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Introduction and conclusion to a lecture by William Lipscomb at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Herb Beall, 1976

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Distinguished guests, students and faculty:

One of my functions at WPI, and, in fact, one of the most pleasant of these is to provide introductions for Professor W. N. Lipscomb's seminars, or should I say performances, here. It is now a year and a half since I last discharged this office and I trust that many of you recall the magnificent colloquium Professor Lipscomb delivered in May of 1975 on hydrolytic enzymes. I will next introduce him this evening at Higgins House when he is made an honorary member of Phi Lambda Upsilon. Fortunately, there is always plenty to say about Professor Lipscomb.

The year and a half which has elapsed since he last spoke in this room have not been uneventful for Professor Lipscomb. His tremendous research output in chemistry and biochemistry has continued and in his role as a virtuoso clarinetist he has per- formed in at least four concerts. Most exciting, of course, is his very recent receipt of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his structural and theoretical studies of boranes. During the period when I was a student it was not unknown for graduate students occasionally to feel oppressed by their professor It was, perhaps, in such a mood that I mentally recorded the following conversation of Professor Lipscomb and, perhaps, my paraphrase is not completely accurate. I am recalling Professor Lipscomb's remark after he had learned that one of his graduate students had wasted a considerable amount of time and money on a fruitless series of calculations. "If when I give you a choice", said Professor Lipscomb to the student, "you fail to take the alternative which I want, I will not give you choices any more."

There are many subjects on which it would be enjoyable to hear Professor Lipscomb speak: experimental boron chemistry, theoretical chemistry, biochemistry. I would also be more than content to hear him perform in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or hear him discourse on strategies of winning tennis. This afternoon we will be privileged to hear Professor Lipscomb speak about biochemistry, on the Structures and Regulatory Processes in Aspartate Transcarbamylase. It is a privilege to welcome him again to this podium.

Herb Beall, with best wishes


To anyone who has watched the television or read the newspapers during the past several weeks, Professor Lipscomb has become a familiar face. It is now common knowledge that he wears a bow tie and works in an office cluttered with stick models of boranes. Today every informed school student is familiar with his scientific career from the generation of noxious vapors with which to irritate his sisters as a youth to the elegant structural and bonding studies of the geometrically fascinating but often also noxious boranes which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize.

This evening I would prefer to complement rather than compete with the vast resources for gathering and disseminating information of the newspapers and television. Instead of dwelling on his scientific accomplishments which are already familiar to you, I will discuss other areas of achievement which I find intriguing and hope that you will also. This evening I would like to discuss W. N. Lipscomb the musician and W. N. Lipscomb the repairer of clocks.

During his first year in high school Professor Lipscomb aspired to play the oboe. However, the school bandmaster being already surfeited with players of that particularly pungent instrument directed him instead to a more mellow reed, the clarinet, and gave such instruction as the compass of his own knowledge and the fingering chart would allow. Such an unprepossessing beginning is common enough to many a short-lived musical career but Professor Lipscomb proved to be exceptional in music as in science. He proceeded to receive the highest ranking in the Kentucky state competition and was awarded a scholarship in music at the University of Kentucky. He has been principal clarinetist with the Pasadena Civic Orchestra and the Minneapolis Civic Orchestra and was one of the founders of the New Friends of Chamber Music in Minneapolis. While in Minneapolis he was the soloist in a performance of the Mozart clarinet concerto in A and performed in the Bartok Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano on television.

He has continued to remain active in musical performance since his arrival at Harvard in 1959. Boston area appearances include the Gardener Museum in 1965, the Austrian American Association in 1970, Northeastern University and Mather House of Harvard in 1972, both Kirkland and Currier Houses of Harvard in 1973, the Crescendo Club of Boston and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in 1974, and the All Newton Music School and the Longfellow House Concert Series in 1975.

Outside of the Boston area he has performed at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1966, Beloit College in 1968, Lexington, Kentucky, in 1974, and has made annual appearances in Weston, Vermont, since 1965, including Mozart's Symphonic Concertante for four winds and orchestra about two months ago.

Discussion of W. N. Lipscomb the repairer of clocks must proceed in a somewhat lighter vein and I will give one example of his work in this area. Some years ago the hall clock in his laboratory at Harvard had been a source of continual annoyance to him by virtue of its consistently operating so as to give a time which was in variance with accepted standards by minus three minutes. When his tolerance for this behavior had worn thin and it appeared obvious that Professor Lipscomb's hard looks and unkind words toward the miscreant would not bring about reform, he decided on action. Unfortunately, the clock was of a primitive institutional type, the mechanism of which responded only to the impulses of the great master clock in University Hall and not to the hands of mortal man. Lesser beings would have surrendered and given themselves to the indignities of adding a correctional constant to the clock's time. I am proud to report that Professor Lipscomb did not so acquiesce. With the aid of properly chosen tools he neatly bent the minute hand of that clock so that the precisely correct time was displayed and until very recently this clock with its bent minute hand was seen on the laboratory wall as a monument to a victory by man over machine.

Professor Lipscomb's list of honors and awards covers pages as is to be expected. Somewhat unusual among these is an iron phosphate mineral which was named lipscombite in his honor by its discoverer, J. W. Gruner. Still in the future is the discovery of a mineral with the same structure except with the positions of positive and negative ions reversed which will then be called antilipscombite.

Today's lecture by Professor Lipscomb on enzymes demonstrated an important and very different realm of scientific research than that of boranes for which he won the Nobel Prize. Professor Lipscomb has excelled as a scholar, as a researcher, as a teacher and as a musician. We are privileged, indeed, to be able to honor a man who has achieved so much.

Citation by Herbert Beall    Herb

Publications with Lipscomb

Kaesz, H. D., Bau, R., Beall, H. A. and Lipscomb, W. N., "Rearrangements in the Icosahedral Carboranes," J. Am. Chem. Soc. 89, 4218-4220 (1967).

Beall, H. A. and Lipscomb, W. N., "Molecular and Crystal Structure of m-B10Br2H8C2H2," Inorg. Chem. 6, 874-879 (1967).

Beall, H. A. and Lipscomb, W. N., "A New Method for the Preparation of B6H10," Inorg. Chem. 3, 1783 (1964).

More Information

In Memoriam: Dr. Herbert Beall.




This was a public speech.  Reprinted here with permission from William Lipscomb.

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