Family, friends, and former students of Harold Monroe McNair, a professor emeritus with the Department of Chemistry, will gather for a memorial service, Sunday, Dec. 12, at Davidson Hall. The service will also be held virtually on Zoom.

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 1968, McNair died June 27, 2021. He was 88. The gathering, McNair Remembrances, will take place from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday at 281 Davidson Hall. The service will include set speakers, including department head Alan Esker, as well as an “open mic” portion where any participant can raise their “digital” hand and share a memory. (For a Zoom link and more information on the service, please email Jenny Orzolek with the College of Science at

McNair earned both a tennis and an academic scholarship to attend the University of Arizona. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude with a degree in chemistry in 1955. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Purdue University. In 1960, while in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship, he met and married Marijke Koopmans, his wife and partner of 55 years.

The McNairs moved to Blacksburg in 1968 when he was hired by Virginia Tech as an associate professor with the chemistry department, now part of the College of Science. His research areas were wide: gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, and ultra-trace analysis of organic compounds in air, soil, water, and food. He showed expertise in detection and identification of bomb residue, and consulted for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Safety Administration.

Harald Monroe McNair sits in his cluttered office during the 1970s. Photo courtesy of the McNair family.

Harald Monroe McNair sits in his cluttered office during the 1970s. Photo courtesy of the McNair family.
Harald Monroe McNair in his office during the 1970s. Photo courtesy of the McNair family.

Former student W. Marcus Cooke V, Ph.D. '73, said McNair directed a program in the early 2000s to technically calibrate bomb sensors at airports. In this process, an airport security agent would rub a suitcase with a cloth before placing it in the machine. Any residue of an explosive agent would then be marked. “For many decades no terrorist has been able to use a high-powered explosive such as nitrogen chemicals in the U.S. because McNair and Virginia Tech kept the flying public safe by updating and calibrating the accuracy of those machines,” Cooke wrote in an email.

Cooke details another story about McNair and a forged will of multi-billionaire Howard Hughes, who died in 1976. (There were 40 such forged wills, according to news reports. No actual will was ever found.) Infamously obsessive compulsive, Hughes used only BIC pens. In the 1978 case, McNair showed the will indeed was written with ink from a BIC pen. The catch: BIC changed its ink formula after Hughes’ death.  And the will was written with the new formula.

The forgers? Las Vegas mobsters.

“Not a crowd you want rile,” Cooke added. “Some very unkind things were suggested after he smashed the fake will in court. I understand Dr. McNair had an FBI escort out to McCarran International Airport for a fast flight back to Blacksburg.”

McNair also created training programs for the Environmental Protection Agency in detecting water and air pollution.

On the academic front, McNair’s textbook Basic Gas Chromatography – first published in 1964 – has had six editions. As of 2106, 130,000 copies of the book were sold in English. The book was translated into seven other languages. Nicolas Snow, Ph.D. '92, the Founding Endowed Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Seton Hall University, has called the book “the single most important contribution to gas chromatography [and chromatography in general] becoming a widely used technique.”

“Harold was a mentor, teacher, boss, friend, coach, tennis partner, and surrogate father to all of us,” said Snow. “He had very high standards in the lab but let us fund our own way to meeting them. I was somewhat awe-struck at first to be working with a pioneer in the discipline but his warmth, caring and occasional scolding helped me, too, to fall in love with chromatography and make it my life’s work.”

Kevin Schug, Ph.D. '02, the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, added: “probably the best advice I ever received was from Dr. McNair. He always preached to ‘pay it forward,’ meaning that if someone has taken the time to teach you something valuable, you should make the effort to teach that to others. That spirit and ideal embodied Harold’s practice in life.” Schug, whose father worked with McNair, was the latter’s final Ph.D. student.

Lee N. Polite, Ph.D. '88, is president and lab director of Axion Analytical Labs Inc. and Axion Training Institute Inc. As a student at Virginia Tech, Polite and his cohorts were directed by McNair to teach hands-on high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatography courses for the American Chemical Society. “We have a training facility downtown Chicago,” Polite said. “About 10 years ago we expanded Axion into an adjoining suite and ended up with a large, beautiful room with 120-year-old timber beams, original brick walls and wood floors. We ended up naming it ‘McNair Hall’ so we could refer to it in a sentence, and also as a nice nod towards Harold. We had a plaque made for the door and everything. When Harold saw it, it brought a tear to his eye.”

McNair published eight books and more than 150 research papers. He also served as department head and directed the thesis work of more than 60 graduate students, and supervised more than 50 post-doctoral fellows and visiting professors. With some students, McNair established Congress in Latin America about Chromatography (COLACRO), which has taught short courses and introduced gas chromatography into almost all of the countries in Latin America, according to an online biography.

McNair retired in 2002, 34 years after arriving at Virginia Tech. His career awards include the 1991 K. P. Dimick Award in Chromatography; the 2003 Horváth Medal from the Connecticut Separation Science Council; the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from LC/GC Magazine; the 2016 American Chemical Society Award in Chromatography; and being named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2017.

He was a long-time supporter of Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Ut Prosim Society, 1872 Society, and the Pylon Society. He generously supported the Harold M. McNair Staff Service Award in Chemistry, the Marijke McNair Outstanding Senior Award in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, and the Beyond Boundaries Scholars Program, as well as other areas of interest.

McNair is survived by three children, Erik, Josh, and Saskia; and two grandchildren, Alexandra and Ian. He was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Marijke Koopmans McNair, as well as a brother, Edward.


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