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COVID-19 claims the life of Daniel S. Kemp

A ‘giant of chemistry and teaching,’ MIT chemistry professor contributed to the understanding of protein folding

by Linda Wang
May 12, 2020

Photo of Daniel S. Kemp.
Credit: Christian Schubert
Daniel S. Kemp with his cockatoo, Octavian, his companion for over 35 years.

Daniel S. Kemp, 83, died on May 2 near Concord, Massachusetts, from respiratory complications related to COVID-19. Kemp was professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a faculty member for 45 years. He battled dementia in his final years.

“Dan was an amazing educator who treated each lecture like a major performance, carefully orchestrating his delivery and developing questions to guide, captivate, and challenge students,” says Linda S. Shimizu, a former graduate student of Kemp’s and now a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of South Carolina. “I have fond memories of hours spent in his office analyzing data, debating alternative perspectives, and discussing digressions as diverse as gemology to abolishing capital punishment. It was great training for dealing with all the hurdles of academic life. I’m sure I’ve shared a number of his descriptions and stories with my own group.”

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Kemp earned a BS in chemistry from Reed College in 1958. He went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry from Harvard University in 1964, studying under the late Nobel laureate R. B. Woodward.

At MIT, Kemp’s research contributed to the understanding of protein folding and stability. He developed the Kemp elimination, Kemp’s triacid, and the Kemp decarboxylation reaction.

“Dan lived a unique and fulfilled life, driven by his intellectual brilliance, love for research, teaching, mentorship in science and the performing arts but also fulfilled by his deep emotional intelligence and altruism,” says neurobiologist Christian R. Schubert, who was Kemp’s last graduate student.

“Writing papers with him was one of the most important lessons I learned in my scientific career,” says Wolfgang Maison, a former graduate student of Kemp’s and now a chemistry professor at the University of Hamburg. “As a scientist he was not only smart and original, but also persistent with a very positive obsession for details. Apart from science, he was an extremely kind person with a strong sense for the beautiful things in life such as good cooking and architecture. The natural sciences lost a great chemist, and we all lost a good friend.”

A recipient of the Humboldt Research Fellowship, Kemp spent his sabbaticals at the University of Oxford and the Technical University of Munich. His numerous accolades include the Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, and the Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry.

In his free time, Kemp loved to cook, especially French cuisines. He also enjoyed gemology and built an impressive collection of self-cut gemstones. In 2014, Kemp helped establish the Center for Teaching and Learning at Reed College.

Schubert says Kemp was a “giant of chemistry and teaching, revered by the countless students and a close group of associates he trained, mentored, and inspired during his unique and celebrated life.”



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