William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011

April 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  To pass the time, we were admiring the portraits and discussing how out-of-date most of them were.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.


8 Responses to “William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011”

  1. Paul Says:

    Lipscomb was also in a core group of great chemists from Kentucky (of all places): Lipscomb, Whitesides, Gray, and Grubbs. Oddly, all four also have a strong connection to Caltech.

  2. Mike Says:

    Just got my hair cut by Fred today! He’s slipping a bit, I’m afraid.
    Sad about Lipscomb — but you couldn’t think of a better guy to be blessed with such a long and healthy life.

  3. James Says:

    My memory of Lipscomb was of him dressed as a chicken (with the other Nobelists) on stage at the 2007 Ignobels. Great sense of humor.

  4. Michael O'Hare Says:

    My 2c
    http://www.samefacts.com/2011/04/science-and-its-methods/william-n-lipscomb-1920-2011/

  5. psi*psi Says:

    Hey now, Paul. Kentucky is a pretty awesome place to grow up (depending on where you are)…

    I’m hoping Galen Stucky gets his Nobel soon so we can add another to the “not arrogant and pompous” column.

  6. NMH Says:

    Oh no, first F. Gordon A. Stone, now Lipscomb

    http://www.bris.ac.uk/news/2011/7593.html

  7. Wolfie Says:

    I don’t know what I would say if William A. Little had died.

  8. Macdrifter » Blog Archive » Old School Passion Says:

    […] the romanticism is giving way to a new reality. William Lipscomb passed away last week and I think this tribute is fitting. You can sum up the old traditions of chemistry in this single quote: “You can see the […]


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