Reception After the Celebration of Life Service

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Remembrances of William Lipscomb at a reception after the Celebration of Life Service at Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA, Sept. 10, 2011.

 Steitz posing next to picture of William

Tom Steitz (Nobel Prize, Chemistry, 2009) at the reception poses in a cut-out
poster of William Lipscomb made from the photo below.

Steitz posing
          next to picture of William Lipscomb

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.

  1. Richard Baguley. The only Nobel Prize winner that I have spilled wine on.
  2. Brooks. Playing blocks with the kids.
  3. Brian Conway. Sharing his knowledge of his butterflies with the second-grade class.
  4. Roberta Gilbert.  At the Ig Nobel performance he totally got into it.
  5. D.C. Goodwin. Reading books to the kindergarten kids.
  6. Dudley Herschbach.  Bill's courtesy a factor in bringing Hershbach to Harvard.
  7. Marian Parry.  Sugar is bad.  (Bill avoided sucrose in favor of glucose).
  8. Harriet Provine.  Bill's many molecular models.
  9. Marjorie Stanischov.  Taught piano by Bill's sister, Helen.
  10. Josie Stein.  New Year's eve chamber music at the Stein's house.
  11. Tom Steitz.  No appointment needed to see Bill.
  12. Joan and Tom Steitz.  Bill matches Tom with his future wife.
  13. Naomi Stephen.  Bill outmaneuvers the bra strap fastener.
  14. 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.

Richard Baguley

Vice President of Editorial Development at, 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."

2. Brooks.  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 without TV. 

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 together. 

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 he was.

I also remember him with his little hat and the twirly thing whenever he was playing music.  So Bill was amazing, one of a kind,"

3. Brian Conway.  Sharing his knowledge of his butterflies with the second-grade class.

Brian Conway

"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 practical level.

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.

Roberta Gilbert

"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.

D. C. Goodwin

"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.

Dudley Herschbach

Dudley Herschbach.  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 places.

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).

Marianne Perry

"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 after that."

8. Harriet Provine.  Bill's many molecular models.

Harriet Pine

"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.

Josie Stein

"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.

Tom Steitz

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 be great.” 

And that was it, and I was just amazed, and it was a terrific experience.”

12. Joan and Tom Steitz.  Bill matches Tom with his future wife.

Joan Steitz_Tom Steitz

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 this improper.”

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 history,.”

13. Naomi Stephen.  Bill outmaneuvers the bra strap fastener.

Naomi Stephen

Naomi Stephen (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

Peaco Todd (Minordomo at the Ig Nobel ceremonies) works as a political columnist/cartoonist and professor. Her work can be found at and

"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."

Image credits

Photo of cut-out poster by James Lipscomb.  The poster itself taken by Jean C. Evans, reprinted with permission.

Text and most images are from a video recorded by and provided to this website by Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR).

-- Sept. 2011, last updated June 2017,   James is here        Home page

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