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Nobel laureate Lipscomb dies at 91

William Lipscomb, a Harvard University professor who won the Nobel chemistry prize in 1976 for his research on the structure of molecules and on chemical bonding and mentored several other future Nobel laureates, has died.

Prof Lipscomb, 91, himself a protege of two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, died on Thursday night at Mt Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of pneumonia and complications from a fall, said his son James.

Two of Prof Lipscomb's graduate students and a third who spent time at his lab went on to win Nobels. Yale University professor Thomas Steitz, who shared the 2009 chemistry prize, recalled Prof Lipscomb as an inspiring teacher who encouraged creative thinking.

Prof Lipscomb's first graduate student at Harvard, Roald Hoffman, who was awarded the chemistry prize in 1981 and now teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said: "He was a great mentor, letting us work freely, yet continually putting before us puzzles to be explained. From him I learned of the importance of paying attention to experiment for a theoretician (as I was). And not to be afraid of the complexity of the real world."

Prof Lipscomb was awarded the Nobel for his studies on the structure and bonding mechanisms of compounds known as "boranes", a combination of boron and hydrogen molecules. He continued Prof Pauling's work in the 1940s at the California Institute of Technology.

His lab made some of the earliest advances in discovering the structures of large proteins and other complex molecules, including the anticancer agent vincristine.

Doctor's son Prof Lipscomb was born in Ohio and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. He graduated from the University of Kentucky and served for four years in the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during the Second World War. He taught at the University of Minnesota for about 13 years before moving to Harvard, where he taught until he reached the school's mandatory retirement age of 70.

Prof Lipscomb had little quirks, including a penchant to wear a Kentucky string tie at formal events, instead of a regular tie, former students and relatives recalled.

Prof Hoffman said he was also "a superb musician, a professional-level clarinet player".

Prof Lipscomb is survived by his wife and three children.

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