Chemistry to Host William N. Lipscomb Centennial Celebration

By Jenny Wells-Hosley

Lipscomb, who graduated from UK in 1941, is one of five Nobel Laureates who grew up in Kentucky. Harvard University photo file.

This Thursday the University of Kentucky Department of Chemistry and the College of Arts and Sciences will celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of one of UK’s most illustrious graduates, William Nunn Lipscomb Jr.

Lipscomb, who graduated from UK in 1941, was a world-famous chemist who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Lipscomb’s lifelong interest was the detailed 3D structures of molecules large and small and the nature of their chemical bonds. Several of his discoveries are discussed in first-year chemistry courses.

"Lipscomb is one of five Nobel Laureates who grew up in Kentucky," said Carolyn Brock, UK professor emerita of chemistry. "That number is large given the modest population of the Commonwealth. By celebrating Lipscomb’s scientific achievements we hope to inspire current students. Two of the very successful scientists who are speaking in the symposium also grew up in Lexington and also went to city high schools."

The William N. Lipscomb Centennial Celebration is a free public event and will take place 1-5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, in the William T. Young Library Auditorium.

There will be three speakers. Marjorie Wikler Senechal, a Lexington native who took piano lessons from Lipscomb’s sister and remained close to the family, is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor Emerita in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology at Smith College. The other two speakers earned their doctorates at Harvard University under Lipscomb’s direction. They are Irving R. Epstein, a professor at Brandeis University, who will talk about Lipscomb's experimental and computational studies of boron compounds, and Douglas C. Rees, a Lexington native who is now a professor at CalTech, who will discuss Lipscomb’s biochemical work. 

All three speakers will include anecdotes about Lipscomb, who was known to all as "The Colonel," who made a YouTube video about how to tie a string tie (which had become his trademark), and who regularly found ways to slip amusing bits into his scientific papers.

After graduating from UK, Lipscomb earned his doctorate from Caltech in 1946, where his mentor was Linus Pauling. After 13 years as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Lipscomb was hired in 1959 by Harvard University. The 1976 Nobel Prize was for his work on the structures and bonding of boranes, which are compounds composed of boron and hydrogen atoms. Later Lipscomb was equally well known for his pioneering studies of the atomic-level structures of enzymes.

For more information and to see a full schedule of events, visit

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.


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