Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech on behalf of William N. Lipscomb, Jr.

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James S. Lipscomb

July 30, 2014


Thank you for giving this award to Professor Lipscomb.  Alpha Chi Sigma was important to him.  He gave the Alpha Chi Sigma 75th Anniversary Lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1977.

But you did


Upon Bill’s death I received letters of kindness.  Each stood apart from the others in its own way.


A letter from Sir David Wallace at Churchill College in Cambridge stood apart in that he did not know me and evidently had not worked with Bill since 1973.  There was no social obligation or expectation for him to write.  But he did.


This award to Bill from Alpha Chi Sigma stands apart in that Bill now lives in history.  There is no Nobel Prizewinner to receive this award and with whom to celebrate.  There was no obligation or expectation to make this award or to seek out Bill’s children to accept it for him.  But you did.



Pauling's student


Alpha Chi Sigma brother and Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling was Bill Lipscomb’s dissertation advisor.


Pauling was a hands-off mentor, much like Bill's parents. 


"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." [Lipscomb1977]


So in graduate school Bill was comfortable with Pauling not being the hand-holding type. 


"I was always doing some outlandish thing, and he [Pauling] would correct me, but that is the way it worked with Linus; he would come in once every two months, or three months, and ask what you have been doing, and suddenly he would toss up five ideas that you haven’t thought of, that would keep you busy for the next five months. And he’d leave you alone, which was the best thing in the world for me.  Being left alone, and left with good ideas." [Lipscomb1995a]


Sometimes Pauling carried this hands-off thing to an extreme. 


"I had been reading the 1940 edition of The Nature of the Chemical Bond, and was puzzled by the discussion of resonance contributors to bonding in CO. When Pauling stopped by, I told him that when I used the force constant for the -C-O+ and for the +C-O- structures, the formal charges greatly shorten these bond contributions to the hybrid, which also includes the C=O structure. He said, 'Yes, Bill, that's why I didn't do it that way,' and then he walked out!" [Lipscomb1995b]


Pauling influenced much of Bill’s career,


"My interest in biochemistry goes back to my perusal of medical books in my father's library and ....", "... were strongly influenced …, by Pauling's interest in antigen-antibody (hapten inhibition) studies, by his lectures on chemical bonding especially in boron hydrides and metals, ...." [Lipscomb1977]


Pauling was also not the, "Attaboy, job well done." type: Story 1:


"[From] Linus Pauling, I learned a lot of things.  ....  I thought the worst thing that happened to me was that if I would publish something wrong.  That is not the worst thing.  [Pauling told me that] the worst thing that can happen to you is [that] you publish something that is uninteresting." [Lipscomb1998]


Combine that with what Doug Rees, one of Bill's former students, has written: Story 2:


"Consequently, when Lipscomb discussed his plans to work on boron hydrides with Pauling and was told that this was not very interesting, it could be reasonably interpreted as a criticism. I believe Pauling's reaction still bothered the Colonel years later (despite winning the Nobel Prize for this work)." [Rees2011]


I also got this impression in conversations with Bill, who told me those two stories about Pauling, not directly that the second one was hurtful, but always on different days, as if to leave it to me to put these two together and draw the conclusion.  Bill never gave you his heart directly.  Instead, had only the rhetoric of facts, leaving interpretation to the listener.


Yet in a way, Lipscomb's work that extended our understanding the nature of the chemical bond (three-center two-electron bond, ethane barrier, contributions to Hartree-Fock (SCF) methods, etc.) continued Linus Pauling's work that extended our understanding the nature of the chemical bond (orbital hybridization, resonance, and ionic vs. covalent bonding), as well as continuing Pauling's work in boron hydrides, metals, and molecular biology.


So evidently, Pauling never said, what perhaps should have been said.  I say that there is no student of Linus Pauling who has better honored his legacy by continuing his work than has William Lipscomb.


Lipscomb's students


Two of Lipscomb's official students are Nobel Laureates.  Roald Hoffmann received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981 for work in theoretical chemistry, in a way extending Lipscomb's theoretical work.  Thomas A. Steitz received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for the structure and implications for public health of the large subunit of the ribosome, the largest structure yet done, continuing the large structure work he started in Lipscomb's lab where Steitz worked on carboxypeptidase A and aspartate carbamoyltransferase, each in its time the largest atomic structure yet done.  Ada Yonath, who also was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 for part of the structure of the ribosome, worked in Lipscomb's lab while a postdoc at MIT, [Yarnell2009] not an enrolled student of Bill's, but a student of his in every other way.


Like Pauling, Bill was not the, the hand-holding or, "Attaboy, job well done." type with his rhetoric of facts.  Bill treated his students and his children the way his parents and Linus Pauling treated him.


So, perhaps Bill never said what perhaps should have been said.   I say now that there are no students of William Lipscomb who have better honored his legacy by continuing his work than have Roald Hoffmann, Tom Steitz, and Ada Yonath.




[Lipscomb1977] Lipscomb, WN, Structures and Mechanisms: From Ashes to Enzymes (Acs Symposium Series) Gareth R. Eaton (Editor), Don C. Wiley (Editor), Oleg Jardetzky (Editor), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 2002 ("Process of Discovery (1977); An Autobiographical Sketch" by William Lipscomb, 14 pp. Click PDF symbols at right.


[Lipscomb1995a] Lipscomb, WN, Pauling memorial symposium, Oregon State University. February 28 - March 2, 1995.


[Lipscomb1995b] Lipscomb, WN, Reflections, video, The Pauling Symposium, February 28 - March 2, 1995.


[Lipscomb1998] Lipscomb, WN, Interview with Margaret Lipscomb, 1998.


[Rees2011] Rees, DC, William N. Lipscomb, Jr. - An Appreciation. Periodic Tabloid, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division at Caltech, 3, 2, Spring 2011.  PDF.


[Yarnell2009] Yarnell, A, Lipscomb Feted in Honor of his 90th Birthday. Chemical and Engineering News, 87, 48, Am. Chem. Soc., p. 35, Nov. 30, 2009.



There may be a big prize


The last word goes to Bill, of course.


Both Linus Pauling and William Lipscomb were awarded the Nobel Prize in part for a better understanding of the nature of the chemical bond.  But even now in the 21st century the chemical bond is in some ways little understood.  Bill said that we still do not have


"... a systematic valence description of the vast numbers of 'electron deficient' intermetallic compounds,"[Lipscomb1977b]


That is, we do not fully understand the nature of the chemical bond in for example KHg13 and Cu5Zn7 in that we cannot predict many such structures.  Bill had planned to pursue this after understanding boron bonding.  Bill concludes:


"For the person who figures this out there may be a big prize.”




[Lipscomb1977b] Lipscomb WN. 1977. The Boranes and Their Relatives. in Les Prix Nobel en 1976. Imprimerie Royal PA Norstedt & Soner, Stockholm. 110-131. Quote in the next to last paragraph omitted from the Science magazine version of the paper.  See page 242 of the pdf.






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