Boston Blog

Remembering the Colonel: William Lipscomb as chemist, musician and friend

The grand pipe organ in Harvard’s Memorial Church gave way to a clarinet, piano and strings as friends gathered Saturday to remember musician and Nobel Prize winner Bill Lipscomb.

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., who died on April 14, was also known to some as “The Colonel,” a reference to his Kentucky roots. He won the chemistry prize in 1976 for his basic research mapping chemicals, in particular, the structure of boranes — compounds of boron and hydrogen.

After a wistful rendition of Scott Joplin “Solace: A Mexican Serenade,” friend and fellow Nobelist Dudley Herschbach introduced speakers. All remembered Lipscomb as some combination of colleague, teacher, musician and friend.

Fellow chemist E.J Corey remembered regular trips to professional meetings, where he and Lipscomb talked across the aisle for entire flights. One time, he said, a passenger commented on how nice it was to overhear such committed high school science teachers.

Not quite, but Lipscomb was a teacher, one who had “an enthusiasm that was transmitted naturally to his students,” Corey said.

One was Eric Gouaux, a grad student from 1984 to 1989. Speaking next, he said it was never “professor” or “doctor” or" William" or “Bill.” Students always referred to Lipscomb as the Colonel.

And, the Colonel’s advice to them was:“Make mistakes — quickly — and then move on.”

Gouaux said when it was time to leave Harvard, Lipscomb “trusted us more than we trusted ourselves and in doing so gave us the strength to succeed.”

Lipscomb was remembered as a clarinetist, by both the speakers and the musicians. They played Finzi, Brahms and Mozart. He was a “riffster” who went to University of Kentucky on a music scholarship and played with Dizzy Gillespie.

He was the first chemist after four generations of MD’s in his family. Although Corey said that Lipscomb “knew so much about so many things,” the Colonel himself said otherwise during his Nobel banquet speech.

“The award this year of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for research in pure inorganic chemistry is an important event. It is a reminder that we know even now considerably less about most of the chemical elements than we know of the chemistry of carbon or the chemistry of processes underlying life itself.”

And, he was a good sport, a regular representative of the Nobels at each year’s Ig Nobels. (He once dressed as a beer bottle.) Marc Abrahams, keeper of the annual, riotous Nobel spoof, quoted from his interview with Lipscomb. (Click here for a special Lipscomb issue of The Annals of Improbable Research.)

After the event, Abrahams shared a Lipscomb story:

“Years ago he and Jean (his wife) were at a dinner in Germany, and Bill found himself seated next to the widow of Werner Heisenberg, the man who had devised the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. She introduced herself to Bill, explaining that she was Mrs. Heisenberg. Bill paused just a beat, and replied ‘Are you SURE?’”

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