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William N. Lipscomb | 1919-2011

Nobel laureate and Harvard professor dead at 91

William N. Lipscomb researched boranes. William N. Lipscomb researched boranes.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 16, 2011

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William N. Lipscomb, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard who won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, died Thursday at Mount Auburn Hospital. He was 91.

According to his daughter-in-law, Margaret Lipscomb, the cause of death was pneumonia and other complications of a fall.

Dr. Lipscomb received the Nobel for his research on boranes, a group of compounds of hydrogen and boron. There are numerous boranes, but for many years their structure was unknown to scientists, as their physical properties (boranes are unstable, explosive, and toxic) rendered their study too difficult.

Using X-ray diffraction and quantum mechanical calculations, Dr. Lipscomb was able to identify the compounds’ bonding mechanisms. In doing so, he not only vastly expanded what was known about boranes’ molecular properties, but he also offered new insights into the workings of chemical bonding generally.

Dr. Lipscomb’s borane research had practical applications. Boranes must be studied at very low temperatures. His discoveries greatly furthered knowledge of how complex molecules bond at very low temperatures, such as those found in outer space.

“Lipscomb has tackled the problems on a broad front,’’ the Swedish Academy said in its prize citation, “working in a little known field that is difficult to penetrate, and he has been the leading figure in the advances made there.’’

“The problem is how do molecules react,’’ Dr. Lipscomb said in a 2001 interview with the Nobel e-Museum. “Because if you want to transform a molecule into something useful or something you’re interested in, it helps a lot to understand the structure. That means you can explore much more complicated systems, much more complicated reactions.’’

Dr. Lipscomb’s chemical research was not restricted to boranes. His studies of how complex protein molecules interact in the human body resulted in valuable findings for diabetes researchers on glucose production.

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr. was born in Cleveland. His father was a physician. His mother, Edna Patterson (Porter) Lipscomb, taught voice.

The Lipscombs, who moved to Kentucky when Dr. Lipscomb was 1, were musical. Dr. Lipscomb’s sister was a composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger. Dr. Lipscomb, a classical clarinetist, went to the University of Kentucky on a music scholarship and played chamber music throughout his life.

“There’s a lot of music in my life,’’ Dr. Lipscomb told the Nobel e-Museum, “and I found it a very important part of my life. Sometimes I get too wound up in my chemistry, but if you play chamber music, it’s impossible to think about chemistry.’’

Even with his music scholarship, Dr. Lipscomb majored in chemistry and physics. He had become interested in science when his mother gave him a chemistry set when he was 11.

By the time he took chemistry in high school, he was so knowledgeable his teacher told him he could sit in the back of the classroom and do his own experiments, though he would have to take the final examination.

“The experiments I did [at home] were mainly color changes and creating bad smells,’’ Dr. Lipscomb said in a 2002 interview with The Bangkok Post, when he was a visiting professor at Thailand’s Mahidol University. “I made my own fireworks, too!’’

His daughter-in-law said in a telephone interview that after Dr. Lipscomb graduated from high school, he donated his chemistry set to his alma mater, which doubled the size of the school’s chemistry equipment.

Dr. Lipscomb entered the California Institute of Technology in 1941, the year he earned his bachelor of science degree. He hitchhiked from Kentucky to Pasadena.

Intending to study physics, he switched to chemistry under the influence of Linus Pauling, a future chemistry Nobelist.

“I learned from Linus Pauling,’’ Dr. Lipscomb said in his e-Nobel interview, “it’s not a disgrace in science to publish something that’s wrong. What’s bad is to publish something that’s not very interesting. He once said to me: ‘It’s not what you can look up that counts. It’s what you really know.’ ’’

Dr. Lipscomb carried on the Nobel tradition he had, in a sense, inherited from Pauling. Three of his students — Roald Hoffmann, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada Yonath — went on to receive Nobels in chemistry.

During World War II, Dr. Lipscomb worked for the War Department’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, specializing in rocketry.

“I was carrying around beakers of pure nitroglycerine,’’ he said with a laugh in a 2002 interview with The Nation, a Thai weekly. “Obviously, I didn’t make mistakes, or I wouldn’t be here.’’

Dr. Lipscomb’s willingness to joke about his obliviousness to danger was characteristic.

A genial, unpretentious man, he regularly participated in the annual Ig Nobel Prizes ceremony at Harvard, with its spoof of more solemn goings-on in Stockholm.

After earning his doctorate at Caltech in 1946, Dr. Lipscomb taught at the University of Minnesota until 1959.

He came to Harvard that year. He took emeritus status in 1990.

“A scientist proceeds in making discoveries in very much the same way that an artist goes about working,’’ Dr. Lipscomb said in a 1981 US News & World Report interview.

“You have to master a large discipline, and your discoveries are not necessarily made by planning them. They arise intuitively. You suddenly perceive brand-new connections that you were unaware of before. Material somehow reorganizes itself in your mind, and that leads to the spawning of a new group of ideas.’’

In addition to his wife, Jean Craig Evans, he leaves two children, Dorothy Lipscomb Wright of Chapel Hill, N.C., and James Sargent of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., from his first marriage, to Mary Adele (Sargent) Lipscomb, which ended in divorce; another daughter, Jenna of Cambridge; a sister, Dorothy Virginia Conrad of Wooster, Ohio; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

He wanted no funeral.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.