Pauling, Stanford and Research – Part 1

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Pauling in lecture at Stanford University, 1969. Photo by George Feigen.

[Looking back on Pauling’s tenure at Stanford University. This is part 4 of 7.]

While at Stanford, Pauling actively sought to make the best use that he could of the laboratory and computing equipment available on the campus. In June 1970, about a year after his arrival, Pauling wrote to Paul John Flory, then the chair of the chemistry department, inquiring about the possibility of his taking charge of the department’s x-ray facilities. The supervisory position had been recently vacated and Pauling suggested that he could run the facilities until the department had found someone more permanent in two or three years.

In presenting this unusual offer, Pauling referred to his need to continue work that he had initiated at UC-San Diego with Art Robinson and Ian Keaveny on the structures of inorganic compounds including delta iron (III) oxyhydroxide and tri-cadmium diarsenide. Having routine access to x-ray equipment, Pauling pointed out, would greatly assist with this ambition.

Besides working out the structures of inorganic compounds, Pauling also sought to develop a new technique to measure atomic distances. To do so, Pauling wanted to attach a computer to an x-ray diffraction apparatus which would convert x-ray diffraction intensity functions into radial distribution functions. In compounds containing two metal atoms, this conversion would serve to determine the distance between the pair. What’s more, the addition of a computer would greatly speed up the process by which this determination could be made — Pauling suggested that results would be available within a few minutes.


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ACME designer Gio Wiederhold and technician Voy Wiederhold. Image credit: Stanford Medical School.

Indeed, the advanced computing infrastructure then available at Stanford was very enticing for Pauling and he did what he could to take advantage. Perhaps most importantly, in August 1970 Pauling requested access to ACME, an IBM computing network available to university researchers through Stanford’s Medical School. Usage of ACME was restricted and Pauling needed to submit formal letters to the ACME Subcommittee on User Charges to gain access.

Once he had been approved, Pauling was obligated to pay usage fees through an account that was set up for him and that contained artificially limited funds. At the start, Pauling’s research group would be allocated $200 per month for “pageminutes,” which cost 1 cent, and $100 per month for disk storage, which cost 10 cents per block per month. The amounts allocated to this account were not always enough to cover everything that Pauling wanted to do.

Pauling’s primary interest in ACME was in its use as a tool to analyze the urine of persons suffering from schizophrenia and other mental diseases. In addition to other types of assessments, Pauling’s laboratory carried out chromatographic analyses looking at about 200 different substances in the urine both before and after a given individual had been placed on a special diet and vitamin regimen. As Pauling told Trammell Lonas, who helped to coordinate Pauling’s use of ACME, “The analysis of these data in a reliable way can be made only with use of a computer.” As such, it was critically important that Pauling have access to ACME.


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Linus Pauling Jr. with his father at an event in New York, 1971.

Maintaining a well-staffed laboratory was also crucial to moving the schizophrenia research forward. Linus Pauling Jr. – the eldest of the Pauling children and a psychologist who lived in Honolulu – even joined the laboratory as a part-time assistant for a short period beginning in October 1970.

The next month, Pauling offered a Research Fellow position to Paul Cary, who was on leave from the Rockefeller University. Pauling specifically wanted Cary to run the chromatography tests central to the laboratory’s analysis of the urine of schizophrenia patients.

Cary had earlier reached out to Art Robinson, asking him to provide a reference letter as he looked for positions while on leave. Learning this, Pauling decided that it would make sense for Cary to come work for him instead. In his offer, Pauling suggested that “It seems to me that the work has come to a very exciting stage, after a long period of difficulty in getting problems ironed out.” Cary promptly accepted the position.


In October 1973, as part of his laboratory’s development of urine analysis techniques, Pauling also requested the grade point averages of 180 students who were participating as research subjects. In so doing, Pauling explained that “One question that is of interest to us is whether there is a difference in composition of the urine for students with different academic accomplishments.”

As it happened, Pauling was particularly interested in testing A. L. Kubala and M. M. Katz’s results from a 1960 study that showed an improvement in students’ grades after drinking orange juice for several months. Walter J. Findeisen, the recorder at Stanford’s Office of the Registrar, told Pauling that he was not allowed provide GPAs, but that he could could make use of letter grade indicators, such as A, B, C, etc. This is the route that Pauling ultimately decided to take.


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During his time in Palo Alto, Pauling’s nutrition research often took him beyond Stanford’s campus. In the spring of 1970, Pauling became a consultant for Vivonex, a company that produced a nutritional replacement for use by people who were unable to consume food orally and digest it themselves. According to a 1969 pamphlet that Pauling saved, people had lived off of Vivonex for three years straight, all the time relying on the product as their sole source of nutrition. The company also claimed that the product would help to move people towards their “ideal weight.” While Pauling was not offered a fee for his consultancy work, he did receive 500 shares of stock.

Not content to simply act as a consultant, Pauling began taking Vivonex himself, as did Ava Helen Pauling and Art Robinson. In fact, the three lived off of Vivonex as their sole sustenance for three two-week periods. After taking it for a few months however, the three began experiencing headaches and lethargy to degrees that exceeded what they had previously experienced. These symptoms prompted Pauling to ask for a complete list of ingredients, including the quantity of each, and to lessen the intensity of his self-experimentation.

In February 1971, Morton-Norwich Products, Inc. purchased Vivonex, and Pauling was eventually compelled to sell his shares for $18.91 each. Though his more rigorous personal trials with the product did not pan out, Pauling had a good experience with Vivonex overall and he continued to recommend it as time moved forward. In one instance, Pauling’s friend and colleague John F. Catchpool asked him for his thoughts on the nutritional replacement Ensure. Pauling replied that, compared with Vivonex, Ensure was somewhat inferior because it was “essentially a milkshake with added vitamins” and it contained molecules like caseinate that required digestion.

Towards the end of his life, in 1993, Pauling came into contact with Vivonex once more, this time during a stay at the hospital. Though in ill health, Pauling still had energy enough to write to John E. Pepper, the president of Proctor and Gamble, which by then was manufacturing Vivonex. In his letter, Pauling complained of the product’s evolution, noting that it’s now “unpleasant taste” made it impossible to consume. Pauling further informed Pepper that he would no longer recommend Vivonex to others. While Pepper did not respond to Pauling’s complaint, another representative did, telling Pauling that the bad taste was likely due to improper preparation.

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Pauling at Stanford: The Finals Years and Beyond

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Four Nobel Prize-winning chemists with a connection to Stanford University. From left, Arthur Kornberg, Paul Flory, Henry Taube, and Linus Pauling. This photo was taken in 1983 on the day that Taube received notification of his awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s years at Stanford University, part 3 of 7.]

From the outset, Linus Pauling knew that his time at Stanford as a full professor would be short-lived. Hesitant from the beginning, Stanford had stipulated that Pauling’s contract go up for renewal every year and that his reappointment hinge on his effective supervision of research. Furthermore, during his second year in Palo Alto, beginning fall 1970, Pauling’s salary was reduced by about half.

In fall 1971, at the start of Pauling’s third year, Harden McConnell – a distinguished chemist at Stanford and a close friend of Pauling – defended Pauling’s right to remain a full professor even though he had arrived at the university’s mandatory retirement age of 70. In making his argument, McConnell wrote that no current professor “should have an automatic right to office and/or laboratory space after standard retirement age, nor should any outstanding and active scientist be denied such space merely because of age.” McConnell further suggested that he could easily prove that Pauling fell squarely into the latter category.

In fall 1972, though Pauling’s research activity had remained undeniably high, William F. Miller, Stanford’s Vice President and Provost, informed the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, Calvin Quate, that he thought it “unwise to approve further reappointments of Dr. Pauling as a regular Professor” and suggested that Pauling be appointed Professor Emeritus beginning in September 1973. In other words, Pauling would be allowed just one more year as a full professor.

As it turned out, Pauling would receive an additional year beyond Miller’s recommendation. This information was formally communicated in a November 1973 letter written by Henry Taube, at the time the chair of the chemistry department. In it he wrote, “Your colleagues in this department hold you and your work in very high esteem and place great value on your continued association with this department.” Taube also told Pauling that when he became Professor Emeritus in fall 1974, he could continue his research contacts with graduate students, though an active professor would need to serve as a “nominal sponsor.” Taube also told Pauling that he could be called back as a full professor at any time.


In fairness, Pauling had begun to retreat from active participation in academic life at Stanford at least a couple of years prior to Taube’s letter. During winter term 1971 he taught his last course, a special topics class on the structure of atomic nuclei. By then, the only real notes that he needed to conduct the course were sets of equations that had been worked out step-by-step in advance.

Pauling also served on the Academic Senate while at Stanford, a stint that lasted for two years and that also came to a conclusion in 1971. In submitting his resignation that spring, Pauling told H. Donald Winbigler, Stanford’s Academic Secretary, that “decisions about the University should be made by younger men who can look forward to a longer period of association with the University.”

As his connections lessened, Stanford’s support withered accordingly. By fall 1972, Pauling was no longer receiving a Stanford salary; only office and laboratory space. As such, his sole form of professional funding was, by this point, coming by way of outside grants that he had been awarded.


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Pauling with other members of the Stanford faculty, 1973. Back Row, (l. to r.) Norman Wessells, Eric Shooter, Pauling, Peter Ramwell, John Luetscher, Jr., Luigi Luzzatti; Front Row (l. to r.): Edward Rubenstein, Arthur Kornberg, Robert Schimke, Robert Hofstadter. Pauling, Kornberg and Hofstadter were all recipients of Nobel Prizes.

In August 1974, Pauling retired from Stanford and formally became Professor Emeritus of Chemistry. But even in this capacity he maintained a connection with the university and his former department. Perhaps most notably, Pauling continued to sit on graduate student committees and steadfastly updated his still-growing list of publications for inclusion in department pamphlets.

After his retirement, colleagues at Stanford also continued to seek out Pauling, often inquiring about the progression of his research. Stanford Magazine likewise profiled Pauling in 1979, some five years after he had left, asking him to reflect on his career and his engagement with the world. In the piece, he explained his approach to life, which had remained remarkably consistent over the years.

I have a sort of general theory of the universe. I try to fit everything I read into the general picture. If I read something that doesn’t fit, I wonder about it. Or, if I think something seems to fit, I try to follow through.

He also reflected on the varying degrees of satisfaction that he had derived from his work as a scientist and peace advocate: “With the Chemistry Prize, I was just enjoying myself, learning about the nature of the world,” Pauling explained, “having a good time and making a living, too, as a professor… The Peace Prize came for work that I was doing as a sacrifice… I was taking time away from the things I really like to do, but doing it because of a sense of duty.”


Pauling maintained a residence on the Stanford campus and, by 1984, he was still delivering guest lectures for courses taught at the university. One of these was for an Optimal Health and Fitness course taught by Dr. Jack Martin. Following Pauling’s appearance, Martin shared some of the student feedback that he had received concerning their guest lecturer. The comments covered a range of impressions including: “smart guy but not very interesting”; “vehement and extremely knowledgeable, not to mention amusing”; “entertaining, but a grain of salt is necessary”; “it is always great to hear from someone as famous as he”; “new stuff, good presentation”; “a little weird”; and “incredible man.”

As late as spring 1993, Pauling remained on call to represent Stanford on occasion. In one instance, he participated in a meeting with the Swedish Minister of Education and Science, Per Unckel, who was visiting to explore a potential research collaboration on environmental problems. Associate Dean of Research Patricia Devaney had asked Pauling to meet with Unckel during his visit and Pauling, then 92 years old, obliged.

In the years following his passing, Pauling remained of interest to the Stanford community. An undergraduate student, Kristine Yu, wrote about Pauling for the spring 2003 issue of The Stanford Scientific, basing her article on press releases and conversations with those who had known him.

One anecdote concerned a visit that Pauling had made to Henry Taube’s home. The story had it that Pauling was interested in an “unusual” geode that Taube had brought back from Brazil. As Pauling looked at the specimen, Taube shared his personal theory of how it had been formed. Pauling responded, “If you feel that strongly about it, you should write a paper on it.” Not long afterwards, Pauling sent Taube a long letter explaining how Taube’s theory was wrong.

Pauling at Stanford: Settling In

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Linus Pauling, 1969. Credit: Margo Moore.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s years at Stanford University. Part 2 of 7.]

Linus Pauling began his appointment as Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University on July 1, 1969. During his years in Palo Alto, Pauling’s experimental work largely focused on developing and refining urine and breath analyses for use in diagnosing various diseases and genetic conditions ranging from schizophrenia to cancer, skin disease, heart disease, and Huntington’s chorea. In addition to funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Pauling and his laboratory were supported by a collection of smaller awards including a 1971 grant from the American Schizophrenia Association.

During his Stanford years, Pauling also continued to promote his research and peace work through a hectic travel schedule and regular publications. In January 1970, Pauling served as Visiting Professor at the Technical University of Chili, where he also received the Medal of the Senate of Chili. That same year, Pauling published an influential article, “Evolution and the Need for Ascorbic Acid” as well as his book Vitamin C and the Common Cold. The latter would become a bestseller.

In 1971 Pauling published six articles, one on nuclear weapons and others covering various topics in chemistry. He also completed revisions for, and saw published, the third edition of his hugely successful textbook, General Chemistry. In April 1971, he received the Lenin International Peace Prize at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The next year, he partnered with Paul Wolf in the Department of Pathology to study sickle cell anemia. And in early 1973, Orthomolecular Psychiatry was published, which Pauling co-edited with David Hawkins. In short, though now in his early 70s, it was clear that Pauling had no intention of slowing down.


Not long after his arrival, Pauling identified a need to begin situating himself within the university’s administrative apparatus. One of the first items on his to-do list was to update his consent forms and put them on Stanford letterhead. Since he was now associated the university, doing so would help should any legal problems arise with his research.

As part of this process, Pauling also had to make sure that his experimental designs were in accordance with Stanford’s standards by running them by the university’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research. This process included, for one, clarifying whether or not the dose of Vitamin-B6 used in a particular study “approach[ed] the 4 GM/Kg that produces convulsions and death in animals.”

Perhaps most importantly, though he fully understood the modest circumstances governing his hire at Stanford, Pauling was nonetheless perturbed at times with the accommodations that had been made for him. In an undated letter to Alan Grundmann, a that time an assistant to the Stanford provost, Pauling complained about his small work area, emphasizing that space around him was sitting unused. As his mood soured, Pauling demanded that Stanford do a better job of acting in accordance with the space guarantees that had been stipulated in his contract. Pauling subsequently threatened to leave if the situation didn’t improve, suggesting that he might return to the University of California in San Diego, where he knew that they had enough space for him.


Though his relationship with administration may not have been perfect, other faculty members at Stanford were clearly very interested in Pauling’s research and teaching. Not long after he arrived, a variety of professors began asking Pauling to address classes varying from a general chemistry course, a psychiatry research seminar, and a postgraduate survey of basic medical science. Pauling also spoke to medical and psychiatry students about vitamin C and his newly developing concept of orthomolecular medicine.

Pauling’s understanding of social issues also proved to be a draw for his colleagues. In one instance, he and Ava Helen jointly addressed a freshman seminar on the social responsibility of scientists. Pauling also participated in Stanford’s Professional Journalism Fellowship Program series, at which he was asked to respond to the question, “What would you do if you were Secretary of State?”

Even Pauling’s personal medical examinations piqued interest within the Stanford community. Roy H. Maffly at the Department of Medicine conducted a renal evaluation of Pauling, a study that was possibly inspired by Pauling’s successful bout with glomerulonephritis in the 1940s. (a medical triumph that had been led by a Stanford physician, Thomas Addis) Maffly was also keen to learn more about Pauling’s own urine studies and agreed to interpret the results of Pauling’s evaluation using Pauling’s methods.

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Within the Chemistry Department, Pauling joined the Industrial Affiliates Committee, which was chaired by his friend Carl Djerassi. This committee sought to connect private corporations to the research being conducted within the Chemistry Department by addressing questions like the relationship between chemistry and chemical engineering. Pauling was also involved in organizing different symposia for the committee, speaking at its first such gathering in November 1969. He likewise represented the group when he presented on his vitamin C research at an international conference in 1973.

Pauling further integrated himself into the Chemistry Department by taking on graduate students. By the start of his second year, Pauling was chairing two doctoral committees and was a member of four others. His students included Robert Copland Dunbar, who was using ion cyclotron resonance to study the interactions between ions and molecules. Margaret Blethen and John Blethen, both of whom worked with Pauling on his schizophrenia studies, and David Partridge, who worked on the chromatographic analysis of urine samples, were also mentees of Pauling’s.

Working with doctoral students gave Pauling the opportunity to offer advice based on his experiences at the University of California San Diego, where graduate students rotated between different laboratories during their initial months. Pauling suggested to others in the Chemistry Department that first year students rotate through six different laboratories, spending six-week periods in each over the course of the year. Pauling believed this to be an effective way for new students to get to know staff and to better understand the different lines of research being conducted. Armed with these experiences, the students would then be better able to make a considered decision when it came time to choose the path that they would follow at the start of their second year. Pauling also suggested that graduate student research not be tied to funding.

 

Pauling at Stanford: Prelude

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[This is the first installation of a seven-part series examining Linus Pauling’s years at, and associations with, Stanford University.]

Long before arriving at Stanford University as a professor, Linus Pauling had built a working relationship with the Stanford Research Institute through its branch office in Los Angeles. In February 1950, Pauling agreed to join the branch’s advisory panel on atmospheric pollution. Pauling’s role on the panel, according to J. E. Hobson, the director of the Stanford Research Institute, was to give “scientific and technical assistance in connection with our air pollution activities and, particularly, assistance regarding the solution of the Los Angeles smog problem.” The panel was to meet monthly at the University Club in Los Angeles over a period of six to eight months. Pauling would be paid a $100 consulting fee for each meeting.

The panel’s gatherings typically centered around a specific topic like ozone, the chemistry of hydrocarbons, or the future of research. One other meeting consisted of a tour of the laboratory at the Pasadena Field Office. After making this visit in July 1950, Pauling offered suggestions for improving the air cleaning technologies that were under development there. Specifically, Pauling suggested to A. M. Zarem, director of the Los Angeles Laboratory of the Stanford Research Institute, that “an effort be made to fractionate the oxidant in smog by the use of a variant of chromatographic adsorption.”

Unable to recall the names of those who had previously done similar research, Pauling provided his own suggestions on the best way to clean smog-filled air. Pauling’s method first advised that water vapor be removed from a tube containing activated alumina and liquid air. Having done so, Pauling then suggested increasing the temperature of the system such that a small amount of smog-free air or nitrogen could be passed through the tube, in the process collecting the pollutants. Zarem liked Pauling’s idea and wanted to develop and test it.


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Stanford President J. E. Wallace Sterling. Photo credit: Leo Holub.

A decade later, in early 1961, the smog in the Los Angeles area had gotten so bad that it led Pauling to consider moving away, possibly to Stanford University. In addition to its pristine reputation as a world-class university, Stanford was also attractive due to its relative proximity to Pauling’s ranch at Big Sur. The end of his academic career was also on Pauling’s mind, as he would be reaching Caltech’s mandatory retirement age in eight years. At Stanford, on the other hand, he would have an extra two years available to him.

As his thinking progressed, Pauling decided that he would most like to join Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station as their Professor of Molecular Biology, ideally working under a five-year appointment. Lawrence Blinks, who worked at Hopkins, offered Pauling an office in the station’s library and a possible laboratory space on Canary Row.

Before he went up to visit Blinks and Stanford President J. E. Wallace Sterling, Pauling sent a letter assuring Sterling that he would not impose any financial burden on the university since he was able to secure much of his own funding. Pauling’s recent grants had been used to support an eclectic program of work, including his development of a molecular theory of general anesthesia and new inquiries into the potential chemical basis of mental illness. During his visit however, Pauling discovered that a laboratory space would not be available at all and that he would not have access to office space during the summer.

After the visit had been completed, President Sterling followed up, writing that the ideal arrangement that Pauling had put forth was impracticable and would not work. Undaunted, Pauling replied that, even if he did not have access to laboratory space, he would still view working at Stanford as a step in the right direction. In his letter to Sterling, Pauling made his case:

I have thought about the nature of my contributions to science, and have recognized that the important ones are the result of my theoretical work rather than of my experimental work, although the theoretical ideas have sometimes been verified in a valuable way by the experimental work… Moreover, I have got rather tired of supervising experimental work, and have decided that I want to devote my time instead to theoretical work. In particular, I do not want to administer a laboratory.

Despite this concession on laboratory space, the ability to financially support himself, and his evident usefulness to Hopkins as the study of biology shifted more and more towards a molecular focus, Pauling’s request for a five-year professorship was still too much for Sterling to accept. Thus rejected, Pauling would have to wait almost another decade before his desire to be at Stanford was fulfilled.


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Letter from Harden McConnell to Pauling, January 24, 1969.

At the end of 1968, now five years removed from Caltech, Pauling made contact with Harden McConnell, a professor in Stanford’s chemistry department, and renewed the conversation about his potential move to Palo Alto. McConnell replied that “everyone is enthusiastic” about the possibility that Pauling might join the department.

Despite this, Pauling soon found that he was facing hurdles similar to those he had encountered in 1961. Once again, Pauling went out of his way to emphasize that he would not impose any financial burden on the university and could pay much of his own salary through grants that he had won. At the end of January 1969, McConnell wrote to Pauling with an update, “I have now put the Administration here in a position where they must make a decision soon on your appointment.” Annotating the letter in red ink, McConnell added: “The decision had better be the right one.” Within a few weeks, a verdict was rendered and Pauling was in.


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Linus Pauling, 1969. Photo credit: Ralph Shafer.

Even after he had been accepted, Pauling was made to understand that his future at Stanford was not fully assured and that he would have to follow through on his claims of self-support. For his part, McConnell could only promise that the chemistry department would cover half of Pauling’s salary for the first year. Beyond that, there was no certainty about what future years might look like. In relaying these details, McConnell lamented that, “The Chemistry Department is unanimously in favor of your coming here, and we are all greatly disappointed that the material aspects of the arrangements are so meager.” All the same, by March Pauling had been approved for a one-year appointment that would begin in July 1969.

Unlike his previous attempt to come aboard at Stanford, Pauling was this time given his own laboratory. Located in the Chemical Engineering building, the space was offered for up to three years, were Pauling to stick around that long. Jumping at this opportunity, Pauling began organizing the move of his laboratory infrastructure from San Diego to Stanford, enlisting his former student, Art Robinson – now a professor at UC-San Diego – to head up the operation. In addition to Robinson, post-doc Ian Keaveny and lab technician Sue Oxley also followed Pauling up from southern California. James McKerrow, who had sought out Pauling while he was at UCSD, likewise joined the laboratory as a research assistant.

Shortly after Pauling had completed the move to Palo Alto, he began making himself a part of the Stanford community by donating many of his scientific journals to the university. The community also reached out to Pauling, beginning with faculty in the sciences who began inviting him to participate in various department-sponsored functions. Physics professor Alexander L. Fetter, for one, asked Pauling to join a panel at an upcoming Conference on the Science of Superconductivity. So too did chemist Carl Djerassi enlist Pauling’s participation in a symposium sponsored by the department’s Industrial Affiliates Program.

Ultimately Pauling was forced to turn both of these opportunities down because he was already committed to participating in a Nobel conference and a talk at the Symposium on Sulfide Minerals in New Jersey. As we will see, many other opportunities to participate in all manner of faculty functions arose over the coming years at Stanford.

 

Pauling’s First Paper on the Nature of the Chemical Bond

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Linus and Ava Helen Pauling in Munich, with Walter Heitler (left) and Fritz London (right), 1927.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s first paper on the nature of the chemical bond, published in April 1931. Part 2 of 2.]

In 1928 the German physicists Walter Heitler and Fritz London published a paper that appeared to have beaten Linus Pauling to the punch in its application of quantum mechanics to the theory of chemical bonding. As with Pauling, the duo was interested in Erwin Schrödinger’s wave function, and in their paper they applied it to the simplest bond: that formed by two hydrogen atoms. In so doing, Heitler and London did indeed become the first scientists to publish an application of this type.

The German colleagues also incorporated Werner Heisenberg’s ideas on exchange energy. Heisenberg had theorized that the electrons of two given atoms would find themselves attracted to the positively charged nuclei of their atomic pairs. As such, a chemical bond, according to this theory, consisted simply of two electrons jumping back and forth between two atoms, belonging simultaneously to both and to neither.

Heitler and London extended this idea, proposing that chemical bonds sourced their lengths and strengths from the amount of repulsion extant between two positively charged nuclei. The balance between the electrons’ attraction to these nuclei, coupled with the quantifiable repulsion existing between the two nuclei, ultimately served to create the bond.


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Pauling on the precipice of greatness, 1928.

Invigorated by the promise of competition, Pauling set to work applying Heitler and London’s theory to more complex molecules. In part to motivate himself, but also to ensure that he received recognition for his research, Pauling announced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he believed he could solve the tetrahedral binding of carbon using the ideas put forth by quantum mechanics.

This declaration piqued significant interest throughout the scientific community, striking a nerve for chemists and physicists alike, both groups of whom had been puzzling over this specific structure in different ways. On one hand, physicists believed that carbon should have a valence of two because, of its six electrons, four were located in two different subshells. Both sets of two would then be expected to pair off with each other, leaving only two electrons logically available for bonding. On the other hand, chemists found in the laboratory that carbon typically offered four electrons for bonding in nature. In essence, both theory and experiment indicated that neither party was completely right, but so too could neither point of view be completely wrong. Pauling believed that quantum mechanics could illuminate the paradox.

In addition to his theoretical study, Pauling’s extensive graduate training in x-ray crystallography strengthened both his interest in and his flair for atomic structure. By 1928, after a busy year of research, he had established five principles for determining the structure of complex covalent and ionic crystals, later dubbed “Pauling’s Rules.” He used these rules to predict models for particular molecular structures, and then worked backward from the theoretical model to develop a more concrete picture based on x-ray data. When a colleague remarked that this technique resembled the Greek stochastic method – an approach based largely on applied guess work – Pauling offered a correction, stating that

Agreement on a limited number of points cannot be accepted as verification of the hypothesis. In order for the stochastic method to be significant, the principles used in formulating the hypothesis must be restrictive enough to make the hypothesis itself essentially unique.

In other words, Pauling was relying on his knowledge of chemical principles to develop meticulous and educated hypotheses that he could go back and prove. And as he would hasten to add, he placed very little stock in luck or guesswork.


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As work moved forward, Pauling added his rules to three others that had been established by G.N. Lewis – and then expanded and formalized by Heitler and London – concerning the electron pair bond. These rules set parameters for the circumstances in which an electron would be theoretically available to form a chemical bond.

Though equipped with a solid toolkit of his and others’ making, it ultimately took Pauling almost three years to solve the carbon tetrahedron, with his big breakthrough coming in December of 1930. Inspired by the work of MIT physicist John C. Slater, Pauling found a way to reduce the complexity of the radial wave function, a component of bond orbital theory the application of which had been giving him some trouble. With this solution in hand, the math required for solving further steps of the carbon puzzle became significantly more manageable.

Pauling’s subsequent equations led him to develop a model for the structure that consisted of four equal orbitals oriented at the angles of a tetrahedron. Using these equations, Pauling further discerned that the strength of the bonds within the structure increased in accordance with greater degrees of orbital overlap between two atoms. The overlap, Pauling found, produced more exchange energy and this in turn created a stronger bond.

Pauling sent his paper to the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) in February 1931. In it, Pauling detailed three rules governing eigenfunctions that complemented G.N. Lewis’ rules about electron pairs. Pauling used this collection of guidelines to explain relative bond strength, finding that the strongest bonds occurred on the lowest energy level and where orbitals overlap. He also developed a complete theory of magnetic moments and ended the paper stressing the important role that quantum mechanics had played in his formulation of the rules and theories expressed in the work.

The paper, titled “The Nature of the Chemical Bond: Application of Results Obtained from the Quantum Mechanics and from a Theory of Paramagnetic Susceptibility to the Structure of Molecules,” was accepted and published in record time. The subject matter was so new and the ideas so fresh that Arthur Lamb, the editor of JACS at the time, had trouble finding a group qualified enough to review it. Even so, he scheduled the article for the April issue and in so doing published Pauling’s paper a mere six weeks after he had received it.


In 1926, whether he knew it or not, Linus Pauling embarked down a path toward the transformation of chemistry and the way that it would be studied for generations to come. The ideas that he began developing during this time gradually became the standard model for those studying chemistry while simultaneously launching Pauling to dizzying heights. His April 1931 paper, the first in a series of seven, also became the basis for his 1939 book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, which was almost immediately recognized as a classic of twentieth-century scientific writing.

Largely on the strength of the April JACS article, Pauling also received the 1931 Langmuir Prize from the American Chemical Society, and used the money that came with the prestigious award to further his research. Now that he was interested in molecular structure, he saw it’s promise everywhere within a rapidly expanding research program. In fact, the chemical bond work of the late 1920s and early 1930s laid the foundation for his subsequent program of hemoglobin research, which in turn led to his sickle cell anemia discovery almost twenty years later. In hindsight, it is easy to see how Pauling could have looked back on the achievements of early 1931 as being “the best work I’ve ever done.”

“The Best Work I’ve Ever Done”

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Linus Pauling, 1931.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s first paper on the nature of the chemical bond, published in April 1931. This is part 1 of 2.]

“It seems to me that I have introduced into my work on the chemical bond a way of thinking that might not have been introduced by anyone else, at least not for quite a while. I suppose that the complex of ideas that I originated in the period of around 1928 to 1933 – and 1931 was probably my most important paper – has had the greatest impact on chemistry.”

-Linus Pauling, 1977

One of the major film documentaries chronicling Linus Pauling’s life was produced for the long-running NOVA series in 1977. By that point, when asked to look back over the decades of significant work that he had done, Pauling still singled out his insights into the chemical bond as being his most significant contribution to chemistry.

Pauling’s initial 1931 paper in particular marked the first time that he published his revolutionary point of view related to the chemical bond, and reflecting on that period Pauling went so far as to call the article “the best work I’ve ever done.” Indeed, the paper marked the first instance in which Pauling began to spell out the ways in which the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics might be applied to fundamental questions in chemistry. And though first in a lengthy series, Pauling placed major significance on this one paper because it profoundly changed the course of his career and set into motion a period of heavy influenced on the trajectory of an entire discipline.


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G.N. Lewis, ca. 1930.

While an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling had been taught – and went on to teach his own students – the “hooks and eyes” theory of chemical bonding. In this model, each atom was presumed to have a certain number of hooks or eyes that determined how and to what other atoms it could connect. Though it prevailed at the time, the model was deemed to be outdated and insufficient by many of Pauling’s contemporaries, some of whom were concurrently searching for a more satisfactory replacement.

That said, “hooks and eyes” did serve as a useful precursor to the later concept of valence, because it correctly assumed that each atom possessed a concrete number of electrons to contribute to the formation of bonds with other atoms. The theory also suggested that there were rules governing how chemical bonds worked and how likely it was that two or more atoms might form a bond.

While Pauling was still a student in Oregon, he avidly read G.N. Lewis’ ideas about electron structure and also studied Irving Langmuir’s theory of valence, a tutelage that helped propel his own nascent interest in chemical bonding and atomic structure. Lewis proved to be particularly important. A chemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a future mentor of Pauling’s, Lewis proposed that eight electrons provided a maximally stable environment for a molecule, a tenet known today as the octet rule. Working from this idea, Lewis hypothesized that an atom containing, for example, seven electrons would bond more readily with an atom containing nine electrons, and that the bond that was formed consisted of the electron shared between the two atoms.

Lewis wasn’t the first to chase the nature of the chemical bond. Indeed, the problem had been under attack for a few decades. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford created the first modern atomic model, but ran into trouble because it wasn’t compatible with classical physics. Niels Bohr then updated this model. Less than twenty years after J. J. Thompson had discovered the electron, Bohr suggested that electrons orbited the nucleus in a predictable way, emitting quanta when they moved into lower orbits.

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Arnold Sommerfeld, 1928.

From there, others sought to fill gaps in Bohr’s model. In 1915, Arnold Sommerfeld, a physicist with whom Pauling eventually worked, helped to devise what came to be known as the Sommerfeld-Wilson quantization rules. These guidelines provided an explanation for angular momentum by describing electron orbits as ellipses rather than perfect circles.

At the same time, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Max Planck (among others) were rapidly embracing a new way to look at physics, expanding the theory and mathematics behind involved in this innovative approach. In 1925, a year before Pauling began an influential trip to Europe, Heisenberg had authored his “Quantum Theoretical Reinterpretation of Kinematic and Mechanical Relations,” which many point to as the true beginning of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger then completed his wave function in 1926. By contrast, the Lewis and Langmuir models were part of an old system that – as soon Pauling discovered – was in the process of being discarded.


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Linus Pauling at the Temple of Neptune, Paestum, Italy, during his legendary Guggenheim trip to Europe. This photo was taken by Ava Helen in April 1926.

An admirer of Sommerfeld’s work, Pauling traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship to learn as much as he could about quantum mechanics, which at the time was referred to as “new physics.” He was especially keen to learn more about Schrödinger’s equation and to dig into the ways in which the wave function might be applied to a more sophisticated understanding of the chemical bond. Though impressed by Heisenberg, Pauling gravitated toward Schrödinger because he saw more potential for practical application of the wave function, as opposed to Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics. In a note penned during his travels, Pauling wrote specifically that

I think that it is very interesting that one can see the [psi] functions of Schrödinger’s wave mechanics by means of the X-ray study of crystals. This work should be continued experimentally. I believe that much information regarding the nature of the chemical bond will result from it.

These thoughts proved prophetic, as we will see in part 2 of this series.


Pauling returned to Pasadena in the fall of 1927, bursting with new ideas. While he was away, Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes had sent word that a unique position had been created for his promising young faculty member, one that lined up nicely with Pauling’s new interests. Upon his re-arrival at Caltech, Pauling was to begin working under the title of Assistant Professor of Theoretical Chemistry and Mathematical Physics.

Although Noyes eventually dropped the physics course from the appointment, Pauling liked the idea of hybridizing his interests into one name. It was at that point that he began referring to himself as a quantum chemist.

The History of the Pauling Blog: An Archivist Reflects

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Red carnations left anonymously in the Valley Library Special Collections and Archives Research Center foyer on February 28, 2018 — Pauling’s 117th birthday.

[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Part 4 of 4.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Do you see yourself as his biographer?

Chris Petersen: Oh no, definitely not. But here is what I do see myself as. I see myself as a person who, through pure accident, wound up in a very unique position. I was hired as a student assistant in 1996, I was hired as a full-time [faculty member] in 1999, and that was the period of time during which the collection was being processed. And somehow I took charge of that when I was a student. The person who had my job before me left in the spring of my senior year of college, and at that point I began to lead the processing effort of this enormous collection. And that continued.

We published the catalog in 2006, so that’s ten years of work based on my start date as a student. And that’s never going to happen again. Nobody’s ever going to re-process the Pauling Papers. I hope not, at least. [laughs] So I had this opportunity that nobody else will ever have. And when you work with a collection, you don’t necessarily become their biographer, but you do have a level of intimacy with the material that nobody else will ever have, because nobody else is going to process that collection.

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Linus Pauling in the original Special Collections reading room, 1988.

And now when I think about the blog I think about it in multiple ways, but one of the ways that I think about it is it being a resource for future archivists who work at OSU to be able to work with this collection in a more effective way, just because they’re not going to have that same experience of working with it that I had. And part of what continues to motivate me to publish the [Pauling Blog] is that — to leave a little bit of my experience behind after I’m gone. Because the blog will hopefully continue to exist. I doubt it will continue to be published after I stop doing it, whenever that is, but what we’ve done will continue to exist. We’re archiving it with our Archive-It instance, so it’s in the Internet Archive. It gets archived once a quarter.

And I’m happy about that. It’s a very big collection, it’s difficult to provide reference for it because of its size, and it’s unfair for all of the people who work here to be expected to know it on anything more than a surface level. So this is a tool for them to have in the future.

TEM: Is there a post that you thought about writing, because of the depth of knowledge that you have about the collection, that you decided not to write?

CP: Yeah, I thought about writing something [for the tenth anniversary of the Pauling Blog] but we’re doing this instead. [laughs]

There’s a part of me that wants to write a reflection about my engagement with Pauling, a person I never met. He died when I was a senior in high school; actually the summer after my senior year of high school. I was working for the Department of Transportation picking up garbage by the side of the road in Eastern Oregon on the day that he died. So that was my status at the end of his life. But I have come to know him well through strange ways, and I have come to know his oldest son quite well – Linus Jr. – through oral history. And I was in the middle of this department [Special Collections] that doesn’t exist anymore, that was devoted to him. And that’s, again, a unique experience.

Part of my oral history work, in addition to Linus Jr., was to interview Cliff Mead – basically the only head of Special Collections that ever existed – to try to get some of his memories from the chapter before I came along in ’96, because there were nine years of time that elapsed. So I could have a history of Special Collections recorded somewhere.

And anyway, part of me has thought about writing these recollections down, but it seems like a lot of work [laughs] and I have other things to do right now. But maybe someday.

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Ava Helen Miller with Linus Pauling, 1922.

TEM: What about topics that you’ve thought about writing about? I mean, there’s some really personal relationship stuff between he and Ava Helen.

CP: Yep. That’s actually a good example of something that I’ve thought about and haven’t done. So they were separated for a year when he went to Caltech and she was here [at Oregon Agricultural College]. They wanted to get married and their parents wouldn’t let them, so she stayed here in Corvallis for a year and he went for his first year of grad school. And then he came back that next summer, they got married, and they went off together. But they were apart for one year and they wrote to each other basically every single day, and we have all of his letters but none of hers, because he burned them. And I think that there’s probably good stuff in those letters but I just can’t deal with it because there’s also a lot of lovey-dovey stuff, and there’s just a lot of stuff period.

But I think that the correspondence between he and Ava Helen is ripe for mining, and Mina Carson did some of that for her Ava Helen biography. Pauling was super formal in his correspondence and pretty much to the point, because he was doing a lot of corresponding and just was a very busy person. The one time where he reveals himself on any deeper level, or reveals any kind of vulnerability, is in his correspondence with his wife. So I think that there’s probably a lot there that could be thought about and teased out, but it would take a lot of time and thinking to try and figure out what exactly is going on here with some of that stuff. But that’s something that I would like somebody to do some day; that’s definitely at least a paper, if not a book.

Something that I would like somebody else to do that definitely is a book is to talk about his relationship with Caltech. He was there for a long time and it would be really interesting to trace his evolution while there and also to trace the Institute’s evolution while he was there, and think about how the two of them were symbiotic on some level. I mean, Caltech was not Caltech when he joined, and it is Caltech today in part because he was there. He helped to build that place. He certainly wasn’t the only person, but he was a significant piece of it.

And on the same token, when he went to Caltech — he came from an extremely humble background and he’s lucky to have made it out of that background. When he went to Caltech he was very smart and ambitious but super green. I mean, his education that he got here was, I think, pretty modest. OAC was a land grant institution, it was focused on practical stuff, and he had far greater aspirations than that.

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Hand-tinted photo of Pauling at the Sutherlin work site, 1922.

And he got into Caltech — one of my favorite stories about Pauling is that, so he’s been accepted to Caltech and the summer before he goes down there he’s working for the Department of Transportation and he’s a pavement inspector. And so he’s out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, inspecting pavement and living in a tent. But before he embarked upon this job he wrote to A.A. Noyes, who is the head of the Chemistry section of Caltech — there are basically three people who started Caltech and Noyes was one of them — and Pauling says, “I’m coming to grad school, how do I become a grad student?” And Noyes is writing a textbook and he sends him a manuscript version of the textbook and tells him, “Do all the problems in this book.” And so that summer in his tent, with a lantern, Pauling is doing this work and learning how to become a grad student and how to become a scientist.

And so he goes to Caltech and he’s there for a few years and at the end of that he gets this Guggenheim fellowship to go to Europe to learn quantum mechanics as it’s basically being invented. And then he comes back to the United States, applies quantum mechanics to structural chemistry, publishes a series of papers that become The Nature of the Chemical Bond in 1939, and that’s Nobel-quality work at that point. And it’s a very short period of time during which this process is moving forward, but for me it begins in that tent.

In any case, Caltech was hugely important for Pauling and vice-versa, and I think that would be a book that somebody should write; I’d love to see that. That’s not a series of blog posts.

One of the things that we’ve done a lot is to talk about his associations with places. We’ve done a series on his tenure at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which was rocky at best and short-lived. Same thing with UCSD. We’ve got a series coming out soon about his time at Stanford. We’ve done a lot on his relationship with Oregon Agricultural College too. But it’s harder to wrap yourself around the relationship with Caltech because he was there for so long and so much happened.

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But I think I figured out a way that we can start to engage with that a little bit, and that’s something that’s being worked on right now, and that’s to talk about his work as an administrator. So he was the head of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering for a long time and he was in charge of a lot of grant money and he had an army of grad students who worked for him. And part of his success story is that he was a very able administrator, and obviously a brilliant thinker.

So he’d come up with an idea and give it a grad student, and that might become that grad student’s entire career basically. They would pursue that as a grad student and continue to pursue it for the rest of their career. It was something that would emerge from this yellow piece of paper that he would give to people, saying “you can work on this if you want, you don’t have to.” It was implied that you should. [laughs]

But he published 1,100 papers and you don’t do that without help. And there are plenty of co-authors there and people who went on to win Nobel Prizes — the Pauling tree is vast and significant. So I’m interested in that; I’m interested in his ability to be a leader of men. And it was men, because Caltech didn’t allow women. But I’m interested in his ability to attract grant money and how this all flows into creating this career that is so remarkable. And a lot of it happened at Caltech; a lot of the best stuff happened at Caltech.

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