William Lipscomb, 1919-2011

Bill Lipscomb speaking at the 1995 Pauling memorial symposium, Oregon State University.

When I was growing up and learning science and all through my undergraduate days, I thought the worst thing you could possibly do is publish something that is wrong. It turns out that’s not right. Linus taught me that. It is much worse to work on something that is dull.

– Bill Lipscomb, November 1991.

William N. Lipscomb, Jr. a Nobel laureate with close ties to Linus Pauling, died last month at the age of 91. Several obituaries and remembrances are available online, published by sources as diverse as Chemical & Engineering News, National Public Radio and Harvard University, where he worked for over fifty years.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in Kentucky, Lipscomb conducted his undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky, which he attended on a music scholarship. In his own words,

I read Dushman’s Quantum Mechanics in my spare time and completed requirements for majors in both Chemistry and Physics. An appointment to graduate study in Physics at Caltech, at $20 per month, allowed me to refuse Northwestern’s offer of $150 as research assistant, and also allowed me to come to terms with a nice letter from Harold Urey rejecting my application to Columbia University.

Lipscomb initially planned to study quantum mechanics at Caltech under the direction of William V. Houston. His path changed, however, upon his first encounters with Linus Pauling.  Lipscomb recalled

I would sit in seminars and Linus Pauling would make comments afterwards, and they were comments that I was thinking about too, pretty much the same, and I decided to switch to chemistry after my first semester. And I went in to see him and he was a little surprised and looked at my record and said very good record, except there was a C in economics. He says, ‘I got an A in economics.’ And I said, ‘yeah, but I didn’t go to the classes at all.’

As a graduate student working under Pauling, Lipscomb conducted research on structural chemistry and also participated in the Institute’s vast program of scientific war work. Following the completion of his time in Pasadena, Lipscomb moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he began investigations into the structure and property of boranes – a program of research which would eventually lead to Lipscomb’s receipt of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

It turns out that there was a strong Pauling connection to this research as well. A New York Times feature following the Nobel announcement put it this way.

When William N. Lipscomb was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, he heard a professor propose a theory of chemical bonding in certain boron compounds. Something about the theory did not seem right, and he set out to prove his professor wrong. In so doing, he won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The professor was Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate and a strong influence on the career of Dr. Lipscomb. In fact, he used a research technique taught him by Dr. Pauling to identify and study the structure of boranes, the complex compounds combining the element boron with hydrogen.

Time magazine described Lipscomb’s breakthrough in these terms.

He discovered that boranes…were bonded differently from other chemicals. That discovery led to his finding that borane molecules were polyhedral, or many sided, and to a new understanding of how a host of new chemical compounds could be constructed.

Pauling was quite fond of Lipscomb and often wrote glowing recommendations on his behalf. A 1950 letter describes Lipscomb as “thoroughly competent” and “extraordinarily likable.” A year later Pauling upped the ante a bit, using the phrase “one of the most able physical chemists in the country” blessed with “an unusually fine personality.” By 1952 Lipscomb was “one of the leading crystal structure workers in the country – he may be the best one of his age,” and by 1979 Pauling had given his full support to Lipscomb’s nomination for the National Medal of Science.


Lipscomb at a Stanford University symposium honoring Linus Pauling, March 1994.

Lipscomb is as many faceted as his molecules; he is a tennis buff, plays a clarinet in local chamber orchestras, and is a genuine Kentucky colonel. His own concern about his Nobel: ‘I’m afraid everyone will think I’m finished, but I still have so much more to do.’

Time magazine, November 1976.

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections contain a number of resources related to Lipscomb, including a large correspondence file with Pauling and a lengthy interview conducted by Thomas Hager for use in his Pauling biography, Force of Nature. Lipscomb also spoke at the Pauling memorial symposium hosted by OSU in early 1995. Below are Lipscomb’s thoughts on a number of Pauling-related topics, as extracted from these resources.

On their working relationship

I was always doing some outlandish thing, and he would correct me, but that is the way it worked with Linus; he would come in once every two months, or three months, and ask what you have been doing, and suddenly he would toss up five ideas that you haven’t thought of, that would keep you busy for the next five months. And he’d leave you alone, which was the best thing in the world for me. Being left alone, and left with good ideas.

On Pauling the teacher

One of the most interesting things about those five years [1941-1946], is that Linus continued to lecture and gave only one course. It was his chemical bond course, and you could listen to it year after year, because every year, the lectures were different…. The first third of the lecture someone off the street could understand. The next third was what every graduate student could understand, and the last third was the research socket, which was new…. Also on seminars, when he would listen to a seminar, he would wait until everybody was finished asking questions. Then he would ask the best questions of anybody. A marvelous teaching method but, I regarded him as one of the finest teachers in the world.

On Vitamin C

You have to remember that sometimes Linus exaggerates his case. And if he takes twenty grams of vitamin C, well, I believe him, I take three; something like that. I think that is a good way to put it. Dorothy Hodgkin said that the best indication that Linus’s vitamin therapy…is right is his age and activity. I mean you can’t disbelieve that.

[But] one case doesn’t prove anything. He has one good solid point going for him, and that is most mammals don’t make…vitamin C – for 5 million years [they] didn’t need it because they ate so much fruit, and it is only in the last forty-thousand years since civilization that we really need it. And I think that the gene might have been lost much earlier in evolution if it hadn’t been needed. So, he translates what other animals make into humans and comes out with some large number of grams a day of vitamin C. He is probably right. There are hazards associated with it; I think that when people really look carefully, and they are beginning to look carefully, they will find that it won’t cure a common cold, and it won’t cure cancer, but it may help to alleviate symptoms, and help to scavenge free radicles that start cancer; it may be that statistically people will live longer than they have after taking some large dosage of vitamin C, provided they don’t generate kidney stones or gall. You know, you have to do some selection, or some careful testing before prescription.

On Pauling away from work

Pauling also was interested in reviewing books. He used to read review books, novels, things like that. We’d come in and he’d have a stack of books this high, and said he’d read them over the weekend. He is very, very good about reading. And he used to build chairs and furniture just as relaxation.

On Pauling the showman

At my request, Pauling visited the University of Minnesota in about 1952. In the middle of his lecture he stopped suddenly and began banging the doors of the lecture desk, asking, ‘Bill, don’t you have any structure models here?’ He found it:  a model of the new alpha-helix that he had placed there earlier in the day so that he could put on this moment of performance.

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