Remembering Linus Pauling: A Personal Reflection

Stephen Lawson and Linus Pauling celebrating at Pauling’s 90th birthday party, 1991

By Stephen Lawson

August 19th 1994. Linus Pauling had been ensconced at his ranch on the beautiful coast near Big Sur, California, surrounded by family, for a few weeks, near death from prostate cancer. At the time, I was the chief executive officer of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto and relished a quiet summer evening at home. The telephone rang – Linus Pauling Jr. broke the terrible but expected news that his father had died. Trying to overcome grief, I raced to the Institute to start faxing an obituary that had been prepared months earlier to important news sources – The New York Times, major networks, and other media. Almost immediately the phone lines lit up with reporters asking for more details and comments on Pauling’s life and death. I managed to provide some salient information while struggling with my own strong emotions about Pauling’s death.

Many people who met Pauling or respected and admired him even without having had any personal interaction were also grief stricken. In the following weeks, hundreds of condolences – telegrams, cards, letters, faxes, and phone calls – came to the Institute from around the world. People expressed such sorrow that the great humanitarian who had showed them such courteous kindness had died. They admired his work in science, his never-ending efforts for peace, his championing of vitamin C and other micronutrients, his courage in the face of a hostile US Congress, his patriotic work for the United States during World War II, and his devotion to and love for his wife, Ava Helen.

Pauling connected with people in a way that left many feeling love for him. Of course, he was lauded by luminaries – Francis Crick anointed Pauling the major founder of molecular biology, and Arthur Kornberg noted that Pauling, who had won two Nobel Prizes, deserved another for his discovery of the cause of sickle-cell anemia, the first disease to be characterized as a molecular disease. In 2000, the “Millennium Essay” in Nature – one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals – ranked Pauling with Galileo, Da Vinci, Newton, and Einstein, among others, as “one of the great thinkers and visionaries of the millennium” and noted that Pauling was responsible for the “extrapolation from physics to chemistry and the articulation of chemistry as an independent subject” and that “Chemistry, then, is utterly different from physics and biology in its dependence, at a primal level, on just one scientist” – Linus Pauling.

But in the weeks following his death, I was especially impressed by the expressions of sympathy and loss from people who had written to Pauling asking about vitamin C and health problems or other matters and received personal responses, probably often to their surprise. Pauling, who believed that scientists, as experts in their fields, have a social responsibility to explain their work to the public, took time to connect with everyone. As the author of several textbooks, one of which, General Chemistry, educated generations of scientists, and others, including No More War!, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, How to Live Longer and Feel Better, and Cancer and Vitamin C that were written for the lay public and health professionals, Pauling practiced what he strongly advocated.


I first saw Linus Pauling when I was on my way to class in the Quadrangle at Stanford University in Palo Alto. It was a tumultuous era in American history – there were strident demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and students vigorously promoted free speech rights. As I walked to the Quad, I noticed a gaggle of students and faculty outside the office of Stanford’s president, Richard Lyman. In particular, two elderly men, one of whom was Linus Pauling, were holding signs protesting the firing of H. Bruce Franklin, a political firebrand who had been a tenured professor of English at Stanford and an expert on Herman Melville and science fiction. Stanford had had enough of the turmoil associated with Franklin’s behavior and fired him, an act that Pauling was protesting because tenure supposedly protects the expression of ideas, especially controversial ones. I wasn’t very familiar with the details about the issue, but I certainly admired Pauling’s courage, a quality that defined Pauling’s activism throughout the years. Although Pauling was on the Stanford faculty, he wasn’t teaching undergraduates at the time, so I never had the opportunity to see his celebrated performances in the classroom that had famously inspired legions of students at Caltech.

Years later, when I worked at the Linus Pauling Institute in Menlo Park, Pauling would often stop by my office to exchange greetings, ask me to write for publication, or to help out with experimental studies, which is how I became very interested in vitamin C. Still later, in Palo Alto, Pauling approached me about setting up a laboratory with his quantum chemist colleague Zelek Herman to conduct experiments aimed at producing material that he wanted to support his patent application for a novel method of fabricating superconductors. His goal was to license the invention in order to generate a revenue stream to support orthomolecular research at the Institute. Aided occasionally by Ewan Cameron, Pauling’s medical collaborator on clinical vitamin C studies, we finally succeeded in fabricating the material that Pauling had hoped we would, and Zeke and I went to Pauling’s apartment to show him the samples. It was immensely gratifying to see what joy he expressed, and at that moment I understood how he must have felt every time he made discoveries – understanding something that no one else had understood – throughout his long career.   

Pauling lived by an age-old maxim that he humorously amended: “Do unto others 20% better than you would have them do unto you in order to make up for subjective error.” Even in the face of caustic criticism, he remained courteous, usually with his humor intact, and supremely confident – a confidence stemming from his formidable memory and mastery of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, mineralogy, and other disciplines. He trusted his own intellect and urged others to do likewise – never simply accept what is said without critical examination.

Pauling had reams of papers on vitamin C that the Institute librarian had acquired at Stanford libraries. In that era, most of the original data was presented in the paper, and Pauling usually checked the statistical analysis that the authors employed, sometimes finding errors that compromised their conclusions. I attended a lecture he gave to a group of biostatisticians at Stanford in the late 1980s in which he discussed the application of the Hardin Jones principle to death rates in clinical studies. He argued that it revealed more information about subcohorts than the standard Kaplan-Meier analysis. There he was, in a room with many of the leading statisticians in the country, and none argued against his thesis. Of course, he was famously wrong about a few things, including the structure of DNA, but sometimes only because he didn’t have access to better data.

Linus Pauling made an indelible impression on everyone who met him, and for them and for those who never had that opportunity, he will continue to serve as a unparalleled model of brilliance, integrity, creativity, and courage – truly a man for the ages.

Remembering Linus Pauling: The Obituaries

Linus Pauling, 1988. Image credit: Albert Dadian

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers at Oregon State University Libraries include more than 3,000 newspaper clippings that focus on Linus Pauling as a primary subject. Among these, 170 extant clippings are devoted to remembering Pauling in the days and weeks following his death on August 19, 1994. In today’s post, we present a few anecdotes that we came across in reviewing this content, snapshots of a remarkable life.

Keay Davidson, San Francisco Examiner

Professor Pauling has brilliant blue eyes and an infectious grin. He wore a dusty blue beret and always stood to extend an enthusiastic, wrinkled hand to reporters and just plain admirers.

Former students loved to recall his lectures, which have been compared, for sheer entertainment value, to those of the other great showman of modern American science – the late physicist Richard Feynman. In his 1985 autobiography, “Radiant Science, Dark Politics,” former Berkeley scientist Martin D. Kamen fondly recalled a Pauling lecture of the 1930s: “He bounded into the room, already crowded with students eager to hear the Great Man, spread himself over the seminar table next to the blackboard and, running his hands through an unruly shock of hair, gestured to the students to come closer.”

“I remember one of my best friends at Caltech, when we were sitting in a chemistry lecture, looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t know what is more fun – watching Pauling or watching you watching Pauling,” Art Robinson, a former colleague, recalled.

“Linus Pauling Dies at 93,” August 20, 1994

Jeff Gottlieb, San Jose Mercury News

“He’s really a compulsive worker,” said Linus Pauling Jr, a retired psychiatrist. “He had built-in energy. Most people when they leave the office at the end of the day they quit working. He would bring stuff home and he would work. It was really the only thing he did.”

Matthew Meselson, a biochemistry professor at Harvard who was one of the last graduate students to train under Pauling, recalled a story his teacher told him. The great German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss, Pauling said, was asked why he was so great in his field. “I don’t know,” Gauss replied, “but maybe it’s because I never do anything else.”

Pauling took the insights he learned in quantum mechanics and brought them to chemistry with his theory of the chemical bond. “He was this country’s first and best ever structural chemist,” [Roald] Hoffmann said. “He pioneered several techniques in this country and he put this country in the leadership of chemistry through his work.”

“Nobel Winner Linus Pauling Dies of Cancer,” August 20, 1994
Linus Pauling at the Grand Canyon, circa 1947

Robin McKie, The Times (London)

All of [his] achievements were made in typical Pauling style – involving displays of astonishing intuition, a phenomenal memory and a willingness to take great intellectual risks. As historian Horace Judson states in his history of modern biology, The Eighth Day of Creation, “Linus Pauling had energy, inventiveness, showmanship and genius enough for a consortium.”

“Linus Pauling: The Century’s Greatest Chemist,” August 21, 1994

Elizabeth Weise, Associated Press

“I consider him to be certainly the most influential chemists of the century, but he really belongs among the most extraordinary scientists of all time,” said Dr. Henry Taube, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford. “In a sense he put structural chemistry on the map. He made some of the most important contributions to this field, and his ideas on the structure of proteins stand today,” Taube said.

Dr. Max Perutz, founder of the molecular biology laboratory at Cambridge, England, called Pauling’s 1939 book The Nature of the Chemical Bond a revelation. “I think that’s what he should be remembered for. As a student, chemistry was something you learned by heart but you didn’t understand. Linus Pauling’s book made me and countless others understand chemistry for the first time.”

Pauling was best known in the past two decades for his belief that large doses of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, could protect people from colds, cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as extend the lifespan for decades. Despite skepticism over his claims, Pauling retained the respect of his fellow scientists [Horace] Judson said. “There are plenty of scientists who say ‘This has been disproven but if Linus says it’s true, I’m going to take my vitamin C every morning anyway,” Judson said.

“Pauling Chartered Life Itself,” as published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1994
Pauling holding a model of the alpha helix, circa 1980s

Richard Severo, The New York Times

In the early 1950s, Dr. James D. Watson and Sir Francis Crick were constantly looking over their shoulders at the body of the research of Linus Pauling with a mixture of admiration and apprehension. Dr. Watson and Sir Francis were at the time feverishly trying to determine that structure that is crucial to the construction of all living cells – DNA – and Dr. Pauling was pursuing the same goal.

Writing years later in The Double Helix, a book about the discovery, Dr. Watson described Dr. Pauling’s presentation of work, showing, in part, the helical structure of proteins. The passage reveals not only the high esteem in which Dr. Pauling was held by his colleagues but also the intense envy he sometimes engendered.

“Pauling’s talk was done with his usual flair,” Dr. Watson wrote. “The words came out as if he had been in show business all his life. A curtain kept his model hidden until near the end of his lecture, when he proudly unveiled his latest creation. Then, with his eyes twinkling, Linus explained the specific characteristics…that made his model uniquely beautiful. This show, like all of his dazzling performances, delighted the younger students in attendance. There was no one like Linus in all the world. The combination of his prodigious mind and his infectious grin was unbeatable. Several fellow professors, however, watched this performance with mixed feelings. Seeing Linus jumping up and down on the demonstration table and moving his arms like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of his shoe made them feel inadequate. If only he had shown a little humility, it would have been so much easier to take!”

“Linus C. Pauling, Pioneering Chemist, Voice for Peace and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93,” August 21, 1994

Los Angeles Times

Pauling was a very compassionate individual, by all accounts, and his sympathies instantly sprang to those who had been made to suffer for their political beliefs. “He once hired a lab director,” [James] Bonner said, “whose sole credential for the job was the fact that he had been fired from his previous post for citing the 5th Amendment on his own behalf during some anti-Communist hearings. The man was not a good choice for the job, but still Linus stuck by him.”

Pauling’s greatest strength, said many who knew him through the years, was also his Achilles’ heel: a supreme, unshakable confidence in the correctness of his own judgments. “When he was right, which was more often than not,” said one longtime friend, “he was very, very right. But when he was wrong, which he also was from time to time, there was no way to get him to see it, or to compromise, or to make any kind of concession. This attitude frankly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

In the end, such foibles amount to little when compared to the achievements of Pauling’s remarkable contributions to science and society. “He had one of the most original, creative minds of any scientist in the 20th century,” said Norman Davidson, a longtime colleague. “There is no doubt that he will be the preeminent chemist of this century.”

“A Flamboyant Scientist’s Legacy,” uncredited staff writer, August 21, 1994
Oil painting of Linus Pauling by Giovanella, circa 1970s

David F. Salisbury, Stanford Campus Report

Henry Taube recalls vividly the first time he met Linus Pauling. It was at a seminar held in 1938 at the University of California-Berkeley. “Pauling was already famous,” the Stanford chemistry professor and Nobel laureate says. Following a brilliant lecture, Pauling handled all the questions put to him so readily and deftly that a fellow scientist was moved to remark that Pauling must have a pipeline to God and to jokingly propose that he should be called Pope Linus I. “Pauling responded by informing the person that there had already been several Pope Linuses, so he couldn’t be the first. However, he didn’t object to the fitness of the designation,” Taube says.

“He had a great sense of humor. It was not canned, but spontaneous,” [Harden] McConnell says. He points to a humorous scientific paper that Pauling published about a commercial product that was supposed to combat odors. Because his analysis showed that the product was mostly formaldehyde, Pauling concluded that it worked by embalming people’s noses.

“Colleagues Recall Multifaceted Scientist Pauling,” August 24, 1994

Alexander Rich, Nature

Linus Pauling was widely honored. In addition to two Nobel Prizes he received over 50 medals and awards from a great variety of organizations, and almost as many honorary degrees from universities. The esteem with which he was regarded was vividly illustrated to me in 1951 when, as a postdoctoral fellow of Pauling’s, I visited Albert Einstein in Princeton. Einstein’s comment to me was “Ah, that man is a real genius!”

“Linus Pauling (1901-1994), September 22, 1994

Remembering Linus Pauling: Twenty-Five Years Later

At 7:20 PM on August 19, 1994, Linus Pauling passed away, a victim of rectal and prostate cancer. Twenty-five years later, the Pauling Blog will be devoting the month of August to remembering.

Today’s post features three video clips of local news broadcasts announcing Pauling’s death and commenting on its aftermath. Each of these reports was collected by Oregon State University’s News and Communications Services unit and later deposited with the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU Libraries.

In the first clip below, which aired the day after Pauling died, Portland’s NBC affiliate KGW-8 provides a nice overview of Pauling’s life that includes footage of his last visit to the Rose City in February 1991.

News coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KGW-8 Portland, August 20, 1994

This next clip, which also aired on August 20, 1994, was produced by Eugene station KVAL-13 and features footage of OSU chemist Carroll DeKock as well as Ramesh Krishmurthy, formerly the Projects Director at the OSU Special Collections. Both talk about Pauling’s impact and Krishnamurthy provides a glimpse of the Pauling Papers as they were arranged at that time.

Local news coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KVAL-13 Eugene, August 20, 1994

Finally, this shorter item, which aired on August 23rd, was broadcast on a different Eugene station – KEZI-9 – and focuses on the future of the Linus Pauling Institute. It also includes a few shots of the Special Collections reading room, which was located on the fourth floor of the Kerr Library at the time and demolished five years later as part of a major building expansion that relied, in part, on Pauling’s name to generate private support.

Local news coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KEZI-9 Eugene, August 23, 1994

The Roebling Medal

The Washington A. Roebling Medal, presented to Linus Pauling in 1967

“I remember that when my wife and I visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Lambarene a number of years ago, I suggested to him that his principle of reverence for life ought to be extended to include minerals, and perhaps could be named the principle of reverence for the world.”

-Linus Pauling, 1967

In November 1967, Linus Pauling traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to attend the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. The society was composed of six sections including the Mineralogical Society of America, which had invited Pauling to receive its most prestigious award: the Washington A. Roebling Medal.

Born in 1837, Washington Roebling was a civil engineer who worked primarily on suspension bridges and who, most famously, oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. His father John A. Roebling, also a renowned civil engineer, had initially designed the Brooklyn Bridge but died of tetanus before construction began. It was at that point that Washington Roebling assumed leadership of the project as well as the family business, John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. He continued in this capacity until his passing in 1926.

Washington Roebling. Credit: Rutgers University Library, Special Collections and Archives

In addition to his achievements as an engineer, Roebling was also an avid mineral collector who scouted out and saved more than 16,000 specimens during his lifetime. After his death the collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, at which point it was noted that, of the 1,500 mineral species then known, only fifteen were not represented in Roebling’s assemblage. As a natural outgrowth of his hobby, Roebling was also an active member of the Mineralogical Society of America, assuming the position of vice president late in life.

In 1937 the Mineralogical Society of America created the Roebling Medal to honor the memory of one their highest profile members. The award was meant to be the most prestigious decoration offered by the society, as granted to an individual who had made “scientific publications of outstanding original research in mineralogy.” Nominations could be put forth for any qualified individual, whether or not they were strictly a mineralogist. For several years prior to issuing the award for the first time, the society earmarked a small percentage of their members’ annual dues to fund the medal, which was cast from 14 karat gold and bore an image of its namesake.


At the 1967 ceremony in New Orleans, Pauling was introduced by Jose D. H. Donnay, a mineralogy professor at Johns Hopkins University. A charming speaker, Donnay reflected on Pauling’s humble origins, his academic and professional accolades, his extensive and varied research interests, and the achievements that had resulted in this honor. As Donnay noted in his enthusiastic remarks

Let me, at least, remind you of the fields of endeavor in which [Pauling] himself admits taking an interest: crystal structures, molecular structures, line spectra, quantum chemistry, molecular rotation in crystals, ionic radii, theory of stability of complex crystals, proteins and helices, in short the vast subject of the chemical bond; turning toward biology and medicine: the relation between disease and molecular abnormality, immunochemistry, sickle-cell anemia; in other fields, structural problems of metals and alloys, ferromagnetism. Some people have asked me, ‘Why give Pauling one more medal? Will not our modest homage look like an anti-climax?’ [To which I would answer]…there is not a single mineralogical medal in his present-day medalary…our own profession, which owes him so much, cannot tarry, cannot be ungrateful any longer: it is high time we jumped on the band wagon!

Donnay drafted his speech months before the Louisiana meeting and had asked Pauling to proofread it. The only edits that he suggested be made were mention of his newly published book, The Chemical Bond, as well as his receipt of an overseas addition to the medalary: the Correspondant por a Mineralogie award, granted by the French Academy of Science in 1948.


In his acceptance address, Pauling reflected several personal and professional outcomes of his life-long love affair with mineralogy. He recalled in particular that his interest in the study of rocks and minerals had reached an early crescendo some fifty years earlier when, as a young college student, he initiated a systematic, year-long effort to collect specimens native to the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Unfortunately for him, Pauling was not well-equipped to pursue this task as he was limited by his only mode of transportation: a bicycle.

While this initial quest proved unsuccessful, Pauling’s enthusiasm did not wane but rather took on a more academic form, including mining geology courses at Oregon Agricultural College, complete with lab work on blowpipe analysis and fire assay.        

Linus Pauling, 1947

Pauling next noted that it was a Caltech scientist, C. Lalor Burdick, who was the first to correctly determine the molecular structure of a mineral, chalcopyrite. Completed while Pauling himself was still in his first year at OAC, this discovery and others like it inspired Pauling to begin his own research on the structure of molybdenite once he had arrived at Caltech to begin graduate studies. Co-published with his mentor, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson, the molybdenite project was just the beginning of a remarkable phase of productivity and insight. Within the next thirteen years, Pauling investigated sixty-three other minerals using x-ray diffraction techniques, publishing structures for over half of them.

Later on, Pauling encouraged a student to dig back into the past and review Burdick’s original work, an examination that yielded fruit. As he noted in his talk,

I suggested to one of my graduate students, L. O. Brockway, that he carry out a reinvestigation of chalcopyrite in order to determine the parameter with greater accuracy. He found Burdick had made an error, and had reported a wrong distribution of copper and iron atoms over the zinc positions in sphelerite. The correct structure was reported by Brockway and me in 1933.

Pauling likewise made mention of a collection of specimens that Robert Oppenheimer gave to him after a meeting in 1927. Though offered mostly as a gesture of friendship, the collection also proved useful to Pauling’s research, and he continued to study the specimens until the late 1930s, when his interest shifted towards the interactions between hemoglobin and oxygen. Though biological topics would dominate much of his work going forward, Pauling stressed that “I continue to find pleasure in looking at minerals, and thinking about their structures.”

Two years after receiving the Roebling Medal, Pauling was invited back by the society to give a speech titled “Crystallography and Chemical Bonding of Sulfides,” which was published in the Fiftieth Anniversary Symposium volume of the Mineralogical Society of America Journal. Pauling remained a society fellow for life and received a certificate recognizing his contributions to the group in 1994, not long before he passed away.

                                                                                                                               

Remembering Barbara Low

Barbara Low in California, 1947. Credit: Low estate.

Barbara Low, a former research fellow for Linus Pauling and an esteemed scientist, died earlier this year at the age of 98. Low spent most of her career as a researcher and professor at Columbia University’s Vageos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is perhaps best known for her work with protein structures, particularly her work on the structure of penicillin and her discovery of the pi-helix.

Barbara Wharton Rogers was born in Lancaster, England on March 23, 1920 (she married in 1950 and changed her name thereafter). After receiving her B.A. from Somerville College – an Oxford women’s college – in 1942, she went on to earn an M.A. and D. Phil. from Oxford University. As a component of her education, Low learned the techniques of x-ray crystallography, a field within the chemical sciences that was emerging for women. A major reason for this trend was the fact that one of the leading crystallographers of the era, Oxford professor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, was banned from teaching to men, so instead she taught crystallography to women at Somerville.

Low was one of Hodgkin’s star pupils, and after Low received her B.A. in chemistry, Hodgkin became Low’s advisor for her graduate studies. It was during these years that Hodgkin and Low determined the structure of penicillin using x-ray crystallography. In 1964, Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work determining the structures of various important biochemical substances, penicillin certainly among them.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Credit: Luke Hodgkin

While she was working on her doctorate, Low spent a year at the California Institute of Technology as a research fellow, supervised by Linus Pauling. This was the start of what would become a fruitful and mutual working relationship between Pauling and Low. After leaving Caltech and graduating from Oxford, Low took a position as a research associate, and later as assistant professor of physical chemistry, at Harvard University. As her career advanced, Low kept in touch with Pauling and this connection proved beneficial on more than one occasion.


In the early 1950s, Low began to apply x-ray crystallographic techniques to a study of the structure of insulin. She did so during a period of much debate within the scientific community about the structure of various proteins. Pauling famously solved a piece of this puzzle in April 1951 when he published, “The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain” with collaborators Robert Corey and Herman Branson. In this paper, Pauling described for the first time the alpha helical structure of many proteins, a watershed moment that ushered in a whole new era of understanding across the discipline.

Barbara Low was, of course, also working on the structure of proteins, and she became particularly inspired to investigate the connection between structure and function after attending a lecture that Pauling gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1951. Low believed, as did Pauling, that the configuration of the folding of the protein was of more importance to its function than was the molecular make-up itself. Determined to apply this belief to her work on the structure of insulin, Low wrote several letters to Pauling asking him to verify the bond angle distances for the proteins about which he had lectured. Pauling gladly supplied Low with the requested data, even noting that he had double-checked the calculations as he was writing her back. Pauling also helped Low to secure scientific models for the structures that he had described.

Pi-helix diagram published by Low and Grenville-Wells, 1953

These data and models proved vital to one of Low’s most famous discoveries: the pi-helix. Like the alpha-helix, the pi-helix is a type of structure found in some proteins, though one that was not published by Pauling as part of his alpha-helix investigations. This failure may have been due to the pi-helix’ small size, which at the time of its discovery led some researchers to believe it to be an infrequent and rare structure. More modern day findings indicate however that the pi-helix is much more common than previously thought; present in about 15% of protein structures all told.

Low wrote about her discovery to Pauling shortly after the news was made public and received a mixed reply from her former mentor. At the beginning of his response, Pauling suggested that the pi-helix was most likely something that he “too ran across a while back” but acknowledged that Low’s structure was not “intermediate between the alpha helix and the gamma helix,” and thus both novel and genuine. The letter concludes with an admission from Pauling that his researchers may have “overlooked it” in their previous work.


Pauling’s hedging congratulations in this instance did not seem to negatively impact the duo’s relationship, and throughout their correspondence one intuits that the colleagues remained on friendly terms throughout the years. In many letters to Pauling, Low often concluded by giving her regards to Ava Helen. Low also developed a love for the comic Li’l Abner by way of Pauling, who had introduced her to the satirical strip at a dinner party in the early 1950s.

Pauling and Low were also, at times, involved in one another’s careers. When Pauling was denied a passport to travel to the Royal Society Meeting to attend the Protein Symposium in 1952, Low wrote to express her “shock” and to express how “shaken” she was that he had been treated this way. For his part, Pauling helped Low to secure grants and funding through multiple letters of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Low as her research position at Harvard came to an end in June 1956 by putting her in contact with colleagues Detlev Bronk of Johns Hopkins University, John Kirkwood of Yale University, and DeWitt Stetten at the National Institute of Arthritis. While it is unclear how influential these contacts may have been in Low’s gaining her eventual position at Columbia, it is certainly worth noting that Stetten had recently left Columbia after having served there for nine years as an instructor of biochemistry.

However it came to pass, Low started at Columbia in 1956 as an assistant professor and was promoted to professor in 1966. She formally retired from Columbia in 1990, but stayed on as a lecturer until 2013. Like Pauling, Low was active both socially and politically, devoting significant time and energy to affirmative action activities at her institution. She passed away on January 10, 2019 at her home in the Bronx, New York.

Final Years as Division Chair: The End of Pauling’s Chairmanship

Pasadena Independent, June 1958

[Pauling as Administrator; Part 20 of 20]

The final years of Linus Pauling’s tenure as chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology were marked by steady change within the division and the Institute. One shift, first discussed in 1956, was a revision of the freshman chemistry curriculum to incorporate physics-based theoretical approaches that had been developed since 1940. By covering these topics in the first year, Caltech’s undergraduates would be adequately well-equipped to take organic chemistry as sophomores. Other curricular edits focused on removing a handful of junior- and senior-year requirements, thus freeing up room for electives.

Though the undergraduate population was robust enough to merit a rethinking of the coursework being offered, graduate studies at the Institute were suffering. The difficulties that Caltech was facing with attracting graduate students were in turn leading to a lack of people available to teach lower-level undergraduate courses. Seeking to address this problem, Institute President Lee DuBridge suggested to the division chairs that they consider increasing the stipend offered to graduate instructors. Amidst these conversations though, a steady buzz about Pauling’s growing public image, and its potential impact on Caltech’s well-being, could not be avoided. Pressures of this sort ultimately undermined Pauling’s position of leadership at Caltech and resulted in his stepping down from his administrative post.


Just two months after dealing with unfavorable press from conservative columnist Fulton Lewis, Jr. and subsequent threats from major donors to withdraw financial support from Caltech, Pauling appeared on the May 11, 1958 episode of Meet the Press. [Audio of this appearance is included below — credit: pastdaily.com and the Gordon Skene Sound Collection]

At first, the panel cordially questioned Pauling about his petition to ban nuclear testing. But as the interview went on, panelists began to ask more leading questions about Pauling being a Communist, and the show became especially heated once the panel brought up Fulton Lewis’ allegations that the petition had cost $10 per signature. Pauling’s own calculations put the correct amount at 3¢ per signature, but he was cut off as he attempted to give his final response. Following the episode, Pauling received scores of letters thanking him for his work and sympathizing with how poorly he had been treated by the interviewers. Some correspondents even sent him money in hopes that their donation might assist with the petition initiative.


A decidedly different cache of letters came into President DuBridge’s office. Among them were expressions of outrage at Pauling’s activities accompanied by threats to withhold future donations to Caltech. DuBridge forwarded “one of many” of these letters to Pauling. Authored by someone who simply signed off as “Disturbed,” the letter writer described themself as being “truly frightened” by Pauling, a “psychopathic” character who was in “consistent alignment with Communist activities.” For Disturbed, Pauling’s appearance on Meet the Press held no redeeming value as far as Caltech was concerned. The author also pointed out that they had no children and threatened to remove Caltech from consideration in their will. For Disturbed, it was beyond to pale to have

men like this fellow in top faculty positions – men who may, for all I know, be in a position to share the secrets of defense production that go on at Cal-Tech.


As for DuBridge, this latest controversy was the last straw. After forwarding Disturbed’s letter, the Caltech president called Pauling into his office to ask that he stop his peace work and to tell him – according to Pauling’s notes – that he was the “laughing stock of people everywhere.” In this meeting, DuBridge stressed that Pauling’s activities were directly interfering with Caltech’s ability to raise money, noting specifically a development fund of $16 million that went to Harvey Mudd College instead. DuBridge also told Pauling that the Institute’s trustees had seriously considered dismissing him, but did not do so because of concerns related to academic freedom.

In response, Pauling told DuBridge that he would continue to follow his conscience, but also put forth a scenario that would give DuBridge a way out of his own political bind. Pauling’s proposal was that he be appointed a Research Professor with no teaching duties so that his salary would only be charged against research funds. Importantly, Pauling also suggested that he step down as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. In Pauling’s mind, this revision of duties would help to reduce potential damage to fundraising efforts caused by his public appearances.

A month later, Pauling again suggested to DuBridge that his duties be shifted, but this time asked that he not be appointed a Research Professor – after thinking about it for a while, he realized that he enjoyed teaching too much and did not want to give it up. He was, however, prepared to cede his administrative position immediately, telling DuBridge that he would stay on as chair longer if needed, but would prefer to exit as soon as he could.

Extra time was not necessary and Ernest Swift took over the chair on June 30, 1958. The annual report issued by the division marked this major transition by avoiding the politics of the situation. In it, President DuBridge gave his own spin on why Pauling was stepping down, saying, “He has served as Division Chairman for twenty-one years, and his desire for relief is entirely understandable.” The report also noted how, on seemingly equal footing, the transition to the new curriculum structure was continuing to go smoothly.


Once established, Ernest Swift took the division in a different direction, giving more sway to the sub-disciplines within the unit than had Pauling. Lab space was also reorganized, with Pauling and his research teams given less space. Pauling’s salary was likewise reduced from $18,000 to $15,000, a reflection of the argument that Pauling had made two decades earlier that his pay should be increased with the added responsibilities of being division chair.

And despite the hope that Pauling might be able to express his views in public more freely without harming Caltech’s finances, his public persona remained a source of problems. Even after Pauling had stepped down from the chair, President DuBridge continued to send Pauling letters that he had received from those who were upset with his public statements and his alleged communism. Pauling’s response to one such letter was “I think that he is a hopeless case – probably a junior member of the John Birch Society.”

Sadly, Pauling’s second Nobel Prize in 1963 only increased the tension, and neither the Institute nor his own division provided any formal recognition of the honor. Rather, DuBridge went so far as to disparage Pauling’s methods for seeking peace. The snub proved to be too much for Pauling, and not long after accepting the prize he announced that he would be leaving Caltech in favor of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. After a close and hugely productive association that spanned forty-one years, Pauling’s affiliation with Caltech was reduced to that of Research Associate, as defined by a series of unpaid contracts that were renewed annually into the late 1960s.

Final Years as Division Chair: Progress Within, Trouble Without

Linus Pauling, 1958. Photo Credit: Wayne Miller.

[Pauling as Administrator]

Linus Pauling’s last years as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology were punctuated by the construction of the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology, which commenced in August 1954. Earlier budget concerns, which threatened to reduce the size of the building and to leave much of it unfurnished, had been partially overcome when an extra $250,000 was allocated for the project. But even this fresh infusion of cash was not enough to get the building over the hump. Full funding was not in hand until the next spring, when a $368,000 construction grant was awarded to provide for the laboratory’s furnishings.

All told, the Church facility cost more then $2 million to complete. It was dedicated in November 1955 as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting, which was held at Caltech at Pauling’s urging. Faculty and staff did not fully occupy the building until the following summer, but everybody was pleased with the result and, in particular, the opportunities for collaboration between chemistry and biology that the shared space helped to facilitate. In short, things were continuing to look good for the division under Pauling.


Pauling’s 1956 division report was equally congratulatory. Echoing the tone of earlier years, the report recognized it’s head for developing a division that used chemical methods to advance critical questions that cut across disciplines. Decades before, the report noted, A.A. Noyes had attained similar heights in building a chemical division that was capable of applying physical methods to chemical questions. Now, in 1956, Caltech could boast of a unit that was “strong” in chemistry and chemical engineering and “especially outstanding” in research on molecular structure and the application of chemistry to biology and medicine.

The division’s strengths had a lot to do with the funding that it attracted and, despite some setbacks, Pauling remained fundamental to making this so. One major achievement from this time period was to secure matching funds for the $1,500,000 challenge grant that had been put forth by the Rockefeller Foundation earlier in the decade. Pauling played a key role in solidifying the Rockefeller money in many ways, including his successful authorship of a $450,000 Ford Foundation grant to support his research on the molecular chemistry of mental disease. In addition to being well-funded, the intellectual heft of this particular line of research greatly impressed many of the younger faculty in particular.


While the view inside the division was rosy, Pauling was coming under increasing scrutiny elsewhere. Time and again, Pauling’s loyalty to the United States was being questioned by government and media sources alike, a circumstance that led Caltech’s administration to apply more pressure on Pauling to reduce his profile as an activist.

One noteworthy instance came about in 1958 when Fulton Lewis Jr., a conservative newspaper and radio commentator, attacked Pauling’s recent circulation of a petition that called for an international agreement to end nuclear testing. Lewis accused Pauling of making money off of the petition, estimating that Pauling was earning $10 from each signature. Lewis also charged Pauling with damaging the security of the United States by focusing on the cessation of U.S. testing efforts and overlooking tests being conducted by other nuclear countries.

After reading Lewis’ column, T. C. Coleman, President of the Engineering Company of Los Angeles, wrote to Caltech President Lee DuBridge expressing his view that this was just another reminder of how Pauling was tarnishing Caltech’s image. Coleman then threatened to withhold any future financial support from the Institute

unless I again become convinced that a truly loyal attitude prevails, and that prominent staff members such as Dr. Pauling will be required to show cause why their political activities are not detrimental to the college and the country which deserves this loyalty.

In issuing this warning, Coleman claimed that he was not trying to suppress Pauling’s ability to express his opinions, nor was he concerned that Pauling would influence Caltech’s students, since, as Coleman put it, “as they mature they will grow more conservative.” What Coleman was most concerned about was that Pauling was not taking seriously the “heavy responsibility” that came with representing Caltech to a public who might be more easily persuaded by his views because of his scientific credentials. Coleman was sure that Caltech would have already dismissed him had Pauling not been such a well-respected scientist internationally and leader within the Institute.

President DuBridge forwarded Coleman’s letter to Pauling and to Albert Ruddock, the chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees. Ruddock responded directly to Coleman and in vigorous defense of Pauling, noting that his “unconventional opinions” were not evidence of disloyalty – a trait that Caltech would not tolerate. Ruddock further pointed out that accusing Pauling of being disloyal was absurd since his opinions on banning nuclear tests had by then been adopted by President Eisenhower. From there, Ruddock suggested that Pauling’s political activities had not interfered at all with his science, and that he was still “supreme in his field.” In fact,

The very independence of thought that leads Dr. Pauling into certain attitudes and opinions to which you and many others object is that which lies at the very basis of investigational research.

The board, Ruddock explained, would be hypocritical if they punished Pauling for exercising independent thought in one area, and encouraged it in another. Furthermore, disciplining Pauling would open a “Pandora’s Box of difficulties” that would “explode” as other faculty members rushed to defend Pauling, even if they did not agree with his activities.


For his part, Pauling’s only response was to DuBridge. Having read Fulton’s article, Coleman’s letter, and Ruddock’s reply, Pauling explained to the Caltech president that Fulton’s column was misleading in more ways than one. For starters, his petition called for both the United States and the Soviet Union to stop their nuclear tests. Pauling also corrected Fulton’s calculation of how much each signature cost, putting it at three cents each. Pauling himself bore most of this cost as he had hired a secretary to help him with the circulation effort, which was global in scope.

Pauling then confided his intent to file a libel lawsuit against Lewis using, with DuBridge’s permission, Coleman’s letter as evidence. Pauling concluded his letter as follows:

Let me say that I feel that the United States of America is in great danger from the group of powerful but misguided men, among them T. C. Coleman, who attempt to misuse their power in the way illustrated by Mr. Coleman’s letter.

Unfortunately for Pauling, letters like Coleman’s would continue to come across DuBridge’s desk, and the pressure on Pauling would continue to mount. It was only a matter of time until Pauling would decide to step down as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.