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Chemistry Prof. Passes Away at 91

By Kendra F. Rosario, Crimson Staff Writer

Professor William N. Lipscomb Jr., a Nobel Laureate in chemistry who taught at Harvard for over 50 years, has passed away at the age 91, due to complications from a fall and pneumonia.

Lipscomb was known as many things: family man, mentor, tennis enthusiast, teacher, and jokester—but above all he will be remembered as a scientist.

In the course of his half-century-long research career, Lipscomb worked in rocketry for the War Department during World War II, made discoveries about glucose production that have helped in the treatment of diabetes, and studied the structure of boron-hydrogen compounds known as “boranes.”

Lipscomb won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the borane research.

Lipscomb’s passion for science was evident at an early age. According to an obituary in the Boston Globe, Lipscomb had such an inquisitive scientific mind that he was permitted to work independently on his own experiments in his high school chemistry class.

“Like everybody else, he got older,” said Chemistry Professor Richard H. Holm, a colleague and teaching partner of Lipscomb. “Yet his passion for understanding things and his passion for chemical science never abated ... He was a real scientist. He was interested in questions and answers, and I thought he was inspiring.”

Early in his career, Lipscomb pursued multiple passions, attending the University of Kentucky on a musical scholarship for the clarinet.

But under the eye of mentor Linus Pauling—himself a Nobel Prize winner—Lipscomb began to focus on chemistry.

In turn, Lipscomb later served as a mentor for many young scientists, and three chemistry Nobel Laureates ultimately emerged from his classes and labs: Roald Hoffmann, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada Yonath.

Lipscomb served a Professor Emeritus at Harvard for more than two decades. He leaves behind his wife, three children, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Through his students, his family, and his discoveries, Lipscomb’s legacy will continue to positively impact his scientific field—and the community at large—for many years to come, professors said.

“Bill was a treasure, both to our department, and to the world,” fellow Harvard Chemistry Professor David R. Liu said. “He was not only a model scientist who revolutionized his field ... but also a warm and humorous colleague who remained eager to contribute to our community over many decades. He will be missed.”

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