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Pauling, Linus (1901-1994)

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Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling in 1958. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

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 every turn.

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 science—and any number of other things—on his own.

Linus PaulingAccording 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.

Linus Pauling
Courtesy 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 on him.

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.”

Linus PaulingIn 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 support.

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.

Pauling with his wife
Pauling 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.'”

Linus PaulingFor 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.”

Linus PaulingIf 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 fame—and, to some, notoriety—for 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, arguably—and according to Pauling himself—the 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.

Linus PaulingApart 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 diseases.”

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.”

By Thomas Blair. Quotations excerpted from the the Linus Pauling Exhibit.

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University

Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Pauling, Linus. How to Live Longer and Feel Better. Thirtieth Anniversary Ed. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2006.