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Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist Dies At 91


The colorful Harvard University chemist Bill Lipscomb has died at the age of 91. He won a Nobel Prize for his work in helping people understand the nature of chemical bonds.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch has this remembrance.

CURT NICKISCH: William Nunn Lipscomb, Jr. was a Kentucky boy. He was 11 years old when his mother gave him a chemistry set. Lipscomb remembered how hed go to the drugstore to buy more chemicals for experiments, in this interview 10 years ago with the Nobel Prize website.

Professor WILLIAM LIPSCOMB (Nobel Laureate, Chemistry, Harvard University): I had some very dangerous ones that you cannot buy now because of the regulations. I did all my experiments at home.

NICKISCH: Sometimes creating a chemical stink that sent his sisters running out of 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, whod go on to win two Nobel Prizes. Lipscomb learned from that chemistry giant to do bold work.

Prof. LIPSCOMB: Its not a disgrace in science to publish something thats wrong. What is bad is to publish something thats not very interesting.

NICKISCH: 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 DNAs double helix. Lipscombs research was important in understanding how complex chemicals bond.

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

Mr. MARC ABRAHAMS (Founder, Ig Nobel Prizes): Bill even would quote "Sherlock Holmes" in some of his scientific papers.

NICKISCH: Marc Abrahams remembers how funny Lipscomb was. Tall and lanky, his trademark was a string tie, like that other Kentuckian, Colonel Sanders.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: He would look like an ancient, befuddled professor, who had no idea where he was or maybe who he was.

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

Mr. ABRAHAMS: He was not afraid to try things. And "Sherlock Holmes" in a way was a great guide for him.

NICKISCH: 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.

For NPR News, Im Curt Nickisch, in Boston.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Curt Nickisch