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Important personalitiesBack

William Nunn Lipscomb, Jr.9.12.1919

Wikipedia (29 Jan 2014, 09:41)

William Nunn Lipscomb, Jr. (December 9, 1919 – April 14, 2011) was a Nobel Prize-winning American inorganic and organic chemist working in nuclear magnetic resonance, theoretical chemistry, boron chemistry, and biochemistry.


Lipscomb was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His family moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1920, and he lived there until he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at the University of Kentucky in 1941. He went on to earn his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1946.

From 1946 to 1959 he taught at the University of Minnesota. From 1959 to 1990 he was a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, where he was a professor emeritus since 1990.

Lipscomb was married to the former Mary Adele Sargent from 1944 to 1983. They had three children, one of whom lived only a few hours. He married Jean Evans in 1983. They had one adopted daughter.

Lipscomb resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death in 2011 from pneumonia.

Early years

"My early home environment ... stressed personal responsibility and self reliance. Independence was encouraged especially in the early years when my mother taught music and when my father's medical practice occupied most of his time."

In grade school Lipscomb collected animals, insects, pets, rocks, and minerals.

Interest in astronomy led him to visitor nights at the Observatory of the University of Kentucky, where Prof. H. H. Downing gave him a copy of Baker's Astronomy. Lipscomb credits gaining many intuitive physics concepts from this book and from his conversations with Downing, who became Lipscomb's lifelong friend.

The young Lipscomb participated in other projects, such as Morse-coded messages over wires and crystal radio sets, with five nearby friends who became physicists, physicians, and an engineer.

At age of 12, Lipscomb was given a small Gilbert chemistry set, He expanded it by ordering apparatus and chemicals from suppliers and by using his father's privilege as a physician to purchase chemicals at the local drugstore at a discount. Lipscomb made his own fireworks and entertained visitors with color changes, odors, and explosions. His mother questioned his home chemistry hobby only once, when he attempted to isolate a large amount of urea from urine.

Lipscomb credits perusing the large medical texts in his physician father's library and the influence of Linus Pauling years later to his undertaking biochemical studies in his later years. Had Lipscomb become a physician like his father, he would have been the fourth physician in a row along the Lipscomb male line.

The source for this subsection, except as noted, is Lipscomb's autobiographical sketch.


Lipscomb's high-school chemistry teacher, Frederick Jones, gave Lipscomb his college books on organic, analytical, and general chemistry, and asked only that Lipscomb take the examinations. During the class lectures, Lipscomb in the back of the classroom did research that he thought was original (but he later found was not): the preparation of hydrogen from sodium formate (or sodium oxalate) and sodium hydroxide. He took care to include gas analyses and to search for probable side reactions.

Lipscomb later had a high-school physics course and took first prize in the state contest on that subject. He also became very interested in special relativity.

In college at the University of Kentucky Lipscomb had a music scholarship. He pursued independent study there, reading Dushman' s Elements of Quantum Mechanics, the University of Pittsburgh Physics Staff's An Outline of Atomic Physics, and Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals. Prof. Robert H. Baker suggested that Lipscomb research the direct preparation of derivatives of alcohols from dilute aqueous solution without first separating the alcohol and water, which led to Lipscomb's first publication.

For graduate school Lipscomb chose Caltech, which offered him a teaching assistantship in Physics at $20/month. He turned down more money from Northwestern University, which offered a research assistantship at $150/month. Columbia University rejected Lipscomb's application in a letter written by Nobel prizewinner Prof. Harold Urey.

At Caltech Lipscomb intended to study theoretical quantum mechanics with Prof. W. V. Houston in the Physics Department, but after one semester switched to the Chemistry Department under the influence of Prof. Linus Pauling. World War II work divided Lipscomb's time in graduate school beyond his other thesis work, as he partly analyzed smoke particle size, but mostly worked with nitroglycerin-nitrocellulose propellants, which involved handling vials of pure nitroglycerin on many occasions. Brief audio clips by Lipscomb about his war work may be found from the External Links section at the bottom of this page, past the References.

The source for this subsection, except as noted, is Lipscomb's autobiographical sketch.

Later years

The Colonel is how Lipscomb's students referred to him, directly addressing him as Colonel. "His first doctoral student, Murray Vernon King, pinned the label on him, and it was quickly adopted by other students, who wanted to use an appellation that showed informal respect. ... Lipscomb's Kentucky origins as the rationale for the designation." Some years later in 1973 Lipscomb was made a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

Lipscomb, along with several other Nobel laureates, was a regular presenter at the annual Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony, last doing so on September 30, 2010.

" Beautiful moments of our lives."