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April 19, 2011

Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb Dies At 91

Obituary: Acclaimed Harvard University chemist was known for his dedication to science, other wide ranging interests

Sophie L. Rovner

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William N. Lipscomb Jr., 91, an emeritus chemistry professor at Harvard University who won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, died in Cambridge, Mass., on April 14 of pneumonia and other complications from a fall.

Born in Cleveland in 1919, Lipscomb grew up in Lexington, Ky. He earned a bachelor of science in chemistry at the University of Kentucky in 1941 and then entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. He began his studies there in physics, but as a result of Linus Pauling's influence returned to chemistry and earned a Ph.D. in the subject in 1946.

He joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota that same year and then moved to Harvard as a professor of chemistry in 1959. He was appointed Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry in 1971 and retired in 1990.

Lipscomb's Nobel Prize was awarded for his studies on the structure of boranes and the insight that work provided into chemical bonding. His work on boranes and on carbon compounds formed the experimental basis for the extended HÜckel theory, the first widely applicable use of molecular orbital theory to study chemical bonding. Lipscomb also worked extensively on determining the structure and function of enzymes with the help of X-ray crystallography.

He wasn't concerned with the traditional boundaries that separate different fields of chemistry, he noted after winning the Nobel. His varied interests in biochemistry as well as physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry were linked by a common theme of structure and function.

His lab was a fruitful training ground for other future Nobel laureates, including Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University, who received his Ph.D. under Lipscomb; Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who spent some time in Lipscomb's lab at Harvard during her postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Cornell University theoretician Roald Hoffmann.

Lipscomb delighted in the lighter side of chemistry, frequently participating in the tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies, which are held at Harvard. In 2008, he agreed to be the prize in the event's Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel Laureate contest.

Yet Lipscomb also recognized the power that the Nobel Prizes confer. In 2003, for instance, he and 40 other Nobel Laureates signed a declaration urging President George W. Bush not to act against Iraq if the U.S. lacked international support.

Lipscomb's varied interests extended beyond the lab. "I'm abnormally interested in chamber music," he said. "I'm a good clarinetist." He frequently attended music camp and played in three or four concerts a year. And colleagues noted that it wasn't unusual to find Lipscomb practicing the clarinet in the lab while waiting for the latest experimental data.

He is survived by his wife, Jean, three children, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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