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William N. Lipscomb dies at 91; won Nobel Prize in chemistry

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William N. Lipscomb, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for studies that were the first to explain the chemistry of the element boron and, in particular, those exotic combinations of boron and hydrogen called boranes, has died. He was 91.

Lipscomb died Thursday at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., from pneumonia and other complications of a fall he suffered several weeks earlier, his family said.

"The dominant personal characteristics of Professor Lipscomb have been an unfailing scientific imagination, a refusal to accept the limitations imposed by current dogma, an ability to perceive relationships often missed by others, and above all, a delight in the intellectual challenge of uncovering scientific truth," wrote his former student, Russell N. Grimes of the University of Virginia, in an appreciation in the journal Science.

When Lipscomb began his studies in the 1940s, boron was considered a relatively uninteresting atom. Although it resides right next to carbon on the periodic table of the elements, researchers knew of few natural compounds containing it and professed little interest in it. Lipscomb was puzzled by a lecture of his mentor, Linus Pauling, in which Pauling proposed a theory of chemical bonding for boron that did not seem correct. Lipscomb set out to prove him wrong.

Boron belongs to a family of atoms that researchers call electron-deficient — that is, they don't have enough free electrons to form the same types of bonds as carbon does. But no one could deduce how they did bond.

Moreover, most boron-containing compounds that could be produced in the laboratory, such as the boranes, were highly unstable, even explosive at room temperatures.

Lipscomb pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study the structures of boranes at low temperatures, something that had not been achieved before. In 1951, he made his first key discovery. In the conventional mode of bonding, such as in hydrocarbons, each hydrogen atom shares two electrons with the carbon atom it is joined to.

In boranes, however, two boron atoms are linked together by a hydrogen atom sitting between them, the three atoms sharing two electrons. The structures, he wrote, "looked like a geometer's dream." Three boron atoms could be linked in the same fashion.

In his 1954 paper reporting the results, Lipscomb and his co-workers Bryce Crawford Jr. and W. H. Eberhardt wrote, "We have even ventured a few predictions, knowing that if we must join the ranks of boron hydride predictors later proved wrong, we shall be in the best of company." They were not proved wrong.

He and his colleagues went on to elucidate the chemistry of boron compounds, using sophisticated quantum mechanical calculations to describe the structure of molecules and to predict how they would react chemically. His work led to the synthesis of a variety of boron-containing compounds that have myriad uses, especially in the synthesis of complicated organic molecules that do not contain it. Boron compounds are also used for reinforcing lightweight structural materials.

In later years, he worked on a variety of biochemical problems, particularly the determination of the structures of proteins.

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., affectionately called "Colonel" by his friends because of his Kentucky heritage, was born Dec. 9, 1919, in Cleveland, but the family moved to Lexington, Ky., the following year. His father was a prosperous physician who lost his career and livelihood when young William's sister Helen contracted polio at age 17. No one would take their child to a doctor from the house of polio.

Interested in chemistry at an early age, Lipscomb assembled a laboratory in his bedroom, making homemade fireworks, stink bombs and a host of other materials. Upon his graduation from high school, he donated the lab equipment to the school, more than doubling the campus' equipment.

Because of the family's reduced circumstances, he attended the inexpensive University of Kentucky on a clarinet scholarship. He graduated in 1941 and hitchhiked to Los Angeles to enroll in graduate school in physics at Caltech, switching to physical chemistry after a year.

During the war years, he worked for the War Department's Office of Scientific Research and Development during the day and on his doctoral research at night. Some of that research involved analyzing the size of smoke particles with the hope that defense forces "could cloud up Los Angeles so the Japanese could not find it to bomb it." He also studied the burning rates of nitroglycerine-nitrocellulose propellants.

His doctoral thesis was locked in a safe, and nobody could find it for years because the war-related projects were classified.

Graduating in 1946, he taught at the University of Minnesota until he moved to Harvard University in 1959, spending the rest of his career there.

A skilled clarinetist who often played in chamber music groups, Lipscomb was also a tennis enthusiast and practical joker. At mealtimes, he thought it funny to steal butter off other people's butter knives and was known to remove the fruit from walnuts and glue the shells back together before offering them to guests.

Lipscomb and his first wife, the former Mary Adele Sargent, divorced in 1983. She died in 2007. He is survived by his second wife, the former Jean Evans, whom he married in 1983; two daughters, Dorothy Wright of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Jenna Lipscomb of Cambridge, Mass.; a son, James, of Yorktown Heights, N.Y.; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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