BOSTON — A Nobel Prize-winning chemist who grew up in Lexington and graduated from the University of Kentucky died in a Massachusetts hospital Thursday night. He was 91.
William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., a Harvard University professor, won the Nobel chemistry prize in 1976 for his work on man-made compounds consisting of boron and hydrogen and the problems of chemical bonding.
Lipscomb died at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., of pneumonia and complications from a fall, said his son, James Lipscomb.
Born in Ohio, William Lipscomb Jr. grew up on Fincastle Road in Lexington, where he received his first chemistry set as a gift when he was 11. Soon he created a full-blown laboratory in his bedroom, and by the time he enrolled at Lexington's Picadome High School, he was already a gifted chemist.
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His teacher, who recognized Lipscomb's talent, allowed him to skip regular classes to work on a science research paper "as long as he turned up for the exams," James Lipscomb said.
When the future Nobel Prize winner took his final exam, he got a C, in part because he hadn't memorized the first 10 elements of the periodic table.
"He said, 'I thought that was silly. I could just look it up, so I didn't do it,'" James Lipscomb said.
William Lipscomb Jr. studied at UK, where his father, William Nunn Lipscomb Sr., was a physician and faculty member. William Lipscomb Jr. received his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1941, then hitchhiked to California, where he received his doctorate in 1946 at the California Institute of Technology, his family said.
Two of Lipscomb's graduate students and a third who spent time at his lab have won Nobels. Yale University professor Thomas Steitz, who shared the 2009 chemistry prize, said Lipscomb was an inspiring teacher who encouraged creative thinking.
Lipscomb served for four years in the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. He got a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology under the direction of Linus Pauling, the only person to win two individual Nobels (chemistry in 1954 and peace in 1962).
Lipscomb taught at the University of Minnesota for about 13 years before moving to Harvard, where he taught until he reached the school's mandatory retirement age of 70.
Students affectionately referred to him as "Colonel," in part a reference to his upbringing.
"The other reason he was called the Colonel was because at Harvard at that time all the faculty were referred to as Dr. So-and-So or Prof. So-and-So ... and I think he didn't want to be called that and nobody called them by their first names — so we couldn't call him Bill — but the Colonel was sort of different, and so he could have this informal name," Steitz said.
Then-Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford granted Lipscomb a commission of a Kentucky Colonel in 1973.
Lipscomb encouraged students not to fear the risk of exploring solutions to scientific problems, Steitz told the AP.
"He got me into working on the crystal structures of macro molecules — that was the general area in which I received the Nobel Prize in chemistry," Steitz said.
Another student was Israel's Ada E. Yonath, who shared the 2009 chemistry prize with Steitz. Yonath was a postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she spent some time in Lipscomb's lab at Harvard and was inspired to pursue studies that eventually led to the award.
Lipscomb had little quirks, including a penchant to wear a Kentucky string tie at formal events, instead of a regular tie, former students and relatives recalled.
He had a keen sense of humor and never shied away from making jokes at his own expense. That included acting in a humorous opera to help honor the strange and comical side of science at the Ig Nobels ceremony. The annual event regularly featured Lipscomb and other Nobel Laureates handing out the Ig Nobels, awards given out by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine for unusual and imaginative scientific discovery.
Lipscomb wrote in an autobiographical sketch in "Structures and Mechanisms: From Ashes to Enzymes (Acs Symposium Series,)" authored by Gareth R. Eaton, Don C. Wiley and Oleg Jardetzky Gilbert, about how as a boy he expanded his chemistry set partly by ordering apparatuses and chemicals from suppliers and partly by using his father's privilege to purchase chemicals at the local drugstore at a discount.
"Of course, I made my own fireworks, and entertained both willing and unwilling visitors with spectacular color changes, vile odors, and explosions with pure hydrogen and oxygen," Lipscomb wrote.
"My tolerant, but concerned mother raised questions only once, when I attempted to isolate a large amount of urea from the natural product."
Lipscomb remained hungry for big advances in science throughout his career.
His lab made some of the earliest advances in discovering the structures of large proteins and other complex molecules, including the anticancer agent vincristine.
"This was at the very beginning of understanding how enzymes worked in terms of their structures," Steitz said. "That was in a year when nothing was known about how enzymes worked in three-dimensional chemistry, and this was one of the early pivotal structures — one of the first three."
He continued: "I remember Lipscomb saying to me when I was in the lab that, 'Linus Pauling told me that if you never make a mistake, you will never make an important discovery — not that you would want to make a lot of mistakes, but the point is if you want to be in the cutting edge of science you occasionally have to get it wrong and, of course, you have to get it right.'"
Lipscomb is survived by his wife and three children. He wanted no funeral service.