Nobel laureate William Lipscomb dies at 91

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Another student was Israel’s Ada E. Yonath, who shared the prize with Steitz. Yonath was a postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she spent some time in Lipscomb’s lab at Harvard and was inspired to pursue studies that eventually led to the award.

Lipscomb had little quirks, including a penchant to wear a Kentucky string tie at formal events, instead of a regular tie, former students and relatives recalled.

He had a keen sense of humor and never shied away from making jokes at his own expense. That included acting in a humorous opera to help honor the strange and comical side of science at the Ig Nobels ceremony. The annual event regularly featured Lipscomb and other Nobel Laureates handing out the Ig Nobels, awards given out by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine for unusual and imaginative scientific discovery.

“He was also a superb musician, a professional-level clarinet player,” Hoffman said.

“The first time I heard him was when he invited some of us to come over to his house to meet a famous pianist visiting town and he said he would bring some of his friends from the Boston Symphony together and they were going to do chamber music in the living room,” Steitz said. “It was fabulous.”

James Lipscomb, who lives in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., narrates a website highlighting his father’s life and personality. The younger Lipscomb describes how his father loved played a practical joke when he offered a bowl of walnuts to a dinner guest.

“A guest picked the one on top, and cracked it open as she continued talking. When she saw just the cracked shell and nothing more in her hand, she stared in disbelief and disappointment,” the younger Lipscomb said on the website. “The day before, Bill had gently cracked that walnut into two unbroken halves, scooped out the inside and glued the shell back together.”

Lipscomb, son of a physician, developed an interest in science at a young age. By 12, he had acquired a small Gilbert chemistry set that he set about expanding partly by ordering apparatuses and chemicals from suppliers and partly by using his father’s privilege to purchase chemicals at the local drugstore at a discount.

“Of course, I made my own fireworks, and entertained both willing and unwilling visitors with spectacular color changes, vile odors, and explosions with pure hydrogen and oxygen,” Lipscomb wrote in an autobiographical sketch in “Structures and Mechanisms: From Ashes to Enzymes (Acs Symposium Series,)” authored by Gareth R. Eaton, Don C. Wiley and Oleg Jardetzky.

“My tolerant, but concerned mother raised questions only once, when I attempted to isolate a large amount of urea from the natural product.”

Lipscomb’s first personal encounter with a Nobel Laureate _ when he sought admission to graduate school in 1940-41 _ was neither inspiring nor pleasant.

“One of the schools turned him down and he received a letter saying so by none other than Professor Harold Urey, a 1934 Nobel Prize winner himself,” who was then teaching at Columbia University, James Lipscomb said. “There was a day that Bill took that letter and put it in the trash can, believing that there would never come a day when he could take this letter over to Harold Urey and sort of wave it at him and talk about it in kind of a funny way.”

Lipscomb remained hungry for big advances in science throughout his career.

Steitz said: “I remember Lipscomb saying to me when I was in the lab that, `Linus Pauling told me that if you never make a mistake, you will never make an important discovery _ not that you would want to make a lot of mistakes, but the point is if you want to be in the cutting edge of science you occasionally have to get it wrong and, of course, you have to get it right.’”

Lipscomb is survived by his wife and three children. He wanted no funeral service.

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