New Kemper Professorship to strengthen ties with Missouri Botanical Garden

Position will address global challenges like climate change and sustainability

For nearly 140 years, Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden have been inextricably intertwined. Their shared history began in 1885 when botanical garden founder Henry Shaw endowed the university’s first science department: a school of botany. Ten years later, Shaw made a gift to establish a botany professorship, and the first recipient became the botanical garden’s director after Shaw’s death. Shaw’s will also gave the university’s chancellor a permanent seat on the garden’s board.

David and Dorothy Kemper
In recognition of their longstanding support for Washington University, David and Dorothy Kemper received the Robert S. Brookings Award during last fall’s Founders Day celebration. (Photo: Dan Donovan/Washington University)

To strengthen this lasting partnership, Distinguished Trustee David Kemper and his wife, Dorothy, have pledged $2 million to endow the David and Dorothy Kemper Professorship. The position will help WashU recruit a world-renowned scholar with deep expertise in plant science, biodiversity, and sustainability who will focus on urgent global challenges like climate change. The recipient will hold a joint appointment in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Kemper, executive chairman of Commerce Bancshares and Commerce Bank in St. Louis, is an ardent advocate for the university and the garden. For the past 35 years, he has provided leadership to both institutions as a board member and board chair. “I believe WashU and the Missouri Botanical Garden are two of the most important institutions in St. Louis,” he says. “I’m grateful to be involved with them after so many years. This gift is one small step in forming a stronger relationship between these historic pillars of our community.”

A leading scholar

The inaugural David and Dorothy Kemper Professor will work to better understand the interrelationship between the biological world and human welfare, including the correlation between plant evolution, conservation, and climate change. To facilitate this work, the recipient will have access to resources like the botanical garden’s herbarium, which boasts nearly 8 million preserved plant specimens and is one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.

Additionally, the recipient will harness the power of bioinformatics to expedite discovery, says Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the George Engelmann Professor of Botany in Arts & Sciences. “The computing tools we have today allow us to capture and analyze vast quantities of data, which can reveal new trends and important considerations for the future,” he adds.

Teaching and mentoring WashU graduate students in biology, particularly those conducting research at the botanical garden, will be among the professor’s responsibilities as well. “This new faculty member will help smooth the path and guide researchers who are still establishing themselves in the field,” Wyse Jackson says.

Collaboration stimulates innovation

The Kemper Professorship marks yet another step in the university’s broader efforts to strengthen ties with the St. Louis community and organizations like the botanical garden. “This professorship will increase synergy between our two institutions,” says Feng Sheng Hu, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. “The position’s focus on plant science and biodiversity leverages our historical strengths and creates exciting opportunities for future discoveries.”

“This professorship will increase synergy between our two institutions. The position’s focus on plant science and biodiversity leverages our historical strengths and creates exciting opportunities for future discoveries.”

Feng Sheng Hu, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences

St. Louis is a unique nexus of research and exploration, offering multiple powerhouse centers devoted to the natural sciences. As director of the Living Earth Collaborative, which teams investigators from WashU, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo, Jonathan Losos has seen the innovative ideas that result from institutional partnerships. “Bringing WashU and the botanical garden closer together helps cement the city’s reputation as a major hub for plant science research,” says Losos, who also is the William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology. “It’s a win-win for us to work together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

For David Kemper, the professorship is a means for two great research engines to amplify one another’s work. “By joining forces, WashU and the Missouri Botanical Garden will be better positioned to tackle some of the biggest social and environmental obstacles confronting the planet,” he says.

Propelling WashU forward

With this professorship, the Kempers begin a new chapter in their history of philanthropy at WashU. Together with David’s father, James M. Kemper Jr., and the William T. Kemper Foundation, they made a $5 million gift to rename the Washington University Gallery of Art in 2004. The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, which pays tribute to David’s mother, opened in a new Tadao Ando-designed building in 2006. Since then, the Kempers and their family foundation have continued to support the museum, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, with gifts to endow the William T. Kemper Directorship, create the James M. Kemper Gallery, and fund new acquisitions.

The Kempers’ generosity extends to other areas of the university, including the University Libraries, the School of Medicine, and the Danforth Scholars Program. In 2022, the couple received the Robert S. Brookings Award, which recognizes extraordinary dedication to WashU. And in 2023, the entire Kemper family was awarded the Dean’s Medal from the Sam Fox School. David Kemper, who joined the university’s board in 1987 and was appointed chair in 2005, became a distinguished trustee in 2019. He also served as chair of the oversight committee for the Danforth Campus’ east end transformation.   

“The Kempers believe in WashU as much as they believe in St. Louis,” says Dean Hu. “They see the leading role the university plays in the community and have given generously for decades. We are fortunate to benefit from the engagement, ideas, and support of local leaders like David and Dorothy, who help propel the university — and our community — forward.”