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Nobel laureate William Lipscomb dies at 91
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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).
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.
“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.
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.
Lipscomb was humble and exhibited his characteristic self-deprecating humor even after being awarded the Nobel.
“He said something like `I knew that I’d written a lot of good papers, but I didn’t know that anyone had read them,’” his son said.
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