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James L. Kinsey, former chair of chemistry department, passes away at 80

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Professor James L. Kinsey, circa 1978, with graduate student Edmond Murphy in the background.
Professor James L. Kinsey, circa 1978, with graduate student Edmond Murphy in the background.
Courtesy of the Department of Chemistry

James L. Kinsey, the former head of the Department of Chemistry at MIT and the D. R. Bullard-Welch Foundation Professor of Science Emeritus at Rice University, died unexpectedly on Dec. 20. He was 80.

Kinsey was born in Paris, Texas, in 1934. He earned a BA from Rice in 1956 and continued at that institution for graduate studies, earning a PhD in physical chemistry in 1959 under Robert F. Curl, who went on to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996. The title of Kinsey’s dissertation was “The Microwave Spectrum of Chlorine Dioxide.”

In 1959 and 1960, Kinsey spent one year at the University of Uppsala in Sweden as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Quantum Chemistry Institute. He then spent a year in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley as a Miller Research Fellow.

In 1962, Kinsey was appointed as an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, where he served for 26 years, rising through the tenure ranks. He succeeded John Deutch, now an Institute Professor, as head of the Department of Chemistry in 1977, and held that position until 1982.  

“Jim Kinsey mentored me from the time I was a graduate student,” Deutch says. “He tried to teach me group theory and 3j coupling coefficients, but failed. His knowledge and devotion to chemistry was unmatched. Throughout his career, he made great contributions to MIT, Rice, and the Welch Foundation. One of my oldest and trusted friends is gone, and I grieve for the loss.”

Kinsey was known for his novel studies of the dynamics of disintegrating molecules using various spectroscopic techniques, including his significant advance of Fourier transform doppler spectroscopy and, with Robert W. Field, the development of stimulated emission pumping. He was also much admired for his leadership skills and his unpretentious disposition.

“Jim and I had a wonderful collaboration,” says Field, the Robert T. Haslam and Bradley Dewey Professor of Chemistry. “We were so different in our scientific styles, our relationships with members of our joint research group, and in how we would approach and finish off a problem. … Jim was analytical; I was intuitive. Jim was cautious; I was not. … We created magic between us, and shared the joy of knowing that we had created some new truth.”

“Our cross-department collaboration involved two joint PhDs, two [undergraduate researchers], one future Nobel Prize winner, a lot of brown-bag lunches, and the delight of both scientific and personal insights — including that Jim and I shared the same birthday,” says Dave Pritchard, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics. “I was having lunch with him about a month ago, when — typically — he had to rush off to do something for a former student.”

David Jonas PhD '92, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, “Jim Kinsey was a wonderful co-advisor. I benefited tremendously from his gentle and seemingly effortless approach to resolving contested scientific questions and fondly recall his mischievous sense of humor. I will always remember Jim as a great human being.”

Sylvia Ceyer, current head of the Department of Chemistry and the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry, recalls, “Jim was the chemistry department head who hired me as an assistant professor in 1981. From that moment on, Jim became a beloved mentor and friend who selflessly and carefully read and valuably commented on many of my early proposals and papers, even though the subject matter was not centered in his own research interests. I know that I am a much better scientist because of Jim.” 

She adds, “Jim Kinsey was so incredibly smart, but more importantly, so profoundly wise. He had a knack for quickly spotting the heart of an issue and deftly employing his dry wit to rapidly build a consensus. Listening to the clever repartee of Jim, Bob Silbey, John Deutch, Irwin Oppenheim, and John Waugh is a most cherished MIT memory.” 

In 1988, Kinsey took early retirement from MIT and returned to Rice, his alma mater, where he served as dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences for 10 years. In addition, he served Rice's interim provost from 1993 to 1994.

“Jim Kinsey came to Rice with a vision for what we could be, and set about in a determined fashion to bring that view into the reality we see today,” says Kathleen Matthews, who succeeded Kinsey as dean of the Wiess School. “But no discussion of him would ignore his wit and sense of humor.”

Kinsey made frequent return visits to MIT while serving as a member of the MIT Chemistry Department Visiting Committee from 1994 to 2006.

Kinsey served as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Robert A. Welch Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received the E.O. Lawrence Award of the Department of Energy and the Earle K. Plyler Prize of the American Physical Society. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He and Field were honored as mentors of their joint student Yonqin Chen, who received the American Chemical Society’s Nobel Laureate Signature Prize in Graduate Education.

There will be a memorial at Rice University in the Keck Lecture Hall (old chemistry lecture hall) on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 2 p.m., with a reception to follow at Brochstein Pavilion.

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