- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2011

BOSTON (AP) - William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., a Harvard University professor who won the Nobel chemistry prize in 1976 for his research on the structure of molecules and on chemical bonding and mentored several other future Nobel laureates, has died. He was 91.

Lipscomb, himself a protege of two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, died Thursday night at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., of pneumonia and complications from a fall, said his son, James Lipscomb.

Two of William Lipscomb’s graduate students and a third who spent time at his lab went on to win Nobels. Yale University professor Thomas Steitz, who shared the 2009 chemistry prize, recalled Lipscomb as an inspiring teacher who encouraged creative thinking.

Said Lipscomb’s first graduate student at Harvard, Roald Hoffman, who was awarded the chemistry prize in 1981: “He was a great mentor, letting us work freely, yet continually putting before us puzzles to be explained.”

“From him I learned of the importance of paying attention to experiment for a theoretician (as I was). And not to be afraid of the complexity of the real world,” Hoffman, who now teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., told the Associated Press by email.

Lipscomb was awarded the Nobel for his studies on the structure and bonding mechanisms of compounds known as “boranes,” a combination of boron and hydrogen molecules. He continued Pauling’s work in the 1940s at the California Institute of Technology.

His lab made some of the earliest advances in discovering the structures of large proteins and other complex molecules, including the anticancer agent vincristine.

“This was at the very beginning understanding how enzymes worked in terms of their structures,” Steitz said. “That was in a year when nothing was known about how enzymes worked in three-dimensional chemistry, and this was one of the early pivotal structures _ one of the first three.”

Lipscomb was born in Ohio and grew up in Lexington, Ky. He graduated from the University of Kentucky and served for four years in the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII. He got a doctorate at Caltech under the direction of Pauling, the only person to win two individual Nobels (chemistry in 1954 and peace in 1962).

Lipscomb taught at the University of Minnesota for about 13 years before moving to Harvard, where he taught until he reached the school’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

Students affectionately referred to him as “Colonel,” in part a reference to his upbringing.

“The other reason he was called the Colonel was because at Harvard that time all the faculty were referred to as Dr. So-and-So or Prof. So-and-So … and I think he didn’t want to be called that and nobody called them by their first names _ so we couldn’t call him Bill _ but the Colonel was sort of different, and so he could have this informal name,” Steitz said.

Then-Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford granted Lipscomb a commission of a Kentucky Colonel in 1973.

Lipscomb encouraged students not to fear the risk of exploring solutions to scientific problems, Steitz told the AP.

“He got me into working on the crystal structures of macro molecules _ that was the general area in which I received the Nobel Prize in chemistry,” Steitz said.

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