Andrei Sakharov: An Overview

[Part 1 of 2]

Esteemed scientist, subject to ridicule in his home country, becomes outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons testing and wins Nobel Peace Prize with activist wife by his side. Without thinking twice, one might quickly assume this to be a short summary of the life of Linus Pauling, but it also suffices nicely as a capsule biography of the Soviet physicist and activist, Andrei Sakharov.

Indeed, the lives of these two men were striking in their similarity. Both were famous scientists – Sakharov a nuclear physicist and Pauling a chemist – and, following World War II, both became very outspoken critics of the nuclear arms race. Both were likewise criticized by their governments for their rhetoric and world view, and both eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for their activist work. It is no surprise then, that the lives of these two men intersected more than once and that their relationship seemed to be based on a mutual understanding that their lives were unique, yet in some ways intertwined.


Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, born in 1921, spent the early chapters of his scientific career advancing research that directly led to the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Regarded to be the “great equalizer” in the arms race against the United States, the first successful H-bomb tests were celebrated as a significant milestone within the Soviet Union, and Sakharov’s contributions to the project led to his receiving multiple accolades from Soviet leadership, including both the Lenin and the Stalin prizes.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, 1988. Credit: New York Times photograph.

As time moved forward however, decorations of this sort did nothing to quell Sakharov’s growing concerns about nuclear weapons and the threat that they posed to world safety. Sakharov soon channeled his worry into activism and protest, often rallying around the cause of nuclear disarmament. During this period, the recently widowed Sakharov also met his second wife, Yelena Bonner, who was an activist in her own right. The couple remained married and worked together until Sakharov’s death in 1989.


Sakharov’s protests were not always about nuclear weapons; he was also very concerned about human rights violations and was not shy about vocalizing his opinions. These activities were not embraced by the Soviet regime – outspoken criticism of the government was never welcome in the USSR – but for a time Sakharov’s voice was not entirely silenced by the government, probably because of his well-established prominence on the global stage, which included his receipt of the 1975 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Official tolerance had its limits though, and when Sakharov protested his country’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 he had crossed the proverbial line. Within a year, and despite receiving public support from respected colleagues including Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov was banished from his Moscow home and exiled to the city of Gorky, which was then a closed city to foreigners, and is now known as Nizhny Novgorod. Frequent reminders of governmental censure and dissatisfaction followed from there, including restrictions on telephone and visitor access, unannounced raids of his apartment, and force-feedings during hunger strikes.

Nonetheless, Sakharov endured and managed to find ways to spread his message around the world. Eventually, in 1986, under the promise of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev freed Sakharov from exile and allowed him to return to Moscow. Sakharov died just three years later at the age of 68.


Andrei Sakharov’s life was punctuated by moments of great passion and defined by an unbreakable determination. Throughout all of the hardships that he endured, he never wavered in his dedication to the causes that he believed in, a trait that he had in common with Linus Pauling. But despite the many similarities that these two men shared, they did not formally interact with one another until the late 1970s, several decades after they had both begun to speak out against a common foe: nuclear weapons. Sakharov, it seems, was the first to reach out and initiate a relationship between the two men. The specifics of this connection will be explored in greater depth next week.

The Joseph Priestley Medal

On August 30, 1983, almost exactly 250 years after the birth of famous chemist Joseph Priestley, Linus Pauling was offered the most prestigious award granted by the American Chemical Society: the Priestley Gold Medal.

The medal, granted to an individual who has made tremendous and innovative contributions to chemistry, was established in 1922. Initially awarded every three years, the ACS decided in 1944 to make it an annual prize. The Society elected to name the prestigious award after Priestley as his work with gases influenced the field of chemistry as well as general science, and his interests in a whole host of other areas made a significant impact on a number of additional disciplines, including political theory and religious practice.


By the time that Pauling received the Priestley Medal he had been affiliated with the American Chemical Society for over fifty years, and many were shocked to discover he hadn’t already received the award. As an ACS past president as well as the recipient of the Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, and the Willard Gibbs Award, he was certainly a lauded and highly decorated member of the society. For many, the explanation for his omission could be sourced to the generally conservative political viewpoint espoused by of the ACS Board of Directors.

For many years prior to his receipt of the award, Pauling had played an active role in the Priestley Medal selection process. Notably, in 1949 he nominated the eventual recipient, Arthur B. Lamb, as an acknowledgement of Lamb’s work as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society as well as his contributions to inorganic chemistry and the structure of complex ions. By then, Lamb and Pauling had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence as the former would often send manuscripts to Pauling to edit and evaluate for inclusion in JACS.

The following year Pauling nominated W.F. Giauque, a Canadian chemist who focused on chemical thermodynamics. While Giauque was of four finalists, the 1950 Priestley Medal instead went to Charles A. Kraus. Pauling was among the pool of thirty-three individuals nominated for that year, but did not make the cut to the final four.

“The Dickinson College Award, In Memory of Joseph Priestley,” presented to Pauling in 1969

In 1969, Pauling won a different award named after Joseph Priestley: the Priestley Memorial Award from Dickinson College, home to the largest Priestley collection in the world. Pauling was selected for this honor because of his “significant contributions to the welfare of mankind through his research in physical chemistry.”

As a component of his trip to accept the award, Pauling spent two days on campus interacting with students and faculty, and discussing what was then his primary concern: the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs. Pauling considered the mere idea of ABMs to be “silly” and more of a threat to the nation than a tool to provide security. Pauling further believed that governments, especially the U.S. government, should instead be focusing on the “lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth,” which he regarded to be “a chief problem.”


Pauling receiving the Priestley Medal from an unidentified ACS representative.

The symposium to recognize the awardee, titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley,” was held in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1984, and honored not only Pauling but also another thirty additional recipients of ACS awards. Derek Davenport, a chemist and historian then serving as chair for the ACS Division of Chemical Education, proposed and helped organize the symposium, advocating for Pauling as the awardee from the very beginning. Since Ava Helen Pauling’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling had drastically scaled back his travel schedule, but he was glad to make a trip to receive this special award, named for a historical figure whom he greatly admired.

At the symposium, Pauling received a gold medal bearing the likeness of Joseph Priestley, as well as a bronze replica. In addition to his acceptance address, to be delivered during the symposium’s opening ceremony, Pauling was obliged to participate in several interviews with the Society’s radio program, “Dimensions in Science,” as well as a meeting with local school teachers, another radio program called “At Your Service,” and an appearance on a local television program called “Newsmakers.”


Pauling’s acceptance address proved controversial. Titled “Chemistry and the World of Tomorrow,” the lecture was penned as a sequel of sorts to “Chemistry and the World of Today,” Pauling’s ACS presidential address from 1949.

Thirty-five years before, Pauling had discussed how the entire world was affected by chemistry, stressing the imperative that the ACS take a political turn to address society’s needs in the wake of World War II. Pauling’s 1984 talk was much more in line with his recent anti-war rhetoric and included criticisms of industrial chemists who had contributed to the advancement of the nuclear arms race. In particular, Pauling felt that chemists had been ignoring their obligations as global citizens for far too long while they focused on the science of war, and he made it known that this shirking of responsibility had angered him to no end. Suffice it to say, this component of the address was not received warmly by many of the chemists in the audience.

Pauling also made a point to refer to George Kistiakowsky, who had passed away less than a year earlier. Kistiakowsky was a physical chemist who had advised President Eisenhower from 1959 through 1961, and who had warned about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Pauling embraced his words and carried their sentiment throughout his speech, quoting Kistiakowsky as follows:

…and so here we are, possessors of some 50,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to produce a holocaust that will not only destroy industrial civilization but is likely to spread over the earth environmental effects from which recovery is by no means certain…there is simply not enough time before the world explodes…the threat of annihilation is unprecedented.


For many, Pauling’s rhetoric sent a chill through the room. Once he had completed his remarks, all of the other award recipients being honored were presented, and one-by-one Pauling sought to shake their hands in congratulation. One man refused to engage in this way, leaving Pauling shocked and upset. Derek Davenport, the event organizer, later reflected that

We were treated to an uncharacteristically graceless litany of evils of the military industrial complex and the necessity for eternal vigilance on the part of the concerned scientist. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm of the industrial chemists was distinctly muted and it was a rather glum Linus Pauling who assumed his seat in the center of the platform.

In the days following Pauling’s poorly received address, the ACS Board of Directors contacted previous recipients of the Priestley Medal to solicit their opinion on changing the address format during the opening ceremony. In this solicitation, the head of the Board Committee on Grants and Awards, Joseph Rogers, recommended shifting the acceptance address to a later date in the symposium and devoting only 10-15 minutes to an introduction of the awardee on the first day. In support of this change, Rogers cited the growing length of the opening ceremony as well as the presence of an audience that was mostly not of a scientific background.

Pauling responded to this proposal with disapproval, noting that the medal is “described as the greatest honor that the American Chemical Society can bestow.” Recipients then should logically have the opportunity to address the public at the initial gathering and to share their point of view in the spirit of the medal’s namesake.

Pauling and Priestley

Joseph Priestley

[Ed Note: This is the 750th post published by the Pauling Blog since its creation in March 2008.]

Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire, England on March 13, 1733 to a family of cloth dressers. Priestley’s mother died when her son was only seven years old, and he was raised by an aunt whose emphasis on religious studies – and eventually ministerial training – would impact the remainder of his life. A remarkable man of many talents, Priestley is remembered today as a theologist and philosopher; a chemist who conducted important work related to gases; a grammarian, political theorist and activist; a founder of Unitarianism; and the father of soft soda.


For the first thirty years of his life, Priestley was consumed by religion – until early adulthood he studied to be a minister, after which time he took on positions as a preacher or educator in religious settings. He was trained by a church that dissented from the Church of England, and Priestley himself often criticized the majority religion of his home country. This point of view would eventually manifest in his contributions to a new theological movement, Unitarianism, that was centered on his shared desire for a sound moral foundation and an ability to question the material world.

More unsettling to the English than his criticisms of the church was Priestley’s support of the French and American revolutions, both of which were taking place in the late 18th century. In 1791 this public stance led to the destruction of Priestley’s home and nearby laboratory by a mob of enraged Englishman. While Priestley and his family escaped unharmed, the bulk of his life’s work was lost.

Following what are now known as the Priestley Riots, the 61-year-old scholar was forced to immigrate to the United States with his family to escape the social ramifications of his political beliefs. The family settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where Priestley and his son sought to build a model community on a large piece of property, an idea that never panned out.


Though he is today best known for his contributions to chemistry, it wasn’t until the 1760s that Priestley began to take an interest in science. A decade later, Priestley initiated his now legendary experiments on gases. He began by simply examining naturally carbonated mineral water, a study that would ultimately lead to the discovery of how to control and reproduce the process of combining carbon dioxide and water, with the eventual creation of soft sodas following from there.

Priestley then attacked a larger project on the isolation of gases that would result in world-wide recognition. Through these experiments, Priestley discovered a great many gaseous compounds including ammonia, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide and, most importantly, oxygen (O2). His research also experimentally contradicted the popular belief that the space around us was simply “air” composed of all the same element. In subsequent years, Priestley made important advances in the scientific understanding of photosynthesis and respiration through his research on how these different gases interacted.


York (Penn.) Gazette and Daily, March 28, 1969

Though born nearly one-hundred years after Joseph Priestley died, Linus Pauling was profoundly influenced, both politically and scientifically, by Priestley’s legacy. Pauling had occasion to honor the great man when, on March 27, 1969, he received the eighteenth Annual Award in Memory of Joseph Priestley from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The decoration was conferred upon Pauling for his “contributions to the welfare of mankind” and he accepted the award with great pleasure.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to about 800 people and titled “The Origin of Scientific Ideas,” Pauling echoed Priestley in suggesting that “In much of our thinking we are just groping to find out what needs to be done rather how it needs to be done.” He then touched on familiar topics including his decades-long campaign against nuclearization and his more recent interest in vitamin C.

A few years later, Pauling appeared on the CBS Bicentennial Minutes program for a brief interview in which he mentioned Priestley’s “giant step in the creation of the science of chemistry” as well as the Englishman’s support for American “colonial independence.” In an earlier letter to colleague Fred Allen, Pauling further commented on Priestley’s move to the United States, noting his reverence for the U.S.’s historical role as a place of refuge for those with liberal ideas, and his sadness that the country had “deteriorated greatly” since.


Priestley’s scientific import was such that, in 1922, the American Chemical Society established its Joseph Priestley Award in his honor. The ACS was formed in 1876, only two years after a small group of chemists met in Priestley’s former home. (Chemist and historian Derek Davenport characterized Priestley as “something between a posthumous founding father and a reigning patron saint” of the ACS.) Some 250 years after his birth, the ACS held a symposium titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley” in which Pauling was aptly granted the Priestley Medal.

Pauling was nominated for the award on account of his being “the most Priestley-like figure of his time,” both for his groundbreaking work as a scientist and his courageous social and political stances. In his acceptance speech, Pauling reviewed his long-running opposition to militarism and war, using Priestley’s theology to support the moral grounds on which he stood. Pauling also drew comparisons between his own work on crystal structures and Priestley’s examinations of gases. A fuller exploration of Pauling’s receipt of the Priestley Medal will be topic of next week’s post.                                                                                      

Lawrence Brockway, 1907-1979

“Dr. Brockway is the most able, prolific, energetic, and promising young man with whom I have ever been associated.”

– Linus Pauling. Letter to the American Chemical Society, September 27, 1937

Lawrence Olin Brockway, an esteemed physical chemist and one of Linus Pauling’s first graduate students, died forty years ago this month. During his time with Pauling at the California Institute of Technology, and afterwards as a professor at the University of Michigan, Brockway made great scientific strides in the determination of molecular structure using a pioneering technique, gas electron diffraction (GED), which he developed while working as a graduate student and research fellow in Pauling’s laboratory.

Born in Topeka, Kansas on September 23, 1907, Brockway completed his B.S. (1929) and M.S. (1930) in chemistry at the University of Nebraska. From there, he moved on to Caltech where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 and remained as a research fellow until 1937. Brockway left Pasadena to pursue work under a Guggenheim Fellowship. A year later he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he remained for the rest of his prolific career.


During his seven-year stint at Caltech, Brockway spent much of his time working to identify the structure of gas-phase molecules using GED. The ability to determine the molecular structure of gasses by electron diffraction was a brand new field when Brockway arrived in Pauling’s laboratory. Pauling himself had only recently learned of the technique when travelling through Europe and meeting with Herman Mark, an Austrian physicist who had developed an early GED apparatus. Intrigued, Pauling asked Mark’s permission to build a similar instrument at Caltech. Mark expressed no objections to Pauling’s doing so, in part because he had already moved on to new areas of study.

Once returned stateside, Pauling charged Brockway with the complicated task of constructing a local version of Mark’s creation. In later years, Pauling reflected on this piece of Brockway’s legacy, noting that “despite the difficulties involved, he succeeded while still a graduate student,” a triumph that “has been recognized by student and investigators” from all over the world.


A reading of Brockway’s correspondence with Pauling indicates the significant degree to which his years in Pasadena made an impact. While still a research fellow, and before he found out that he had received the Guggenheim – an award that undoubtedly helped raise his profile as an elite chemist – Brockway seemed unsure of his abilities, and even of his own self-worth. In his letters, Brockway expresses a fear of disappointing Pauling after leaving Caltech, and a wariness of being able to follow in Pauling’s footsteps. But Pauling clearly saw Brockway’s true potential and propped him up with multiple notes of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Brockway in obtaining his faculty position at the University of Michigan. As his time at Caltech neared its end, Brockway was looking for jobs and felt unsure about what direction to take. In what he termed the “Ann Arbor Problem,” Brockway wrestled with the possibility of working at the University of Michigan (which is located in Ann Arbor) versus Ohio State University or the Midgley Foundation. Brockway was initially attracted to Ohio State because of its higher initial salary, but Pauling argued in favor of Michigan as a better fit and offered suggestions on how Brockway might negotiate for more generous compensation.

Pauling also provided a glowing letter of recommendation to the Michigan hiring committee, stating that he did not know “of any man of Dr. Brockway’s age who has made more significant contributions to molecular structure.” Around this same time, Pauling nominated Brockway to serve on the selection committee for the American Chemical Society’s Award in Pure Chemistry, an honor that would be bestowed upon Brockway just a few years later for “his contributions in physical chemistry, particularly in the determination of molecular structure by electron diffraction.”


As one might expect, Brockway’s appreciation for his mentor was clear. In a letter to Pauling letting him know that that he had accepted the Michigan post, Brockway thanked Pauling for giving him his “start in life.” He then continued,

it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary for me to express my feeling, but at least I intend to work good enough that you won’t be ashamed to admit that I was a former student.

To which Pauling replied,

I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed having you in the laboratory during the last seven years. I don’t need to say anything about how profitable your work has been.


As the years progressed and Brockway found his footing, the relationship between the two men changed accordingly. No longer quite so timid, Brockway began to write to Pauling as a peer and, eventually, as a co-author. In addition to collaborating on ten published papers, Pauling and Brockway took the time to verify one another’s work, recommend graduate students (among those supervised by Brockway was Jerome Karle, the 1985 Nobel Chemistry laureate) and weigh in on the value of proposed projects.

But their relationship was also, at times, light. When Ernest B. Rutherford, a prominent chemist, died in 1937, Pauling and Brockway wrote to each other opining on who would succeed Rutherford as the head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge (both thought E.O. Lawrence would get the position, which went to Lawrence Bragg instead). Brockway, who was then in England on his Guggenheim Fellowship, also commented to Pauling that his new space at Oxford University had so many chemistry relics that he should “take off” his shoes “before entering.” In response, Pauling suggested that he think of his situation as an “implied compliment.” In later years, the two bragged to one another about the number of grandchildren they had.

When Brockway passed away in November 1979 from pancreatic cancer, his death seemed to rattle Pauling. Upon learning the news, Pauling wrote to Brockway’s widow, Hazel, and offered a supreme compliment: “He was the most satisfying of my many graduate students – that is, the one in whose work I took the greatest satisfaction.”

Reflecting on their long relationship, Pauling continued,

I remember with much pleasure the time when he took me, as his guest, to see the [1932] Olympic Games in Los Angeles. I also, of course, remember with still greater pleasure the many years of close collaborations with him, when he came as an eager graduate student and continued as a post-doctoral fellow with me.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: A Busy Conclusion

Pauling seated with Wilbur Miller and Gene McGuane for a radio broadcast sponsored by the Western Connecticut section of the American Chemical Society, 1949

[Part 4 of 4]

As Linus Pauling moved into the second half of his year as president of the American Chemical Society, the organization’s financial issues briefly took center stage. In July 1949, a committee tasked with analyzing the society’s expenditures and incomes began working in earnest. In particular, the committee sought to compare the costs associated with producing each of the society’s various publications against the income generated by subscription rates and member dues.

Pauling’s administrative records indicate that financing its publications was one of the ACS’ greatest monetary hurdles. And while the issue was beyond the committee’s ability to resolve, there was talk of increasing membership dues and publication subscription rates, decreasing financial support for certain niche publications in favor of more lucrative ones, and contacting chemistry-dependent industries that frequently took out mass-subscriptions to ask for additional financial support. Ultimately, it was decided that the 1950 membership dues would be increased; an explanation and defense of this move was published in the end-of-year report that was circulated to the full membership.


By late August, Pauling was once again attracting attention from his political critics within the ACS. This time, Pauling’s plans to travel to Mexico City to attend and present at the American Continental Congress for Peace were the source of the controversy. One especially prominent detractor, ACS board member A.C. Elm, wrote a letter to an unspecified recipient requesting that Pauling be dissuaded from attending the conference and, if that failed, that he be asked to resign from his leadership position. In his letter, Elm wrote that many ACS members were “greatly disturbed” to learn that Pauling was a sponsor of the meeting, which was “inspired and dominated by comunists [sic].”

Other members agreed that the act of requesting the president’s resignation over his political activities was unprecedented but necessary in light of the potential smear on the society’s reputation. Subsequent correspondence flew between ACS members, including every board member except for Pauling (Elm specifically stipulated as much in his first communication), trying to rally the organization against Pauling and “…use their influence to prevent Pauling from embarrassing the Society.”

These efforts failed and, in September, Pauling attended the Mexico City meeting. While there, he presented a talk titled “Man – An Irrational Animal,” in which he endorsed the idea of a world government, headed by the United Nations, to which all countries would need to transfer their sovereignty. Pauling believed that such an arrangement would guarantee world peace by uniting the globe under a single umbrella rather than a collection of competing nations.

To this end, Pauling placed the responsibility for seeking and ensuring peace into the hands of citizens instead of governments, since the latter’s historical impulse toward national sovereignty had frequently been antagonistic to the cause of peace. Pauling believed that international problems like hunger would never be solved while war continued to cause divisions between countries and waste resources. Pauling took particular aim at a segment of the scientific population for focusing on weapons development instead of conducting work to better the human condition.  


Just two weeks after the American Continental Congress for Peace, Pauling presided over the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. Held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the meeting was the largest in ACS history, with a record 1,064 papers presented in 151 sessions over five days. Such was the scale of the meeting that, in addition to space reserved at six different hotels, three temporary rooms were constructed at the ACS convention hall to satisfy meeting requirements. Several field trips to glass, wine, and food producers were included on the conference program as well.

Pauling gave his presidential address, titled “Chemistry and the World of Today,” on September 19. He opened,

What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today?’ My answer to this question is that I can say anything, discuss any feature of modern life, because every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is affected by chemistry.

He went on to give examples of scientific achievements that had fundamentally altered western society during the war years, including the invention of nylon and the medical application of penicillin. He then argued that the majority of scientific discoveries that are significant to modern life come about as a result of basic rather than applied research, noting that it is impossible to arrange or design life-changing discoveries. In emphasizing this point, Pauling used the example that “Nobody, not even Einstein himself, could plan to discover the theory of relativity.” [Pauling’s italics]

From there, Pauling complained bitterly about institutional qualms related to the costs of scientific equipment and research funds. In so doing, Pauling quoted the Russian physicist P.L. Kapitza, who, in a 1943 speech before the Soviet Academy of Science, had asked

When you look at a painting of Rembrandt, are you interested in the question of how much Rembrandt paid for his brushes and canvas? Why, when you consider a scientific job, do you want to know the cost of apparatus of the material used on it?

Pauling was unequivocal in his belief that the benefits of scientific achievement far outweighed the costs involved in producing the work, never mind the cost of equipment. As a means of easing the burden on educational institutions, Pauling reiterated his support for the creation of a National Science Foundation and stipulated that funding should be made available to universities and research institutes without limitations on how it could be used. He also suggested that corporations that rely on scientific discovery for their products bore an obligation to fund a large chunk of that research by providing similarly unrestricted research grants. Pauling felt that $250 million a year in federal money through a National Science Foundation, and $75 million a year from science-dependent industries, would work well as starting levels of support.

There were some concerns, raised by Pauling himself, that such large subsidies might invite inappropriate outside influence on scientific studies. But in general it was agreed that the need for funding and the value of research were greater than the associated risks. Notably, Pauling also believed that the smaller contribution from industry would still be enough to protect against a government monopolization of science.


Newsweek‘s reporting on the annual meeting portrayed Pauling’s address as the highlight of the convention, while making passing mention of that fact that, at some point, “…a rare chemical element disappeared from the convention hall where it was on exhibit.” The element was indeed very rare, and quite expensive as well. Called promethium (originally spelled prometheum) it had first been synthesized at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the war years and had been kept secret for reasons of national security.

According to the article, the sample on display weighed only 2 milligrams yet was worth about $120,000 in 1949, which is equivalent to well over a million dollars today. After doing the math, the Newsweek reporter who filed the story concluded that

…the national debt of the United States would buy about 10 pounds of prometheum. The loss was deplorable but completely unpreventable, for prometheum is radioactive and slowly disintegrates.

The implications of the last sentence are never explained; instead, the article moves on to a discussion of new processes for electroplating aluminum coatings to other metals. Whether the prometheum was stolen or somehow degraded down to nothing during the course of the conference is unclear, though theft seems more likely considering its monetary value (and its 17.7-year half-life).


Michael Somogyi

One research paper presented at the national meeting caused turbulence for the ACS in the months that followed. In Atlantic City, Dr. Michael Somogyi gave a talk on the treatment of diabetes in which he stated that most cases could be managed through dietary means alone and did not require the use of supplementary insulin. In fact, Somogyi argued that doctors were overprescribing insulin treatments to the point of afflicting their patients with “insulin poisoning.”

The American Diabetes Association was infuriated by this stance, and complained that medically driven research with severe implications for the treatment of a disease should never have been presented by a chemist at a chemistry convention. The ADA also pointed out that, in allowing the paper to be presented, the ACS had undermined the ability of medical practitioners to effectively treat diabetics, since many patients had begun to request Somogyi’s insulin-free treatment plan. The association further stressed that Somogyi’s research had not been clinically validated and did not actually include a “treatment plan” per se, but rather consisted of a series of recommendations for treatment possibilities and a call for further research.

An ADA representative wrote to Pauling that Somogyi’s actions had the potential to “jeopardize the lives of persons under treatment for diabetes” by encouraging potentially lethal abandonment of treatment plans involving insulin and weakening patients’ trust in their doctors. The representative concluded that changes in the scientific understanding of medical treatments should not be released to the public until clinically approved by qualified medical practitioners, and then released by an appropriate scientific journal or medical body.


The Somogyi controversy was one of the last major topics that Pauling was forced to address during his term as president of the ACS and, as 1950 approached, he was ready to move on to other priorities. His popularity as a speaker and as a scientist did not wane, but the controversies surrounding his liberal political leanings and accusations of Communist sympathies continued to hound him for years to come. Elected to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for 1950, Pauling remained tangentially active with the ACS for the rest of his life.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: Presidential Duties

[Part 3 of 4.]

Although Linus Pauling’s political activities were a source of irritation to many in the American Chemical Society, they did not seem to diminish his popularity to any noticeable extent. During his year as president, Pauling traveled the country, speaking to a great many local ACS sections and receiving many more requests than he could possibly accept.

Pauling’s talks also routinely drew audiences that were far larger than many of the sections had seen before, and sometimes bigger than the sections had capacity to accommodate. After one such occasion, a regional section, in sending Pauling a note of thanks following his talk at their meeting, even apologized to him in case “…those who had to stand became restless and in any way annoyed you.”

Prior to his visit, Pauling generally offered each section he lectured to a menu of three possible talks from which to choose: 1) The Valence of Metals and the Structures of Intermetallic Compounds, 2) The Structure of Antibodies and the Nature of Serological Reactions, or 3) New Light on the Structure of Inorganic Complexes. As the year moved forward, he began to introduce two additional possibilities: Structural Chemistry of the Metallic State and Relations between Structural Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry.

Each stop on his speaking tours typically included a luncheon with a few of the section’s higher-ups; a visit to a local university, factory, or laboratory where the majority of section members were employed; dinner out with the section; and finally the lecture at the end of the evening. For his talks, Pauling always requested a slide projector and a “good-sized blackboard,” complaining rather bitterly whenever he arrived at a venue to find that the blackboard had been omitted or was not as large as he had anticipated. Sections were generally quite diligent in accommodating Pauling, with many changing the dates of their regular meetings and rearranging other speakers to suit the president’s schedule.


In March, Pauling attended the William H. Nichols Medal dinner, which was hosted by the New York section of the ACS. Pauling had himself received the Nichols Medal in 1941 for his work on the chemical bond. Though the reasons why are unclear, the banquet at which the medal was customarily awarded had suffered a loss of prestige in the years since Pauling had received it.

Hoping to restore the event to its former glory, the organizers made a concerted effort to invite as many high-profile ACS members as they could, and Pauling enthusiastically accepted the section’s invitation to be present at the high table and say a few words about the importance of the award. The 1949 recipient of the Nichols Medal was I.M. Kolthoff, now often cited as the father of analytical chemistry.

Pauling also served as the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial lecturer for the Philadelphia section of the society. Smith was an internationally renowned chemist and educator as well as a past president of the ACS. Pauling’s appearance drew a much larger crowd than the organizers had anticipated, filling the lecture hall completely including standing room, with many others turned away once the room reached capacity. The title of his lecture was New Ideas on Inorganic Chemistry, focusing specifically on the structure of chemical bonds.

Pauling’s travels were interrupted in early April 1949 when he was hospitalized for a “varicocele repair job.” Though a minor operation, his recovery proved more difficult than the doctors had initially anticipated, and Pauling ultimately remained in the hospital for a month. As a result, he was forced to cancel a speaking tour he had arranged on the eastern half of the U.S. as well as numerous other engagements that had been booked throughout the spring.

Perhaps because of his forced removal from the public eye, Pauling seems to have enjoyed a quiet period during which he went about his own work as well as those put forth by his presidential duties. Those duties included appointing various awards committees as well as delegates to events and conferences that the ACS was invited to; participating in conversations related to budgets and logistics; and, once he was well, attending as many national-level meetings and local section events as he could.


Not all of Pauling’s activities as president attracted widespread attention. In the middle of the year, the ACS forwarded a letter to Pauling from a John Albert, aspiring research chemist, who introduced a tale of job search woe as follows:

Having been seeking employment for one year, having contacted more than one thousand prospective employers by resumes, having gone into debt more than $700 for bodily sustenance (food) during this period, having desired to marry, and having been refused even laboratory technician’s employment…

Albert included his résumé with the letter, requesting that Pauling critique it and offer any advice that he could to help the struggling chemist find work.

Pauling and ACS executive secretary Alden Emery both took note of Albert’s forwardness and pluck in contacting the president of the ACS as a job coach, and they decided to offer what help they could. After a little digging, Emery discovered that although Albert had spent five years studying full-time for his undergraduate degree, he never actually finished it, and from 1942 to 1949, a period of seven years, he had held six different jobs. In addition, the types of positions he was applying for – roles like lab supervisor – were too ambitious for someone lacking a degree and a strong record of long-term employment.

Pauling centered his response to Albert around those two questions: why hadn’t he finished his bachelor’s degree? and why had he changed jobs so frequently? Albert replied that he had “not succeeded” in his chemistry courses at university but had earned A’s in his music and German classes, and that, upon reflection, he may note possess the skill set necessary to really do well at chemistry. This moment of introspection, as initiated by Pauling’s queries, moved Albert to change career paths and seek employment related to music or German.

Pauling responded one final time to congratulate Albert on making the effort to discover his true passion and follow it, assuring his correspondent that “…sooner or later you will be successful.” Alden Emery wrote back as well with the suggestion that he take an aptitude test which might help reveal professions to which he was well-suited. Albert promised to stop in at the office that Emery had recommended to inquire about tests of this sort. He admitted that he was concerned about the fees associated with the process but “…shall not close my eyes to any possibility which might uncover this enigma’s secret…”


Several months had passed since Ralph Spitzer’s dismissal from Oregon State College, but Pauling had not forgotten the indignity. In June, he took part in a luncheon discussion panel titled “Should Communist Party Membership be Grounds for Dismissal from a College Faculty?” In it, Pauling argued the negative, and Dr. George C.S. Benson, the president of Claremont Men’s College, argued the positive.

The crux of Benson’s perspective was that the Communist party required its members to follow the party line in every aspect of their lives. As a consequence, adherent professors would be obligated to sneak Communist philosophies into their lectures for purposes of secretly indoctrinating students. Benson also held that a Communist party take-over would prevent minority groups from organizing, and that a country whose greatest legacy is liberty could not support the rise of a party which would suppress civil rights, violently overthrow the government, and engage in “intellectual double-dealing.”

Pauling’s counter was that “We are in danger, not from Communism, but from loss of principles.” He pointed out that many political liberals and progressives, including himself, had been attacked for “Communism” though they were neither Communist party members nor sympathizers. Rather, the label had become an umbrella accusation used to derail or overpower any individual or group that did not conform to appropriately conservative political beliefs.

Pauling then proposed that establishing Communism as grounds for dismissal from a university faculty showed disrespect for the academic integrity of professors and students alike, by implying that students could not be trusted to think for themselves and that allowing Communism a platform at all would be enough to ensure that it prevailed as a dominant ideology. Pauling suggested that it was cynics such as Benson, and not liberals, who ought to be brought for questioning before the Committee on Un-American Activities.


Though there is no documentary evidence for how the ACS reacted to Pauling’s stance on academic freedom, it was not long before his continued political activities brought him back under scrutiny in a major way.

In July, Pauling received a letter from the Hanson, Lovett & Dale law firm, which had been hired by Dr. Roger Adams, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ACS. Through the lawyer, Adams complained that Pauling had utilized his title as society president in his endorsement of an ad that had appeared in The New York Times the previous day. The ad was titled “Tom Clark’s Police State,” and as usual was a political statement that ran counter to conservative sentiments. The lawyer, Elisha Hanson, informed Pauling that the use of his title in such a manner was unauthorized and a violation of society regulations.

Pauling wrote back three days later, stating that “I am very much troubled by the information… [that] the name of the American Chemical Society is used in connection with my name, in this political activity,” and that he had asked specifically that his professional affiliations not be listed. Pauling expressed his disappointment that a lawyer had been contacted about the matter before anyone from the society had bothered to ask him for a clarification. Though mostly a matter of miscommunication, the society’s knee-jerk reaction to a relatively minor offense serves as evidence of the rift that had grown between Pauling and the ACS little more than halfway through his presidential year.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: Struggles Early On

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s year as president of the American Chemical Society. This is part 2 of 4.]

Having weathered the Henry Wallace controversy, Pauling entered into his presidential year as head of the American Chemical Society, and was immediately apprised of the need to address a significant problem. Namely, by the time he took office in 1949, the ACS had grown too large to function well from a financial standpoint. As a result, the society was constantly plagued by fiscal deficits on the order of several thousands of dollars, and was making budgetary adjustments left and right but still not breaking even.

One of Pauling’s first obligations as ACS chief was to publish a President’s Message in the January issue of Chemical and Engineering News, one of the society’s major publications. In his piece, titled “Our Job Ahead,” Pauling directly addressed the society’s financial difficulties, saying that he was sure the budget issues could be alleviated in a way that would support the society’s cost of operations and the publication of its journals. Pauling also wisely sought to address

…a related problem, the discrepancy between the remuneration of members and the rising costs of living, and to help generally in improving the economic and professional status of chemists and chemical engineers.

From there, Pauling warned his membership against any failure to use science for good, emphasizing the society’s responsibility to “…foster increased understanding and friendship among scientists of different nations” and reiterating the need to create a National Science Foundation. (As the year moved forward, Pauling addressed the issue of a National Science Foundation in several speeches to various ACS meetings, reiterating his support for the program, which had been proposed in the political arena but had not yet taken off.)

The feedback to Pauling’s column was generally positive, with many chemists taking especial heart in learning of Pauling’s concern for their financial well-being.


In mid-January, Pauling began to promote another idea that he supported: the World Calendar. The World Calendar was a proposition that would regularize the lengths of months and theoretically be adopted by every country in the world. In Pauling’s view, moving in this direction would rectify the “inconvenience” caused by the current calendar systems in use, and would make “every year the same.” “The advantages,” as Pauling put it, “are similar to those of an internationally accepted system of screw threads.” At the time that Pauling expressed interest in the idea, it had already been endorsed by seventeen nations around the world as well as multiple scientific organizations.

Correspondence exchanged between Pauling and other ACS executives indicates that there was a general willingness to bring up the idea at a meeting of the Board of Directors, and even some enthusiasm for its endorsement. The topic disappears from the record after January however, and obviously never went far in the national or international political spheres.


In February, a mini-scandal of sorts hit the society when a collection of non-members protested the registration fees required of them to attend ACS conferences that they had been officially invited to present at by the organization itself. Pauling had not known that the society charged registration fees to invited non-members, and expressed vehement opposition to the practice when it was brought to his attention. But Pauling was overruled by executive secretary Alden Emery and others, who pointed out that the practice was necessitated by a clause in the society’s constitution which would be difficult to change.

After a little more digging, Emery discovered that although the society as a whole struggled with funding – as did each local section and the society’s various publications as well – all of the complaints regarding non-member registration fees came from the Division of Biological Chemistry. According to Emery, that particular division was, in reality, in “excellent financial condition.”

Pauling and Emery eventually concluded that the division’s real issue was its lack of appeal to its target demographic. Fundamentally, the division was perceived by non-member biochemists to be more chemical than biological in focus, and therefore not an appropriate environment for sharing and publishing work that was more biological in nature.

As they puzzled over their continuing fiscal woes, the Board of Directors discussed the possibility of increasing membership dues in order to better support the society’s many undertakings. This notion was countered by fears that increased fees might create a corresponding drop in membership that would defeat the purpose. In the end however, the fees went up.


Ralph Spitzer.

The February 1949 dismissal of Ralph Spitzer from his faculty position in the chemistry department at Oregon State College, which has been written about in detail on this site and elsewhere, hit Pauling hard and brought his liberal political beliefs into the limelight once again. Pauling was a mentor and friend to Spitzer and also an OSC alum; indeed, he had recommended Spitzer for the position at Oregon State.

The grounds for Spitzer’s dismissal were vague, but clearly political in their motivats. Then OSC president August Strand had accused Spitzer of harboring communist sympathies based on his support of Henry Wallace in the presidential election and his advocacy of Trofim Lysenko’s theory of the intergenerational inheritance of acquired characteristics, a genetic theory that had originated in the Soviet Union and that differed from accepted Western theories. (Research in later years would ultimately prove Lysenko’s theory to be incorrect, although it does bear some largely coincidental resemblance to modern epigenetics.) Importantly, rather than an endorsement of the theory, Spitzer’s support was couched mainly in terms of defending the right for Lysenko’s theories to be heard, respected and considered through a scientific lens, and not discounted outright simply because of their Soviet origins.

As his standing at OSC dissolved, Spitzer wrote to Pauling to advise him of the situation and to ask for his help in trying to get his job back. Pauling promptly wrote to Strand to protest the removal of Spitzer on political grounds, which he considered to be an infringement of academic freedom since there had been no complaints of Spitzer’s political leanings affecting his research or teaching.

The year before, Pauling had publicly spoken out against the House Committee on Un-American Activities for not giving scientists the chance to defend themselves against accusations of disloyalty. Now he found himself in the midst of a public feud with August Strand over Spitzer’s dismissal, which culminated in a public rending of Pauling’s previously strong bond with his undergraduate alma mater. Pauling and Spitzer later took part in a forum on the perceived incompatibility between academic freedom and Communism, joining a set of professors from other universities who found themselves in the same boat as Spitzer. Documentary evidence as to how the ACS handled all of this is lacking, but the membership’s broad reaction to Pauling’s support for Henry Wallace leads one to suppose that the society was likely none too pleased about it.