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Remembering the chemists we lost to COVID-19

Educators, industrial chemists, and volunteers made a difference in their communities

by Linda Wang
June 6, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 22


COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has impacted the chemistry community far beyond university shutdowns and supply-chain shortages. The disease has claimed the lives of beloved educators, industrial chemists, and long-time ACS volunteers. Here are some of the chemists we have lost to COVID-19.

Daniel S. Kemp

This is a photo of Daniel S. Kemp
Credit: Courtesy of Christian Schubert

Daniel S. Kemp, 83, died on May 2 near Concord, Massachusetts. Kemp was a 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.”

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

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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 cuisine. 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.”

Lieng-Huang Lee

This is a photo of Lieng-Huang Lee
Credit: Courtesy of Grace Lee

Lieng-Huang Lee, 95, died on April 29 in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Lee was a senior scientist at the Xerox Webster Research Center in Webster, New York, from 1968 to 1994. Before joining Xerox, he worked for Dow Chemical. His research at Xerox focused on adhesion, polymer surface chemistry, and electrophotography. He was the editor of 12 books, published over 90 technical papers, and held 31 US patents.

Lee earned a BS in chemistry from the National University of Amoy (now Xiamen University) in 1947. He earned a PhD in chemistry from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1955.

“My father enjoyed chemistry his whole life,” says daughter Grace Lee. “He liked to tell the story that in one of his first jobs in Taiwan in the early 1950s, he developed a technique to seed the clouds to make rain in Taiwan, by adding silver iodide to coal delivered by locomotive.”

Lee was a member of the American Chemical Society for 66 years. He was named a Distinguished Scholar by the National Academy of Sciences and an honorary professor by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was a visiting professor of chemistry at Xiamen University.

Lee is predeceased by his wife, Chiu-Bin. He is survived by his four children and three grandchildren.

Ying Kao Lee

This is a photo of Ying Kao Lee
Credit: Courtesy of the Lee family

Ying Kao Lee, 87, died on April 13 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Lee, who spent his entire career at DuPont before retiring in 2000, invented an acrylic dispersion lacquer that helped prevent automotive paints from fading. The organic solvent–containing coating earned DuPont a patent in 1999. Lee’s invention also helped reduce emissions in the painting process by 70%. DuPont sold its performance coatings division to the Carlyle Group in 2012.

Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Leeds in 1957. After immigrating to the United States, he joined a doctoral program in physical organic chemistry at the University of Cincinnati and earned his PhD in 1961. He joined DuPont in 1965 and spent his entire 35-year career there working to improve automotive refinishing products.

Lee’s children say that chemistry was his life. “Growing up, my dad would quiz us kids on principles of chemistry at the dinner table, asking questions like, ‘Would it take more, less, or the same time for rice to cook at sea level compared to on a mountaintop? And why do you think there should be a difference?’ ” recalls one of his daughters, Annette Lee. “All of us kids would groan, roll our eyes, and say, ‘Really dad, can we have a normal conversation?’ He did get his way, though, because although none of his three children ended up as chemists, we all eventually got at least a little of his scientific inquiry bug. My older brother became a geology professor, I became a fertility doctor, and my little sister became a psychological scientist.”

Lee earned numerous awards, including DuPont’s Distinguished Scientist Award and Lavoisier Medal for Technical Achievement. He was also awarded an honorary professorship by the Institute of Chemistry in Beijing and the Achievement Award from the Chinese Institute of Engineers.

Lee is survived by his wife, Theresa; his children, Arthur, Annette, and Angela Duckworth; and nine grandchildren.

Dennis G. Peters

This is a photo of Dennis G. Peters
Credit: Indiana University

Dennis G. Peters, 82, a beloved chemistry professor at Indiana University Bloomington, died on April 13. He was just days away from celebrating his 83rd birthday. Peters contracted COVID-19 while he was hospitalized for an injury that occurred during spring break. Peters was Herman T. Briscoe Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University and was teaching until his injury occurred.

William F. Carroll Jr., an adjunct professor at Indiana University and a past president of the American Chemical Society, says he was heartbroken to hear the news of Peters’s passing. Peters was Carroll’s research adviser in graduate school.

“What do you say about a man who taught intro chemistry for 57 years, essentially 113 consecutive semesters and more than 15,000 students,” Carroll says. “What do you say about a guy who wrote or cowrote 5 textbooks that were successful in selling well over 140,000 copies who then used most of the money from the sales of the books to fund things in the laboratory? If we needed a piece of equipment and we didn’t have a grant for it, Dennis would reach into his own pocket.”

Peters earned a BS in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1958 and a PhD in analytical chemistry from Harvard University in 1962. He joined the Indiana University faculty in 1962. He was an ACS member for 63 years.

“Dennis Peters was the most trusted and revered member of the Indiana University chemistry department and, without doubt, its most accomplished and highly regarded classroom lecturer,” says Gary M. Hieftje, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. “He was also the glue that maintained cohesiveness among the faculty involved in analytical chemistry and was in large part responsible for the department to achieve international prominence in that field.”

Peters was also known for his larger than life presence, despite his small stature. “He leapt up from chairs in the graduate chemistry advising office and wowed children and adults alike with flashes of colors and bright fires during Magic of Chemistry programs, clad in a colorful lab coat decorated with chemical illustrations, mathematical formulas and equations,” wrote Joey Bowling in a recent article about Peters in the Indiana Daily Student newspaper.

Peters is survived by his nephew, Ruben Portugues and niece, Iliana Portugues.

William Suits

This is a photo of William Suits
Credit: Courtesy of Tomlinson Funeral Home

William “Bill” Suits, 80, died on April 9 in East Windsor, New Jersey. His wife, Donna, 78, died 6 days later, also of COVID-19.

Suits is remembered by many in the American Chemical Society community for his passionate work as a mentor for high school students in the ACS Project SEED program, as a long-time ACS career consultant, and as an active member of the ACS North Jersey Section.

“It seemed like every time I talked to Bill, he was planning a new event for chemists in New Jersey to help them find jobs,” says Lisa M. Balbes of Balbes Consultants and a fellow ACS career consultant. “He was also constantly finding and sharing interesting articles with new tools and trends in employment practices.”

Suits earned a BS in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1963. He worked for several years at the university managing the medical science lab and the biophysics lab. He then joined Packard Instrument Company as a product specialist. He worked for Varian Medical Systems and was a board member of the nonprofit organization, AIDSfreeAfrica.

Suits served on numerous ACS committees. “I got to know Bill when we both served on the Committee on Local Section Activities,” says Kathy Shaginaw, president of Particular Solutions. “Bill and I had many conversations about outreach activities that involved kids. Bill was passionate about helping younger chemists with career advice and getting them excited about chemistry.”

“Bill and I served on the ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications,” says Jennifer Maclachlan, co-owner of PID Analyzers. “Bill had such a nice way about him; a mix of inquisitiveness and humor. He will be remembered for being a true chemistry ambassador.”

Suits received the Division of Professional Relations’ 2010 Henry A. Hill award, the 2012 E. Ann Nalley Middle Atlantic Region Award for Volunteer Service to the American Chemical Society, and was inducted into the 2012 Class of ACS Fellows.

Suits is survived by his children, Tim Suits and Joanna (Suits) Hubenthal, and stepchildren, Wendy (Gould) Biggs, Paul Gould, and Brian Gould; and 11 grandchildren.

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