Remembering renowned medicinal chemist, mentor and lyricist of VCU alma mater Lemont Kier
‘A stalwart’ in his field and the community, Kier developed pioneering scientific concepts while emphasizing student achievement – and embodying the spirit of ‘We Gather Here.’
Professor emeritus Lemont “Monty” B. Kier, Ph.D., whose nearly half-century at Virginia Commonwealth University included renowned contributions to the field of medicinal chemistry, mentoring hundreds of students and even composing the school’s alma mater, passed away Jan. 2. He was 93.
Kier’s long and varied career spanned science and the arts. He wrote nine books and hundreds of research articles; developed several of the foremost theories on molecular chemistry and on drug design and development; taught students in medicinal chemistry, nurse anesthesia and life sciences; and, with son and 1990 VCU graduate Andrew, wrote VCU’s alma mater, “We Gather Here.” In his spare time, Kier was a self-taught landscape painter and frequent world traveler with his wife, Martha.
“The medicinal community has lost a stalwart,” said Umesh Desai, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry in VCU’s School of Pharmacy, where Kier taught and previously served as chair. “Professor Kier was an exceptional human being full of vigor, positivity, curiosity and loving care. He would always welcome you with open arms and offer all he had, with no strings attached. One piece of advice he offered me when he retired was that you can never pay back your dues – you can only pay it forward. He was not only a great scientist but also an exceptional human being.”
‘A dedicated educator and innovator’
Born in Cleveland in 1930, Kier earned his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from The Ohio State University and his Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry in 1958 from the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he joined the Army Reserves, where he earned the rank of major.
After his military service, Kier pivoted to what he would spend the next six-plus decades doing: researching and teaching. In his early years, he established the concept of a “pharmacophore” – the essential geometric arrangement of key atoms or functional groups necessary to produce a given biological response. This concept helps understand a drug or medication’s ability to target a specific site on a protein to trigger a pharmacological response.
Kier came to VCU in 1977, where he served as the chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. He continued conducting research and taught medicinal chemistry to nurse anesthesia students in the VCU College of Health Professions and to pharmaceutical sciences students in the School of Pharmacy. In 2001, Kier would become a founder and senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, now called the Center for Biological Data Science, in VCU Life Sciences.
“Monty Kier was an early proponent of studying complexity in biological systems. He was critical voice in the establishment of VCU Life Sciences with its focus on complex biological systems and the Center for Biological Data Analysis. His push to adopt systems approaches to biological problems was ahead of his time,” said Gregory Buck, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Center for Microbiome Engineering and Data Analysis who worked with Kier while serving as director of the then-Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. “He was a renaissance scientist and philosopher contributing to many areas of research and even penning the VCU Alma Mater. We will miss his enthusiasm and the positive energy he contributed to everything he did.”
Throughout his career, Kier pioneered several theories. The molecular orbital theory in drug research was one of the first models to be applied successfully to drug design and development. He also developed the theory of the interaction of general anesthesia with the body as well as a molecular theory of sweetness in taste. And with colleague Lowell H. Hall, Ph.D., of Eastern Nazarene College in Pennsylvania, Kier developed what is now called the Kier-Hall Index: It describes molecular connectivity – the order in which atoms are connected in a molecule, which can determine the properties of that molecule – which helps teach chemistry. These collective works have been featured in chemistry textbooks, including Kier’s own books, and formed early foundations for modern-day models of drug design and structure-activity relationships.
Kier was frequently recognized by professional societies for his accomplishments in research and teaching. He received the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology’s Didactic Instructor of the Year Award in 2013, honoring his impact as the author of “Medicinal Chemistry for Nurse Anesthetists,” which is used in nurse anesthesia programs across the country. In 2008, he earned the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists’ Research Achievement Award in Drug Development and Discovery. In 2004, he earned the Life Achievement in Science award from the state of Virginia.
“Dr. Kier was a dedicated educator and innovator whose discoveries have been foundational for drug discovery and development nationally and internationally, but he is more than his incredible achievements alone. At our school, he will be remembered as being a scholar and mentor who was intelligent, funny and kind,” said K.C. Ogbonna, Pharm.D., dean of the VCU School of Pharmacy. “By being part of our community, the VCU community and the larger scientific community and teaching profession, he has made a positive impact on the lives of countless students, colleagues and scientists. He will be deeply missed.”
Gathering in community: a song and a legacy
Though Kier authored more than 300 publications – and one alma mater – over the years, he didn’t set out to write a legacy. Rather, he took to jotting down whatever popped into his head.
“I wrote about walking to campus, which I love to do,” Kier told VCU News in 2016. “Just getting out and visiting somebody. And several months went by. I had this thing on my desk, had a few spare moments and fiddled with it. … I didn’t known what we had or didn’t have.”
What he had was VCU’s first alma mater. He sent the lyrics to his son, Andrew, a 1990 graduate who majored in music while attending VCU’s School of the Arts. With Andrew’s music and Monty’s lyrics, “We Gather Here” was adopted as VCU’s official alma mater in 2016.
The philosophy behind “We Gather Here” as an anthem for VCU seemed to go beyond a song for Kier, who initially retired from VCU in 2004 but remained active at VCU throughout his retirement.
With his wealth of experience publishing research, the retired Kier served as a writing coach for School of Pharmacy graduate students and worked one on one alongside students, including those whose first language was not English. Kier enjoyed the experience so much that he expanded his informal program to help students with dissertations, theses, job searches – “everything but a letter to a girlfriend,” he told the VCU School of Pharmacy in 2017.
His mentorship didn’t stop with students, as he frequently collaborated with and advised his colleagues. In a 2013 interview, Desai said Kier had served as a mentor “since the time I started at VCU (in 1998). I remember the days we would go out for a walk during lunchtime, and he would drop some helpful thoughts to guide me through the initial rough period. His was a constant encouraging voice. … Now when I look back, I realize that was ‘education’ – to ‘draw out’ the best in a person without being made to realize that you are being taught.”
Kier continued to impart knowledge to colleagues long after his official retirement from VCU. As recently as this past September, he co-authored research on the pioneering nature of VCU’s drug discovery ecosystem with his colleagues in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, who say his impact is lasting at both the international and individual level.
“Dr. Kier had been acting as my mentor for teaching since I joined the department in 2004, partially because I took over all his lectures after his retirement,” said Yan Zhang, Ph.D., a professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology. “He taught me a lot about how to prepare my lectures and teach in the classroom. His wisdom and humor made my first few years of teaching much easier. He will be always remembered for all his achievements and kindness.”
Kier is survived by wife Martha, their five children and their grandchildren. A memorial service and celebration of life will be held at a later date. View obituary and/or leave a message for Monty’s family.
Leila Ugincius contributed to this story.