance, love for research, teaching, mentorship in science, and the performing arts, and was fulfilled by his deep emotional intelligence and altruism. He made numerous contributions to causes he cared about deeply – the abolishment of capital punishment, the ensured continued access to biomedical research funding for exceptional scientists (he was a prostate cancer survivor), and sharing his love for and learning from his decades of teaching. In 2014, Dan made a generous donation to Reed College to help establish the Center for Teaching and Learning, a resource to support faculty and staff in strengthening teaching.

Dr. John V. Frangioni, Professor of Medicine and Radiology at Harvard Medical School and CEO of The Curadel Companies, recalls a life-changing philanthropic act of Kemp’s. “Very few people know this about him, but Dr. Kemp donated a special fund to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at the Harvard Medical School in 1999 so that I could start my own laboratory,” said Frangioni. “It was the greatest honor of my career that a world-renowned chemist would see something valuable in the work I trying to do. From his personal experiences, he knew how hard it was for a young scientist to establish a lab from nothing, and without him, it wouldn’t have happened for me. He must have had a crystal ball, though, because I went on to receive over $59M in grant funding and published over 200 papers in the field of molecular imaging. Dr. Kemp had a rare combination of brilliance and generosity that he shared with the world, and will be sorely missed.”

Kemp’s final graduate student, Christian Schubert (PhD ’09), was, in many ways, the son Kemp never had. He entered Kemp’s research group as a new immigrant to the United States in 2004, and revered Kemp as a second father. The pair developed a close friendship over the last decade, sharing a sense of family and belonging that Kemp’s life may have otherwise lacked.

“Dan’s intellectual brilliance shone so brightly, but his empathy, kindness, and love for all the good in this world, its life, its people and cultures, shone even brighter,” said Schubert. “He approached it all with his full conviction and attention, never arrogant, always kind, empathic and ready to lend a helping hand. Like all of us, he had his growth edges of course, but he was keenly aware of them and reflected on them often. His altruism and care stand out from the rich and fulfilled live he lived, and will live on in all of us who were fortunate enough to have called him a mentor and friend. He will be missed, and the world today is less bright than it was with him just yesterday.”

Kemp is survived by his legacy as a giant of chemistry and teaching. His close companion of the last 35+ years, his cockatoo Octavian “Tavvy”, has been placed in loving care. In lieu of flowers, donations in Kemp’s name may be made to Foster Parrots; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; or The Center for Teaching and Learning at Reed College.