In Memoriam

Professor Emeritus Neil Kestner

1937 - 2024


During his career at LSU, Professor Emeritus Neil Kestner emerged as a leading figure in theoretical physical chemistry and served as both department chair and president of the LSU Faculty Senate. He pioneered integrating computer technology into research and teaching chemistry, serving a pivotal role in the MERLOT project. Professor Emeritus Kestner passed away on May 30, 2024, but his contributions to research and education left an enduring legacy that will continue to impact countless students and scholars.


Over the past few months, the LSU Department of Chemistry was writing a feature in collaboration with Professor Kestner. Unfortunately, the piece was not completed due to his unexpected passing. Below is the last written draft, now shared as a tribute to honor his memory. 


From Chalkboard to Quantum Code: Professor Emeritus Neil Kestner’s Academic Voyage

The academic journey of Professor Emeritus Neil Kestner began in a quaint one-room schoolhouse located in the countryside outside of Milwaukee, with a single teacher overseeing a class of about ten students spanning different grades. In that modest setting, Kestner laid the foundation for a remarkable career that would span decades and transcend the boundaries of research and education.

Upon entering high school, Kestner transitioned to a larger educational setting in Milwaukee at the Boys Trade and Technical High School, now known as The Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School. Embracing the multitude of clubs and activities offered, he actively participated in various organizations, including involvement in 4H and the Junior Science Club, where students presented short papers. 

During high school, Kestner's passion for chemistry flourished. He set up his own chemistry lab in the basement of his family home and delved into experiments fueled by his innate curiosity.  

He fondly recalled how his mother, who worked in the city, would purchase chemicals from a supply store for him to explore and experiment with. Although the experiments did not yield anything ground-breaking, they catalyzed his interest and paved the way for his future in the field of chemistry. 

Kestner attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1960. Inspired by the work of physical chemist and theoretical physicist Lars Onsager, Kestner pursued graduate studies at Yale University.  

Although Onsager wasn't accepting graduate students, Kestner joined the laboratory of emerging theoretical chemist Oktay Sinanoğlu. There, he had the privilege of collaborating with Onsager, who later received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968. 

Following a post-doctoral research position at the University of Chicago, Kestner began his academic career as an assistant professor at Stanford University in 1965. However, a disheartening message from the department chair regarding promotions and the department's current status prompted Kestner to explore alternative opportunities.

At this juncture, Kelly Runnels, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University and a friend and fellow graduate student from Yale, recommended that Kestner explore the possibility of joining the faculty at LSU, which was recently designated a National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in Science and Math. Captivated by the promising prospect of financial support and state-of-the-art facilities for academic expansion, Kestner relocated to LSU in 1966 as an associate professor.

At LSU, Kestner emerged as a leading figure in various key areas of theoretical physical chemistry research. His work delved into the effects of solvents on electron transfer reactions and the theory of intermolecular forces. He was also an early proponent of computers in research, including quantum mechanical calculations and quantum statistical mechanics. 

In 1969, Kestner co-authored the book Theory of Intermolecular Forces with Yale Physics Professor Henry Margenau. The book explored fundamental theory and related experiments focusing on intermolecular forces, serving as a valuable resource for experts and students of quantum mechanics and advanced physical chemistry.

For his pioneering research, Kestner received recognition as an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow in 1968, became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1980, and held the distinguished position of Charles H. Barré Professor of Chemistry at LSU.

In the 1990s, his research focused on computer usage in teaching, specifically web-based distance education. He served as a co-leader in the chemistry discipline area of the NSF-funded Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) project, developed by the California State University Center for Distributed Learning. Kestner's innovative approach involved using computers to teach chemistry and share information globally, marking a forward-thinking contribution during that time. 

Today, the MERLOT collection is an online repository of free resources for learning, teaching, and faculty development, consisting of over 91,000 discipline-specific learning materials, learning exercises, content builder webpages, comments, and bookmark collections.

Kestner served two terms as department chair and was president of the LSU Faculty Senate from 2000-2002. He also served on the Admissions, Standards and Honors, or ASH, Committee for ten years, making recommendations to maintain and improve the standards of scholarship among students, which included raising admissions standards. Kestner also served on a steering committee tasked with a comprehensive review for reaffirmation of accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, writing two 10-year reports. 

In 2004, Kestner retired from LSU and was honored with induction into the LSU College of Science Hall of Distinction in 2017. His generous contribution led to the establishment of an endowment funding the Neil Kestner Physical Chemistry Graduate Student Award, which acknowledges the outstanding achievements of graduate students in physical chemistry.

One of his most memorable experiences at LSU included witnessing the advancements in computer technology, notably the construction of Frey Hall to accommodate a “large” computer that, upon arrival, surprisingly fit into a corner of a room. 

Kestner's enthusiasm for computers persisted into his later years, with his son, Lars, updating him on the latest technological advancements. Kestner maintained a keen interest in exploring the influence of artificial intelligence on education and was enthusiastic about gaining further insights into how people will utilize this technological advancement.

Professor Emeritus Neil Kestner's life story is an inspiring journey from a small one-room schoolhouse in rural Milwaukee to a distinguished academic career in chemistry. His innovative contributions left an indelible mark on education and research, inspiring generations of students and scholars.



Media Contact:
Gretchen Schneider
Manager of Public Relations and Communications
LSU Department of Chemistry