Harvard Chemist, Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb Dies At 91

The colorful Harvard University chemist William Lipscomb has died at the age of 91 in a Cambridge hospital. His family says he died from pneumonia and other complications from a fall.

Born William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., he grew up in Kentucky. He was 11 years old when his mother gave him a chemistry set.

In an interview with the Nobel Prize website in 2001, Lipscomb remembered how he’d go to the drugstore to buy more chemicals for experiments.

"And I had some very dangerous ones, that you cannot buy now because of the regulations," Lipscomb said laughing. "I did all my experiments at home."

Sometimes those created a chemical stink that sent his sisters running from the house. At home, he also read every Sherlock Holmes book he could get his hands on. He was a whip on the clarinet, and even went to college on a music scholarship.

But science was the music of his mind, and Lipscomb eventually studied under Linus Pauling, who’d go on to win two Nobel prizes, one for chemistry and the other for peace. Lipscomb learned from that chemistry giant to do exciting work.

"It’s not a disgrace in science to publish something that’s wrong," Lipscomb recalled in his interview. "What is bad is to publish something that’s not very interesting."

That may be why the once fearless boy tinkerer went after an explosive group of chemicals that other scientists had shunned: boron hydrides. Lipscomb used X-ray diffraction to help determine their structure, the same technology that sped the discovery of DNA’s double helix. Lipscomb’s research was important in understanding how complex chemicals bond, especially under extreme cold temperatures.

But many of his students and colleagues remember him for his simplicity.

"Bill would even quote Sherlock Holmes in some of his papers," remembers Marc Abrahams, who worked with Lipscomb putting on the goofy Nobel Prize spoof "Ig Nobel" award show.

Tall and lanky, Lipscomb trademark was a string tie, like that other Kentuckian, Colonel Sanders.

"He would look like an ancient, befuddled professor," Abrahams recalled, "who had no idea where he was or maybe who he was."

It was all a funny act, though, from a guy who cared less about appearances and more about experimenting.

"He was not afraid to try things," Abrahams said. "And Sherlock Holmes in a way was a great guide for him."

Abrahams says the same way that detective would plunge himself into situations to solve mysteries, Bill Lipscomb did that with his science.

He even encouraged his researchers to leave his laboratory if they had other interests they were more passionate about. Of his doctoral students, three went on to win Nobel Prizes, too.

This program aired on April 16, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live