William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011April 16th, 2011
I was sad to learn that Bill Lipscomb died Thursday at Mount Auburn Hospital near Harvard. Obituaries have already been posted by the NY Times, LA Times, and Boston Globe. Lipscomb is probably best known for his Nobel Prize-winning work on the structure of boranes, but he did a ton of other stuff, too (as CW points out in a nice tribute post).
One of my strongest memories at Harvard was regularly running into Professor Lipscomb as he was arriving at the department. You could really appreciate how much Lipscomb loved chemistry and his work when you’d see this thin man in his late 80s saunter down Oxford Street on foot and swipe into the building on the weekend, when most professors were nowhere to be seen.
In the front lobby of the chemistry department at Harvard, there is a display case with portraits of all the professors. You can’t miss them—the case is right next to the $10k periodic table. I can recall waiting in the lobby one evening for a group of us to assemble for a trip to Redbones (BBQ). To pass the time, we were admiring the portraits and discussing how out-of-date most of them were. Professor Lipscomb’s was at least twenty years old and he looked particularly intense. My friend Chris looked at Lipscomb’s picture and said, “You can see the fire in his eyes.” You could, and while Lipscomb’s eyes had softened since then, he was obviously still excited about coming to work.
Lipscomb was probably also the nicest guy in the building. He once saw me walking down the access road to Mallinckrodt and held the door for a good minute as I took my sweet time hobbling in. I am proud to be able to claim that we both got our hair cut by Fred the Barber at the Central Barber Shop on Mass. Ave. One time, after Lipscomb had just left the shop, Fred turned around and announced to the room, “Did you know that guy won the Nobel Prize?”
I guess people expect Nobel Prize winners to be arrogant and pompous?
Lipscomb was never that.