William Lipscomb Home Page
Remembrances of William Lipscomb at a reception after the
Celebration of Life Service at Memorial Church, Harvard Yard,
Cambridge, MA, Sept. 10, 2011.
Tom Steitz (Nobel Prize, Chemistry, 2009) at the reception poses
in a cut-out
poster of William Lipscomb made from the photo below.
William Lipscomb in Japan holding his Kentucky Colonel card by a
statue of Colonel Sanders.
Photo © 1979 Jean C. Evans under a Creative
Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
(You are free to copy, distribute, etc. with attribution)
This is informal party chat, not polished, prepared
speeches. The spelling of some names is approximate.
- Richard Baguley. The only Nobel Prize winner that I have
spilled wine on.
- Brooks. Playing
blocks with the kids.
- Brian Conway. Sharing his knowledge of his butterflies with
the second-grade class.
- Roberta Gilbert. At the Ig Nobel performance he totally got
- D.C. Goodwin. Reading books to the kindergarten kids.
- Dudley Herschbach. Bill's courtesy a factor in bringing
Hershbach to Harvard.
- Marian Parry. Sugar is bad. (Bill avoided sucrose
in favor of glucose).
- Harriet Provine. Bill's many molecular models.
- Marjorie Stanischov. Taught piano by Bill's sister, Helen.
- Josie Stein. New Year's eve chamber music at the Stein's
- Tom Steitz. No appointment needed to see Bill.
- Joan and Tom Steitz. Bill matches Tom with his future wife.
- Naomi Stephen. Bill outmaneuvers the bra strap fastener.
- Peaco Todd. Bill makes a break for it in his walker.
1. Richard Baguley. The only Nobel
Prize winner that I have spilled wine on.
Vice President of Editorial Development at Reviewed.com, where he
develops new ways to torture gadgets such as digital cameras,
televisions, and many more.
"I know Bill through my work with the Ig Nobel Awards, and his
continuing support and presence for those excellent awards.
I didn’t know Bill that well, but I think the thing that really
sticks in mind for me is that he still remains the only Nobel
Prizewinner that I have spilled wine on. And I think really
he’ll always be the first."
Playing blocks with the kids.
"I know Bill, because … as Jenna’s father he would come
sometimes to our house and pick Jenna up when she would come to
play with Kaylith, and so for years we had these little video
tapes. I would take all these video tapes and they never
came back to me, and we never once watched them. … We didn’t
have the technology to watch them. … Our kids grew up
We recently hand them transcribed, and there’s video of
Bill. Jenna’s playing with Beyon and their tying GI Joe’s
upside down I think with blocks, and in the video you see these
long, tall legs walk in, and then slowly Bill sits down. And
there’s about fifteen minutes of them playing blocks
That’s how I know Bill, was just someone who was lovely and was,
as a young mother, with my son. He was much older than
me. It was always amazing that he had this young child and
yet he connected with anyone of all ages, so even as a young
mother he ended up being like our peer, so I just love how funny
I also remember him with his little hat and the twirly thing
whenever he was playing music. So Bill was amazing, one of a
3. Brian Conway. Sharing his
knowledge of his butterflies with the second-grade class.
"I know Bill through his daughter, Jenna, who my daughter was
classmates with, and I have a couple of stories. One:
Whenever there was some kind of unusual chemical reaction that I
had no idea …. how it transpired, like what made concrete, I’d ask
Bill, and he would sort of fill me in, and immediately after he
said it, everything slipped my mind, but it was an enjoyable
experience, him translating his knowledge down to this very
The other experience was that he would come into the second grade
class with his bow tie and his jacket on, and he would sit down
with his butterfly collection and share his knowledge of his
butterflies with the rest of the class, and t was really
enjoyable, and he was alway a very nice person to talk to, and I
really enjoyed it."
4. Roberta Gilbert. At the Ig
Nobel performance he totally got into it.
"I’m a singer, and I met Bill three or four years ago doing the Ig
Nobel, because I was part of the operas that Marc [Abrahams]
writes, and Bill was a participant in these things for the last
twenty years, and actually he knew more about it than I did.
One of the things that I discovered is that when we staged him
into some of our musical numbers, during the rehearsals he would
just sit where he needed to sit, but what I found out is that
during the performance he totally got into it, so if you give him
a broom, and you say “pretend to sweep the stage,” he will
actually sweep the stage, and you never knew what he was going to
do next, and he loved every minute of it.
The other memory I have is that I have been fortunate enough to
rehearse at their [Bill and Jean’s] house for the last few years,
and I sang for his 90th and 91st birthday parties, which was an
incredible honor, and I got to watch him do his string tie,
because we had a little video and a flip book, but he actually did
it, and he put the tie on and he said, “Oh ya, there’s not a
problem,” and he just tied it on his own with a big smile, and I
just really remember that."
5. D. C. Goodwin. Reading books to
the kindergarten kids.
"I know Bill, because our daughters, Jenna and Catherine, were in
school since kindergarten together, so I first met Bill when he
was sitting on the floor of the kindergarten classroom, reading
books to the kids.
But my favorite memory of him was one time when he came to our
house to pick up Jenna after a play-date of some kind, and our
house was kind of chaotic, and the girls were busy with a game or
show or something that they couldn’t leave, and so I asked him to
sit down, and keep himself busy until they were done, and so he
went through our pile of magazines, and I found him reading
Popular Science in our living room."
6. Dudley Herschbach. Bill's
courtesy a factor in bringing Hershbach to Harvard.
. Harvard chemistry professor. Nobel
Prize in Chemistry 1986.
"Let me tell you a serious one.
Bill was Chair when I was recruited from Berkeley to come back to
Harvard, and the call, the first, was a big, pleasant surprise but
one I didn’t expect to consider too seriously, because I was
perfectly happy at Berkeley. I had been there four years as
a junior faculty member.
So I went to the department chairman to tell him about this, and
then I was going to say, “Don’t worry. I’m going to stay at
Berkeley. I’m happy here.”
Before I could say a word, the chairman said, “Well, Lipscomb just
called me. He’s such a courteous fellow, he thought he
should tell me that [he was] making an offer to you, and in fact
he had already intimated this when we hired you in 1959 (four
years earlier), and that’s why we’ve treated you so well.”
Well, somehow or other that big surprise bottled me up, and I
didn’t blurt out saying, “Oh, don’t worry I’m going to stay
here.” And I suffered for three months. I would wake
up at 3:00 a.m. crying, because I loved Berkeley, I loved
Harvard. I had such regard for people and traditions at both
And one morning I woke up and knew the inner person had decided to
come to Harvard, and I think Bill’s courtesy, which is a trait you
surly have observed as well, actually was a significant facture.
So that’s a true story about Bill. Probably Jean [Evans]
wouldn’t know, because Bill wouldn’t actually have a way of
knowing this either."
7. Marian Parry. Sugar is bad.
(Bill avoided sucrose in favor of glucose).
"I’m a friend of Jean, and I’ve had visits with Bill, and Bill and
I found ourselves together in a doctor’s waiting room, and in the
course of that visit Bill told me what happens when a sugar
molecule gets into the liver and meets a liver molecule. It’s a
catastrophe. So I didn’t eat sugar for at least three days
8. Harriet Provine. Bill's many
"I’ve known him [Bill] primarily through Ig[Nobel]-related items,
put it that way, and one thing that hasn’t really come up during
the [Celebration of Life] Memorial has to do with his wonderful
models, and I just want to say that in clinical microbiology a lot
of it is visual, and so I very much appreciated his beautiful
models of various molecules and things, which are stashed away at
Harvard, and I think that’s another whole element of patience and
accuracy that should be commended."
9. Marjorie Stanischov. Taught
piano by Bill's sister, Helen.
"I grew up in Lexington, and Helen Lipscomb was my piano teacher,
and she was an absolutely marvelous teacher. She was in a
wheelchair. We had two pianos. I would play one, she
would play the other, and there was a large circle of us of the
high school students, who would gather in her home. We had
recitals there with her, and her mother [Edna] was so wonderful,
and that was the highlight of my high school.
And I knew she had a brother who was an up-and-coming chemist, and
then he went up and up and up and became very famous with the
Nobel Prize, and I wanted to meet him and to just say how I have
loved Helen, but I was afraid to, because I thought oh well, he’s
so busy and he’s a Nobel Prize winner, how can I just go up and
say, “Your sister was my piano teacher.” But then people I knew
who knew him said, “Oh no, you should, you should."
And then one day I went to the Ig Nobel Ceremony, and there he was
on stage with his clarinet and cracking jokes, and I thought, “He
won’t mind,” and so I wrote him a letter, and that’s how I got to
know Bill and Jean."
10. Josie Stein. New Year's eve
chamber music at the Stein's house.
"I am the daughter of Joseph Stein and Leise Stein, and our
families were very close, and the thing that we always did
together was to get together on new-year’s eve.
And we would play the Shubert Octet, the Beethoven Septet, maybe a
clarinet quintet, maybe we’d play some piano four-hands, bits and
pieces. The rule was that if you played chamber music you
didn’t have to do the dishes, so it was very easy, and when
midnight approached ...
Well of course the children were involved as well, so Sam or
Dorothy [Bill’s daughter] was playing the cello or the bass, and
Jim [Bill’s son] was playing the [French] horn, and we got in a
bassoon play from somewhere and just had a ball.
And when it came close to midnight, it was time to count down to
the new year, there was a great big cheer.
Bill was always right at the heart of all that, and we had a
wonderful time together."
11. Tom Steitz. No appointment
needed to see Bill.
This is a retelling
of a story
by Thomas Steitz in the 80th Birthday Letters
section of this website..
"I was just mentioning how it was I got into protein
crystallography. I had heard a lecture by Max Perutz, the
Dunham lectures. I thought, “Wow, that’s really neat.
I’d like to do that.” And I was playing tennis with one of
Bill’s graduate students, and I said, “Aw shucks, there’s nobody
here doing protein crystallography. I’d really like to do
it.” And he said, “Oh well, my Ph.D. advisor has just
started working on carboxypeptidase [A]."
So I nervously went up to talk to Bill, went to his office to
actually make an appointment, and his secretary wasn’t there, and
I’d already been turned down by two faulty members, so I was a
little unsure as to how this was going to go, and so I said, “I’d
like to make an appointment to see you,” And he said, “Ah,
just come in to my office.” I said, “Well, OK.” I
said, “Well, tell me what you’re doing,” and he told me about the
carboxypeptidase [A] project and said, “I’d really like to do
that. Can I join your lab?” and he said, “Sure. That’d
And that was it, and I was just amazed, and it was a terrific
12. Joan and Tom Steitz. Bill
matches Tom with his future wife.
This is a retelling
of a story
by Thomas Steitz in the 80th Birthday Letters
section of this website..
Joan: “I first met Bill in the early 1950s when he was at the
University of Minnesota, and he played in a chamber orchestra at
the Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, and I as a high-school
student played occasionally in the same orchestra. Years
later when I ended up as a graduate student at Harvard and
happened during my first year to wander into his lab, we looked at
each other and we said, “I know you,” and traced it back to the
fact that we had met each other in Minneapolis. Some time
after that (Tom didn’t tell you this?), you have to get the story
from Tom. Tom said he was weighing out something in the
hood, and the Colonel [Bill] came up behind him and said, “Can I
say something immoral?” or something like that. You have to
get the exact words from Tom, and he [Bill] suggested that Tom
invite me to come to a chamber music evening at his home, because
Christopher Longuet-Higgins a pianist and a scientist was visiting
from England, and that was our first date. We had met each
other because we were both in the same program, which was
biochemistry and molecular biology, which was the small, new
graduate program at Harvard at that point. Tom was a year
ahead of me. He was already in the Colonel’s lab, and that
was how we started dating. It’s history from there on, and
the Colonel was kind enough to offer to come to Minneapolis and
find a few of his former friends and play at our wedding, which
occurred a couple years later.”
Joan (to Tom): “When you were weighing out something or other?”
Tom: “I was weighing out some platinum teterachloride, and he
[Bill] came up behind me, and he said, “I hope you don’t consider
Joan: “No “immoral”.”
Tom: “Maybe he said “immoral.”, ya maybe he said that.”
Joan: “You’ve always told it that way.”
Tom: “Ya, I think he did say “immoral,” and ah, er, I turned
around and said, “What?” and then he invited me to come to his
concert and invite Joan. And the rest as they say is
13. Naomi Stephen. Bill
outmaneuvers the bra strap fastener.
(Press wrangler for the Ig), splits her time between
academic administrative and teaching careers.
"I know Bill partly through the Ig Nobel awards and partly through
Marc. I got to know Bill best during the year that my father
was very ill, and Bill and Jean both were absolutely wonderful
about coming by and talking to dad. Dad was fascinated by
Bill’s work, mostly in enzymes at that point I think, and Bill was
lovely about spending the time talking to Dad.
Anyway, my favorite Bill story specifically, is from last year’s
Ig Nobel Award Ceremony, 2010, when the bra gas mask was being
demonstrated, and the inventor was there to come back to the
ceremony. She handed out these brilliant red bras, and it
was a test to see how well these scientists could undo a bra
strap. Most did not manage very well at all, so while you
had half a dozen Nobel Laureates fumbling madly with the bra
straps that the bra lady had given them, Bill very calmly took his
and placed it on his head, and so he sat there with his beautiful,
bright red, cone-shaped bra on top of his head and his straps
dangling on the side of his face, and he folded his hands and he
had that smiling, amiably, like a little Buddha or something,
while everybody was still madly doing this [thrashing]. It
was lovely to see anyway. Thank you. Thanks Bill."
14. Peaco Todd. Bill makes a break
for it in his walker.
Peaco Todd (Minordomo at the Ig Nobel ceremonies) works as a
political columnist/cartoonist and professor. Her work can be
found at peacotoons.com
"I know Bill because of the Ig Nobels, and for the last three or
four years I was Bill’s angel in the show. ….
Two or three years ago, maybe two years ago in the Igs, Bill was
having to use a walker, and I was trying to be really careful with
him, and maybe even overly solicitous, and he would every now and
then kind of swat me away, because he didn’t like that very much,
and the end of the show came, and Jean and Jim, his son, everybody
was up on stage, so I thought I don’t need to be too much
worried about Bill anymore, because somebody’s going to be
watching over him.
I looked down, and Bill had somehow gotten off the stage with his
walker, and was heading out, who knows where, so I said to Jean,
“Bill’s making a break for it. I think you need to go and
get him.” How he got down from the stage I have no idea, but
that walker was not going to slow him down."