LAUREATE FOR PEACE AND CHEMISTRY 1901-1994
Harvard College '03
Pauling in 1958. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print
The biography of two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling may be
just as extraordinary for its twists as for its peaks. Why did
a boy who studied advanced mathematics at twelve years old nearly
decide not to attend college? Why was he called unpatriotic and
ousted from his job at Cal Tech while he led the struggle for
the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty? And why is a Nobel laureate for chemistry
still being called a 'fraud" and a "quack" by opponents of his
"orthomolecular medicine"? Few would dispute the scientist-activist's
creativity and independent thought. Beyond that, however, the
life and career of Linus Pauling have seen controversy at nearly
Pauling grew up in a German immigrant family in Portland, Oregon;
the son of a pharmacist, he gained early scientific experience
watching his father behind the counter. Pauling's father recognized
and encouraged his son's extraordinary curiosity, as evidenced
by a letter he wrote to the Portland Oregonian when his son was
nine years old. The elder Pauling, seeking reading suggestions
for Linus, wrote, "don't say the Bible and Darwin's 'Origin of
the Species,' because he has already read them." An eager and
independent student, Pauling remembered being fascinated with
entomology at 11, geology at 12, and chemistry at 13.
His father died when Linus was nine years old, leaving Mrs. Pauling
with a larger family than she could support. Linus therefore worked
as soon as he was old enough to do so, but he found time throughout
his childhood and youth to study scienceand any number of
other thingson his own.
to Pauling, he was drawn to chemistry by a childhood friend: "This
boy, Lloyd Alexander Jefress ... had various chemicals that he
had gotten perhaps at the drugstore, and he carried out some reactions.
And that interested me very much." Thus began Pauling's career
in chemistry, taking off with extracurricular reading throughout
his teenage years. Pauling remembered an exchange few fourteen-year-olds
have with their elders: 'I was visiting my grandmother in Oswego,
Oregon, and she said to me, 'What are you going to be when you
grow up, Linie?' And I said, 'I am going to be a chemical engineer.'"
The year before Jefress demonstrated chemical reactions for him,
Pauling had enrolled in advanced mathematics at his local high
school when his principal would not let him enroll simultaneously
in two history courses. At twelve, after several years of reading
on his own, he was already building the academic foundations for
a life of science. However, the pressure to support his mother
weighed heavily on Pauling, and he went directly to work after
graduating from high school.
of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
At sixteen Pauling worked in a machine shop, then as a "paving
inspector" for a local construction company, a job that allowed
him to "read chemical books" while the paving plant ran. Despite
his inclination to work full-time to support his mother, Pauling
eventually enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College, persuaded
by Lloyd Jefress's aunt and uncle that it was his "duty" to do
so. Years later, the chemist attributed his extraordinary productivity
to the work ethic demanded by his impoverished family's dependence
Pauling worked throughout his higher education, even taking time
off to serve as a quantitative analysis instructor at his own
college between his sophomore and junior years. In 1922 he graduated
from Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State University,
with a B.S. in chemical engineering. He then went on to Cal Tech,
where he completed his doctorate and enjoyed a total of forty-one
years as a student and professor of chemistry.
Pauling's early work included the "resonance theory," according
to which some molecules don't maintain a fixed structure, but
rather "resonate between different structures." He calls his first
paper on resonance theory his "most important" -- it was, he says,
his most personally exciting, and was especially significant for
its explanation of molecular bonding patterns.
Pauling's early work also included ground-breaking studies of
hemoglobin and proteins, initiating with the former a new field
of medicine, "hemoglobinopathies," devoted to the study of "diseases
of molecules." Other work of cardinal importance for modern biologists
followed. "By 1948," Pauling says, "I discovered the alpha-helix
and the pleated cheats, the basis, the principal ways of folding
polypeptide chains and proteins. It was an important discovery."
Disciples prompted Pauling to formulate a theory of theorizing:
"I am constantly asked by students how I get ideas," he quipped.
"My answer is simple. First, have a lot of ideas. Then, throw
away the bad ones."
1954 Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Choosing
among many smaller achievements, the Nobel Committee cited his
"research on the nature of the chemical bond holding molecules
together and its use in understanding the structure of complex
substances such as protein and antibodies."
Pauling frequently credits his wife as the catalyst of his professional
success, and calls their acquaintance "the event that had the
greatest affect on [his] life." He insists that he is not more
intelligent than other scientists; he is simply more active --
and his activity, Pauling says, was enabled by Mrs. Pauling's
Pauling also credits his wife for helping to inspire his initial
involvement in nuclear disarmament -- she not only encouraged
his activism, but also exhorted him to study economics and social
theory, so that he could understand the issues he was trying to
address and defend the positions he took. Characteristically,
Pauling recalls his activism in terms at once simple and grand:
"I was working toward the goal of a world without war."
"We have come," Pauling said simply, "to the time war ought to
be given up." War, he argued, had become too costly for all involved,
too destructive and with too dangerous a potential for all life.
As he put it: "it no longer makes sense."
The great product of this outlook was Pauling's petition to end
nuclear weapons testing, drafted in 1957 by Pauling and two colleagues,
Barry Commoner and Ted Condon. After twenty-five other scientists
signed the petition, Pauling and his wife mailed copies to hundreds
of scientists. Several weeks later Pauling was able to send Dag
Hammarskjold two thousand signatures of prominent American scientists
-- and the petition was just beginning to gain momentum. By the
time it stopped circulating, the petition had become an international
movement, and Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Albert Schweitzer
were among its 11,021 signers. Its great precipitant was the Nuclear
Test Ban Treaty, in which the United States and the U.S.S.R. agreed
to cease testing nuclear weapons.
talks with his wife in the White House, where they were
dinner guests with other Nobel prize winners. Courtesy of
the Boston Public Library Print Department.
Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace on October 10,
1963, the day the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect. The
chairman of the Nobel Committee declared that without a petition
like Pauling's, there surely would not have been such swift action
for a ban on nuclear weapons testing -- and perhaps there would
have been no treaty at all. Without the treaty, Pauling says,
people all over the world would have suffered millions of birth
defects and a significantly higher incidence of cancer.
Pauling contends that scientists have a special responsibility
to elucidate and address such problems as the dangers of nuclear
weapons testing. As experts on issues few people understand, they
have a duty, he says, to educate the general public and advocate
safe practices. In his day, Pauling created a good deal of controversy
by fulfilling his perceived obligation to apply scientific knowledge
to public safety. He recalled an early manifestation of government
suspicion: "A couple of days after my talk, there was a man in
my office from the FBI saying, 'Who told you how much plutonium
there is in an atomic bomb?' And I said, 'Nobody told me. I figured
it out.'" Even as he was on his way to becoming the only double
Nobel laureate, Pauling became an object of suspicion for his
opposition to the United States' involvement in the arms race.
Indeed, well before he was awarded a second Nobel Prize, Pauling's
activism effectively cost him his job at Cal Tech. His funding
from the National Institutes of Health was cut, along with that
of forty other scientists. And when he tried to go to the United
Kingdom to deliver a lecture on protons, the U.S. government denied
his passport. Pauling recalls one of the explanations he received:
"'Your anti-communist statements haven't been strong enough.'"
two years the State Department would not issue him a passport..
In 1954, when he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, The New
York Times brought the controversy to light, and he was finally
allowed to travel again. America's lingering apprehension about
Pauling's political alliances was made clear by Life magazine,
which called his Peace Prize a "Weird Insult from Norway."
Similar struggles plagued Pauling at Cal Tech. He studied and
taught there for forty-one years, first as a graduate student
and then as a postdoctoral instructor and professor. Under pressure
from the Institute, however, he resigned from its faculty in 1963.
As Pauling learned later, a special committee had been formed
to seek reasons to fire him; finding no justification, the Institute
instead revoked his position as chair of his department, and,
the chemist recalls, "began sort of harassing me." Pauling remembers
thinking Cal Tech was "the best institution in the world." Nonetheless,
he decided it was best for him to resign under the circumstances
of that time. Thereafter he conducted research through other institutions,
and became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University in
1969, staying there only until 1973.
Implied allegations of communist sympathies were not the only
source of controversy in Pauling's career. Indeed, one by which
he is far more often remembered makes a surprising appearance
in nearly any account of the chemist's life.
Following the hiatus in which he devoted much time to education
against nuclear warfare and nuclear weapons testing, Pauling began
his vitamin C investigations, researching what he called "orthomolecular
substances." The chemist coined the term "orthomolecular" in a
1968 paper, in which he set groundwork for much of his later research;
he defined "orthomolecular substances" as those which are "normally
present in the human body and are required for life." Initially
struck by the low toxicity of such substances, Pauling inquired:
"since you can tolerate very much larger amounts [than the RDA],
even one thousand times larger, what are the amounts that would
put me and other people in the best of health?" For years Pauling
studied this question with regard to both physical and psychological
ailments, especially focusing on schizophrenia in the field he
named "orthomolecular psychiatry."
the first three epithets make him unique, the fourth surely adds
a still less expected twist to the career of Linus Pauling: chemist,
peaceworker, Nobel laureate, ... fraud? In the later years of
his career, Pauling gathered particular fameand, to some,
notorietyfor his advocacy of vitamin C "megadosage." Indeed,
the Boston Globe's obituary of August 21, 1994 hails him in its
headline as "Two-time Winner of Nobel Prize; Vitamin C Advocate."
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the chemical bond, arguablyand
according to Pauling himselfthe scientist's greatest contributions
to humanity, only find their way into the obituary's second and
third paragraphs, respectively. Vitamin C, meanwhile, has brought
Pauling great controversy, and even prompted some opponents in
the field of medicine to call him "fraud" and "quack."
Pauling's advocacy of megadosage, some opponents say, is based
on insubstantial research and an alliance with a leading vitamin
C distributor, Hoffmann-La Roche, a primary contributor to the
Linus Pauling Institute of Medicine. (The Institute, founded in
1973, is devoted to the study of "orthomolecular medicine.") Some
go so far as to say that vitamin C is carcinogenic in large quantities,
and that Pauling has no truly scientific basis for his advocacy.
Pauling, in turn, contended that his only opponents were doctors
whose livelihood depended on pharmaceutical sales in "the sickness
industry"Pauling's name for medicine in the United States.
Despite their persistence, however, Pauling's opponents neglect
to address the great chemist's own consumption of vitamin C. If
he were intentionally aiding vitamin manufacturers by advocating
consumption levels he knew to be dangerously high, why would he
continue to supplement his own diet with 300 times (18,000 mg,
compared to 60 mg RDA) the recommended daily value of the vitamin?
More than six years after the chemist's death, the vitamin C debate
continues, with each side making bold challenges and accusations.
from the legacy of controversy, Pauling leaves a unique list of
accomplishments. First, he remains the only person to win two
unshared Nobel Prizes. He wrote, edited, or contributed to nearly
fifty books, and published over 1,000 articles, mostly related
to chemistry and biochemistry, but also boldly advocating peace
in the face of arms race pressure to support weapons development.
He held more than forty honorary degrees from institutions of
higher learning worldwide. In interviews, he mentioned offhand
that the inventor of Xeroxing was one of his students and refers
casually to opening new vistas of biochemical research with his
ideas, as in the groundwork he lay for the study of "molecular
In many ways, however, Professor Pauling's impressive
CV is a dim and incomplete representation of his actual contributions
to human well-being and human knowledge. His direct impact on medicine,
for instance, has done much to enable DNA research, and to fight
disease. As for his impact on world peace, without Pauling, we may
well be much more heavily afflicted by birth defects and cancer
caused by radiation. Beyond the impressive prizes, degrees, and
publications, Pauling emerges as a man with a conscience as powerful
as his intellect.
He and his wife, Ava, were members of the First
Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.
Linus Pauling was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, and died August
19, 1994, at his ranch in Big Sur, California. In addition to
work that has permanently improved the fields of chemistry, biochemistry,
and peace activism, he leaves a simple statement of resounding
encouragement to his admirers: "You can contribute, and you can't
be sure how great your contribution is, but you can contribute,
so do it."