Pauling’s OAC: A Maturing Relationship with Chemistry

Linus Pauling, 1920.

[A look back at Linus Pauling’s undergraduate experience from 100 years ago; part 2 of 3.]

By the fall of 1920, Linus Pauling was connected to an academic trajectory that he would continue to pursue for the rest of his life. That said, during his years at Oregon Agricultural College, he was compelled to advance his studies in chemistry through rather unorthodox means. Because OAC was a land grant institution, the practical and applied sciences were the main point of emphasis within the college’s curriculum. Further, because the state of Oregon discouraged (and later mandated against) redundancy in the majors offered by its two largest institutions of higher learning, and because the University of Oregon already offered a degree in chemistry, Pauling’s only real option as a Beaver was to major in chemical engineering.

Partly as a result of these circumstances, much of the chemistry that Pauling had learned so far was fairly out of date. Not surprisingly, Pauling had found many of his classes to be dull and, at times, rote in their emphasis on solving problems of interest to engineers rather than academic chemists. But by the fall of 1920, having spent the previous year teaching, Pauling re-enrolled at OAC with a boost in confidence and a willingness to seek out opportunities in non-traditional ways. Fortunately, the school year reciprocated, offering key new acquaintances who broadened horizons for the precocious young student.


Throughout his studies in chemistry, the young Pauling often found himself questioning aspects of what he was learning and seeking to uncover more. For example, Pauling was intrigued by magnetism and puzzled over questions of why certain materials with similar physical structures varied in their degree of attraction to one another.

The courses that Pauling had taken to date were not providing answers to these questions. As a chemical engineer in training, he was learning that different substances expressed different levels of magnetism, but he had no insight into why. Prior to his junior year, Pauling may well have been resigned to the notion that these were unanswerable questions. However, more satisfactory solutions soon emerged with the help of a few influential professors.

OAC alumni inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, 1924. John Fulton stands in the back row, second from right.

Though he had saved up enough money to return to school, Pauling still needed to earn a wage to pay for on-going expenses, so he took up a job as an assistant to OAC Chemistry Professor Samuel Graf. Even though the job consisted mostly of working through computations, it also allocated time for Pauling to engage with the scientific literature. OAC’s Chemistry head, John Fulton, helped facilitate this by giving Pauling a few of his own chemical journals, and during his stint as Graf’s assistant, Pauling began to consume these journals with relish.

It was in this setting that Pauling first encountered the work of G.N. Lewis and Irving Langmuir, both of whom were exploring some of the most exciting questions in subatomic chemistry. While their publications did not answer all of Pauling’s questions, (many of which were in their earliest stages of formation) reading Lewis and Langmuir made Pauling realize that this new field of subatomic chemistry could solve problems, many of which he had not even realized existed.


While the history of the field of subatomic chemistry is quite complex, many of the ideas that Lewis and Langmuir were developing emerged because of headways that the Danish chemist, Niels Bohr, made with the formalization of his quantum theory in 1918. At OAC all of the chemical engineering courses were physical and practical in their orientation. The kind of theoretical work that Bohr, Lewis, and Langmuir were doing was novel – and not being taught at OAC – but making its acquaintance equipped Pauling with new tools to explore some of the questions that he was pondering as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. This breakthrough renewed Pauling’s fervor for chemistry and his determination to pursue it for a career.

Pauling’s moment of insight was especially well-timed in that it corresponded with another interaction that he had with an OAC professor, one where he learned about the availability of graduate fellowships at the California Institute of Technology. The fellowship announcement bore the imprimatur of Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes, among the country’s leading physical chemists and a mentor to several promising young scholars. It is no surprise then, that the flyer caught the eye of Pauling almost immediately and helped to steer him toward graduate studies in Pasadena.

Pauling’s OAC, 1920-21: A True Junior Year

“Peany” Pauling – “a prodigy, yet in his teens.”

[A look back at Linus Pauling’s undergraduate experience at Oregon Agricultural College one-hundred years ago. This is part 1 of 3.]

The 1920-21 academic year at Oregon Agricultural College (present-day Oregon State University) marked a season of change for Linus Pauling, both academically and personally. The previous year, due to financial constraints, Pauling did not enroll in classes but instead taught introductory chemistry courses at OAC in order to make ends meet. But by the fall of 1920 Pauling was able to resume his studies, having saved up from his teaching and from a summer job working as a paving inspector in southern Oregon. As such, even though it was Pauling’s fourth year at OAC, he recommenced his academic work with junior year standing.

When Pauling moved back to Corvallis in September 1920, he rejoined the Gamma Tau Beta fraternity, one of the smallest Greek houses on campus. Pauling’s involvement in the fraternity had been crucial to his social development, and his year out of school had also provided ample opportunities for personal growth. Partly as a result, when Pauling returned to student life he was no longer so strictly interested in chemistry, but instead began to dabble in a number of additional pursuits, excelling at most.


One of the most significant diversions from chemistry that Pauling began to pursue was competitive public speaking. When he first came to OAC, Pauling was, by his own account, a shy individual lacking in self-confidence. However, as time went forward (and perhaps spurred by his experiences as a teacher) Pauling developed a degree of confidence and interest in oratory that he pursued for the final two years of his OAC career. And so it was that Pauling jumped at the opportunity to participate in the school’s annual campus-wide competition, even seeking out the help of an English professor (and former minister) to assist with his diction and delivery. 

Though the all-campus contest was open to anyone, each class was ultimately required to nominate two participants to serve as its representative. Following a rigorous vetting process, Pauling was selected as one of the two junior class nominees. His speech, titled “Children of the Dawn,” was a plea for scientific rationalism and offered firm support for Darwin’s thinking on evolution. Though ably delivered, the content of the lecture may have been too progressive for the competition’s judges, and Pauling ultimately lost out on first place to his fellow junior class nominee, William P. Black, whose speech was decidedly less controversial. Black, who went on to win second place in the statewide speech contest, delivered a talk titled “House Divided Against Itself.” Pauling tied as runner up with the sophomore candidate, who spoke out against stifling immigration in his lecture, “Closing our National Door.”


Despite coming up short in the final judging, the OAC contest aided Pauling in his maturation as a person and aspiring academic. Mostly due to his excellence in the classroom, but also prompted by his strong performance in the oratory event, Pauling was invited by members of the OAC faculty to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, an application that ultimately fell short.

Pauling was naturally disappointed by the decision of the Rhodes committee, but he was also able to see a silver lining. As he recalled years later, Oxford’s chemistry department – where he would have studied had he been awarded the scholarship – was stuck in the past. In Pauling’s view, the department’s faculty were not interested in some of the new innovations emerging within the discipline, and had he attended Oxford at an impressionable age, he may well have been steered down a less prosperous path.

More tangibly, Pauling’s application drew the attention of several professors who provided support to the prodigious student for the remainder of his undergraduate career. Floyd Rowland, a chemical engineering professor at OAC, noted that Pauling “possesses one of the best minds I have ever observed in a person of his age, and in many ways is superior to his instructors.” Likewise, the English professor who helped Pauling with his speech earlier in the year observed that Pauling “does not expect results without hard work, but seems to delight in digging hard.” German professor Louis Bach followed suit with the keen observation later affirmed by numerous biographers:

[Pauling] is endowed with a remarkable memory in combination with good judgement, sound analytical and synthetic discrimination: a brilliant mind.


Pauling is seated at center left, in the light colored sweater.

As the year progressed, Pauling also garnered increasing attention from the school’s honor societies. First and foremost, Pauling was elected into Forum, OAC’s most prestigious and academically stringent honorary. Created six years earlier in 1914 and akin to Phi Beta Kappa, Forum was comprised of juniors and seniors who were elected by current members on the basis of their “scholastic attainment and leadership.”

Pauling was also a member of Sigma Tau, the national honor society for engineering. Like Forum, Sigma Tau was open to juniors and seniors, but its membership was selected by faculty in engineering. The organization, which was first established at the University of Nebraska in 1904, came to OAC in 1913 as the eleventh chapter in the country.

In addition, Pauling continued on as president of Chi Epsilon, the chemistry honor society. OAC’s chapter was recently formed (1918) and targeted towards chemistry students who showed “scholastic promise and who intend to make some phase of chemistry their life work.”

Pauling also devoted time to several campus clubs. He remained a member of the Chemical Engineering Society, which he had joined as a freshman and now served as treasurer. He also helped out a bit with the production of the Beaver yearbook, and was tasked, along with fellow student Ernest Abbot, to create a page documenting Forensics activities.


And as usual, Pauling earned stellar grades. Over the course of his junior year, he received all As, except for a B in Military Drill during the first quarter and, interestingly, a B in inorganic chemical engineering in the third quarter.

The 1920-21 academic year also marked the first year that Pauling was awarded the elusive A in track and field that he so desired. During his freshman year, Pauling had tried, unsuccessfully, to circumvent the school’s required gym credits by joining the track team. When he failed to make the team, Pauling simply decided to skip gym, and thus earned a failing grade for the year. Redemption came as a junior though, with an A in athletics complementing excellence in the classroom that had always come a bit easier.

The “Spanish Flu” at OAC, 1918-1919

Linus Pauling, 1918.

[Ed Note: School is underway here at Oregon State University, and as has become tradition for us, next week we will begin an investigation of Linus Pauling’s undergraduate experience from 100 years ago, the 1920-1921 academic year. Today however, we take a closer look at life on campus a few years before; a time period also clouded by a pandemic, and a moment in history that Pauling shared with about 4,000 other students enrolled at OAC. An earlier version of this post originally appeared on our sister blog, Speaking of History, in May 2020.]

As Oregon Agricultural College students began to arrive back on campus for the start of classes in October 1918, the “Spanish Flu” had not yet arrived in Corvallis, but measures were in place to take care of sick students and to help prevent the spread of the virus.  The presence of the Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC) – mobilized on OAC’s campus during World War I – greatly affected the efficiency of caring for sick students, which in turn encouraged Corvallis to follow suit.

Case tracking on campus started on Tuesday, October 1, 1918, the day classes commenced.  A “Report of the College Health Service” published in the College Biennial Report of the Board of Regents, 1916-1918, gives an excellent narrative of how the epidemic was controlled on campus, especially among the SATC cadets.  From it we learn that 1918 was the first year that treatment was split based on gender.  Male students who fell ill were treated by a medical officer and dentist attached to the SATC, care that was supplemented by eight local physicians. 

Amy Cyrus

With the campus Medical Adviser, Dr. Wendell J. Phillips, himself away on medical leave, female students were treated by the resident nurse, Amy Cyrus, who saw patients in her office on the ground floor of the Home Economics building or at students’ residences.  From October through December, Cyrus attended to 159 cases of “Spanish influenza,” a time period during which there were no female deaths documented on campus.  The Regents report attributed Cyrus’ success to early prevention efforts including, in particular, teaching students to diagnose and treat the symptoms of the flu themselves. 

To tend the ill, the third floor of Waldo Hall – OAC’s primary women’s dormitory – was converted into a thirty bed infirmary for male students, and similar measures were taken to isolate sick female students as well.  Courses in hygiene and pharmacy adapted and added lectures in the management of colds and grippe, and also on the nature of the Spanish flu.  Sororities and fraternities were closed to visitors, and house mothers received training and supplies to care for their female students.  Any student who came down with a cold was instructed to stay home and not attend any classes.


On October 11, the Gazette-Times newspaper announced that there were no cases of influenza in Corvallis, but that OAC students were being given medical attention at the first signs of colds or grippe. However, SATC reports painted a different story: during the second week of classes, cases numbered close to 200 and an appeal was made for expert medical assistance. 

By early November, two deaths out of 400 cases had been noted in Corvallis, and four deaths out of 600 cases on campus. This relative success was noted by US Major Cross of the medical corps, and attributed to “above average intelligence” within the community and a successful newspaper education campaign. The case rates also proved satisfactory to a state official who visited campus amidst complaints that the school was still operating; after inspecting operations and reviewing the statistics, he allowed the college to stay in operation. In his own final report, Major Cross surmised “that the epidemic had been more successfully controlled at the Oregon Agricultural College than at any center of military training in the country where an equal number of men were concerned.”

The flu, naturally, impacted student life.  In particular, most student activities were cancelled or suspended, and informal interactions were limited. However, despite the restrictions, a football season punctuated by two-week breaks and “shots in the arm” was completed, though only one game was contested on campus.  In the 1920 Beaver yearbook, which (oddly enough) covers the 1918-1919 academic year, the OAC Vigilance Committee commended the Freshman class for having shown “a fine spirit of willingness and helpfulness toward the institution and its customs” despite having lost three months of social life due to the cancelation of activities in the Fall 1918 term.

By the end of 1918, OAC had suffered a total of 785 cases, with four deaths recorded.


Shepard Hall, 1916

In early January 1919, Corvallis was reporting a decrease in the number of confirmed cases, despite rumors to the contrary and concerns that the town would have to be quarantined.  On January 9, it was reported that no deaths had occurred since December 26, but there does seem to have been a spike in mid- to late-January 1919 that made it necessary to use Shepard Hall – the YMCA/YWCA space on the OAC campus – as a hospital.  Shepard was enlisted in part due to a shortage of nurses and the difficulty of isolating students in dorms and other living communities, such as sororities or fraternities.  Although beds were provided, students at the hospital had to supply their own linens.  By January 13, nineteen more cases were reported, bringing the total to 51, but officials maintained that there was no need to worry about the increase.

February continued to see an impact on campus life.  Although the end of the war and the demobilization of troops was a major bright spot, a second quarantine order prevented any return to normal and made an impact on the college basketball season.  More sadness hit the student body when beloved librarian Ida Kidder passed away at the end of the month. On March 2, instead of a traditional indoor ceremony, a memorial service was held in the open space in front of the library while Kidder laid in state in the main corridor of the building.

As Spring neared and the epidemic subsided, thoughts turned to the future.  Importantly, due to the need for nurses that had been demonstrated by the pandemic, OAC began offering home nursing classes during spring term 1919.

The Kennedy Assassination

One in a series of Kennedy motorcade photos sent to Pauling by Raymond Marcus.

As was detailed in our previous series of posts, Linus Pauling’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy was, at times, badly strained. But despite the tensions that existed between the two, Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 came as a significant shock, and led Pauling to join his wife, Ava Helen, in sending a letter of “heartfelt sympathy” to Jacqueline Kennedy on both of their behalf.

From early on however, it is clear that Pauling was very interested in the particulars of Kennedy’s death, the investigation that ensued, and the suspicions that surrounded the entire affair. Indeed, a review of the materials that Pauling collected on the Kennedy assassination suggest that he might reasonably have been termed a conspiracy theorist, and that he believed that there was likely an alternative explanation for Kennedy’s murder that went beyond what the government had issued.


As is well known today, just hours after Kennedy was shot, a suspect named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested by Dallas police. After being apprehended, and while in police custody, Oswald himself was fatally wounded by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. Because of the high profile of the assassination and lingering questions about Oswald’s role, an official investigation was commissioned. The product of that investigation, known as the Warren Report, declared that Oswald acted as a lone gunman and that he was singularly responsible for the killing.

With this, the U.S. government declared the case to be closed and, in the years since, it has not continued to investigate the assassination in any public forum. Of course, many people disputed the Warren Report’s conclusions, some believing that Oswald was set up by the government and others arguing that Oswald acted with accomplices. Pauling, it seems safe to say, was among those casting doubts, if a minimally active one.


The inside front cover of Pauling’s copy of the Warren Report.

One early sign that Pauling questioned the official account is scribbled in the margins of a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article written by D.C. political journalist Stewart Alsop, hypothesizing that Oswald had no connection to the CIA. In the piece, Alsop steadily builds upon this idea until, midway through, outright concluding that there was no association. Next to this paragraph, Pauling noted in his trademark loopy print, “How does Alsop know?” If nothing else, this interjection indicates that Pauling was keenly interested in the specifics of the Kennedy case and the evidence surrounding his murder.

Pauling’s intrigue was such that he began to query others about the assassination. Among these correspondents was a law firm, Waldman & Lobenthal. Pauling also made note of having called Raymond Marcus, an outspoken critic of the the Warren Report. After their phone call, Marcus sent Pauling a series of photos and documents, requesting his “comments on the material,” which in Marcus’ view pointed towards a conspiracy.

Pauling likewise saved numerous articles that either suggested a conspiracy or highlighted perceived flaws in the Warren Report. Pauling even subscribed to the newsletter circulated by the “Assassination Inquiry Committee,” a group that flatly rejected the Warren Report and sought to find a hidden truth about the Kennedy assassination.


Time moved forward and Pauling’s work and life circumstances changed, but he maintained an interest in the assassination. In 1975, a dozen years after Kennedy was killed, a nonprofit organization called the Citizens Commission of Inquiry was created to

make the American people, the media, and the Congress aware of the obfuscation by the CIA, FBI, and other federal police organizations of the facts surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy […] hopefully to culminate in a Congressional investigation into the cover-up of these facts and the assassination itself.

Pauling was specifically sought out by the commission and asked to set up a team of scientists who could analyze the evidence surrounding the case. As it happened, Pauling was in Australia when the letter was sent, and by the time he returned a replacement team had been created.

Nonetheless, Pauling kept tabs on the group’s continuing work. Most notably, Pauling’s papers include several blank petition forms urging support for the Citizen Commission of Inquiry’s mission statement. While it is unknown whether or not Pauling actually circulated the petition, a 1976 letter from Mark Lane, the group’s lawyer, offers thanks to Pauling for his “encouragement” and “contributions.”


From the documentary evidence, one might surmise that Pauling was only minimally involved with efforts to debunk the official explanation of Kennedy’s assassination, but his interest in the topic was certainly strong. At times he seems to have provided support for various initiatives, and he consistently monitored the work of organizations that sought to demystify or debunk the findings of the Warren Report. From Pauling’s papers we are not able to discern, for certain, his true beliefs about the assassination, but at minimum it is reasonable to conclude that he did not agree with the official reckoning of this pivotal moment in American history.

Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Public Interactions

Pauling speaking to students at San Jose City College, April 12, 1962

[Part 4 of 4]

Linus Pauling’s public relationship with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev was not dissimilar from his private interactions with the world leaders. As in his correspondence, Pauling was not shy about expressing his displeasure with various actions taken by the two men, and his message remained consistent and clear: the urgent need for nuclear disarmament and the cessation of nuclear weapons testing.

In pursuit of these goals, Pauling made use of his high profile with the media to call attention to the atrocities of nuclear weapons and to hold both leaders accountable for their actions. As time progressed, Pauling also became increasingly direct in his rhetoric, again with the goal of pushing for global denuclearization.

In a speech delivered at San Jose City College in 1962, for example, Pauling urged his audience to write letters to Kennedy urging the U.S. “not to carry out nuclear tests.” Later that year, at Portland State College, Pauling spoke to students about his lack of trust in Kennedy’s public statements supporting disarmament, noting that the president was “at the same time asking for a $6 billion increase in the military budget.” For Pauling, a ramp up of this magnitude was wholly inconsistent with an ethos of nuclear disarmament: “so long as great bombs remain, war will become great war.”


Pauling also engaged publicly with Premier Khrushchev, albeit in somewhat different ways. One prominent instance involved an “open telegram” that Pauling sent to Moscow, and that was also published in multiple newspapers. As one might expect, the telegram focused on Soviet weapons testing, and urged that “you [Khrushchev] stop the plan for carrying out a test explosion of a 50-megaton bomb.” Failure to do so would mean that “several tens of thousands of children all over the world would be born with gross defects” were the test to go forward.

From there, Pauling assuming the role of a public broker. “I have telegraphed President Kennedy,” he wrote, “asking that the United States pledge that it will not carry out additional bomb tests if you revoke further testing.” He then concluded with a plea,

For the sake of human beings all over the world, I beseech the Soviet Union to stop testing bombs and, instead, to redouble its efforts for peace and disarmament.

With the open telegram, Pauling once again sought to raise public awareness about inconsistencies in rhetoric related to nuclear testing, and to serve notice to both leaders of the need to stop testing for the sake of all humanity.


As he calculated his public actions, Pauling took care to show that he was not unilaterally targeting one country or the other. This notion was emphasized in a September 1962 letter to the editor of This Week magazine, in which Pauling stressed that

I have never advocated unilateral disarmament by the United States or unilateral cessation of bomb testing. For years I have vigorously and consistently advocated that all testing of nuclear weapons in the world be brought to an end by means of international agreement, with the best possible systems of international controls and inspections.

This theme was furthered in a different letter penned for the New York Times. In it, Pauling debunks a series of recent comments made by Kennedy on the alleged safety of nuclear weapons; statements that the President had used to justify continued testing. Pauling then turned to Khrushchev, decrying a recent hydrogen bomb test that “will, if the human race survives, reap a toll approaching 20,000,000 grossly defective children and embryonic neonatal deaths.”

Pauling addressed both men once more in yet another 1962 letter, this time published by The National Guardian. Pauling used the piece to argue that “the Soviet nuclear explosion, like the present U.S. series of tests, was carried out for political purposes, and not for the sake of military security.”

For Pauling, the case was closed that neither world leader was seriously interested in disarmament. “Premier Khrushchev and President Kennedy talk about the need for peace, disarmament, and international cooperation,” he wrote, “but the orders that they give are for continued bomb testing.” In this context, the time had come “when we, through duty to ourselves, our children, and our children’s children, must revolt against this irrational and immoral policy of our governments. Through our protests we must force our governments to stop the bomb tests.”


Pauling was not just angry about Kennedy and Khrushchev’s testing programs, he was equally upset about the brinksmanship that they had put on display during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pauling was, in particular, infuriated by Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba, and issued a series of public wires calling the action “horrifying” and placing “all the American people, as well as the people of many other countries, in grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

For Pauling, the blockade was far too provocative and also an indication that Kennedy “has great trust in the rationality of the Russians […] but I don’t have as much trust in Khrushchev as Kennedy does.” Pointing out that “the threat of nuclear destruction can’t be made over and over again,” Pauling feared that Khrushchev might one day soon actually use nuclear weapons against the United States, were he provoked significantly enough. This eventuality was, of course, one that could be avoided were both world leaders capable of seriously discussing disarmament.

To that end, instead of a blockade, Pauling argued for other ideas. Why not, for example, consider the complete removal of Soviet and U.S. military bases near shared borders? More broadly, Pauling urged both leaders to work in the spirit of negotiation rather than retaliation, making clear that he did not “trust the military element in either country.”


No survey of Pauling’s engagements with Kennedy can overlook their most famous interaction, one imbued with cordiality and antagonism in equal measure.

On April 30, 1962, Pauling attended a dinner at the White House honoring all Nobel Prize winners residing in the Western Hemisphere; a total of forty-nine laureates were in attendance. In his remarks, Kennedy judged the guest list as comprising “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House.” The evening clearly put Pauling into a jovial mood as, at one point, he led 175 guests in an impromptu waltz in the East Room.

This act of buoyant spontaneity was quite a juxtaposition from Pauling’s actions earlier in the day. From noon to 3:00 PM that afternoon, Pauling had participated in an anti-nuclear picket protest organized by Women Strike for Peace and held directly in front of the White House. While marching on the line, Pauling posed with two signs: one read “No” with a picture of a mushroom cloud and the other said “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Macmillan: We Have No Right to Test.” After three hours of protesting, Pauling returned to his hotel to put on black tie and prepare for the Nobel dinner.


One evening of fun did nothing to stop Pauling from continuing his public crusade again nuclear testing, and eventually he arrived at a major success. In August 1963, a little over a year and a half after the White House dinner, Kennedy and Khrushchev were among the signatories of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which rendered illegal the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In recognition of this moment, Pauling wrote to Kennedy to express his gratitude for agreeing to the terms of the treaty and to express his belief that “this agreement will go down in history as one of the greatest events in the history of the world.” And of course, the role that Pauling played in bringing it about did not go overlooked: a few months later, he was traveling to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Other Letters

Pauling’s handwritten drafts of letters to John F. Kennedy and U Thant during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 27, 1962

[Part 3 of 4]

Though his private correspondence John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev focused primarily on matters related to nuclear testing, Linus Pauling also initiated conversations with the two leaders on several other issues.

As with many Americans, Pauling was deeply concerned by the Cuban Missile Crisis and also expressed alarm at the way that American communists were being treated. So too was Pauling troubled by the treatment of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union, as evidenced in his letters to the Soviet Premier. These “remainder” topics from the Pauling correspondence with these two crucial figures is the subject of today’s post.


In October 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pauling sent a letter of admonishment to the American President. In it, Pauling wrote that he believed that the mere “threat of military action” was liable to create a Soviet “retaliation by nuclear attack,” a reaction that would put all Americans in “grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

One week letter, Pauling drafted by hand an even more forceful letter to Kennedy, in which he “vehemently urge[d] that for the sake of the reputation of the United States as a peaceful, moral, and law-abiding nation, you refrain from ordering the invasion of Cuba.” Notably, on the same piece of paper, Pauling also penned a draft letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations urging him to use his powers to prevent the “great immorality and illegality of an armed invasion of Cuba.”

Earlier that same year, Pauling wrote a different letter to Kennedy urging him to pardon the leader of the Communist Party of the United States, Junius Scales, who had been imprisoned. Pauling argued that Scales’ incarceration was unjust and that his sentencing had weakened the First Amendment of the Constitution. Kennedy offered no reply of consequence – an assistant responded that the President was “glad to have the benefit” of Pauling’s views on the case – but did ultimately commute Scales’ sentence in late 1962.


In addition to issues of nuclear testing and disarmament, Pauling pressed Nikita Khrushchev on the treatment of Jews within the Soviet Union. This communication was prompted by a letter on the topic that Pauling received in early 1963 from his friend, Bertrand Russell, the noted mathematician, philosopher and human rights advocate.

After corresponding with Russell several times to get his input, Pauling finally sent his letter to Khruschev in late 1963. In it, he outlined allegations of imprisonment (and even execution) of Jews for practicing their religion, and attempted to appeal to Khrushchev’s humanity in pushing for change. In doing so, Pauling stressed that his appeal was “one of concern and not of condemnation,” and that a “true test of friendship is the ability to speak frankly without fear of being taken for enemies, or of being misunderstood.” While it does not appear that Khrushchev issued a reply, the number of preliminary drafts that Pauling authored, and the thought that he devoted in approaching the matter, indicate the extent to which the issue was important to Pauling.


Pauling’s private relationship with Kennedy and Khruschev was in many ways quite similar. Pauling condemned both men for their roles in continuing their country’s nuclear testing program, and he held both accountable in bringing the programs to an end. And though his approach to non-nuclear issues with the two men differed a bit, he felt consistently emboldened to take a direct path in expressing his concerns.

In his public relationship with these two individuals, Pauling’s approach at times bordered on the theatrical. Pauling wanted action to be taken, and he knew that the best way to achieve that was to be bold and to make people notice. Our next post will explore this in greater detail.

Letters to Premier Khrushchev

Nikita Khruschev. [Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild]

[Documenting Linus Pauling’s communications with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev. This is post 2 of 4.]

As we saw in our last post, Linus Pauling expressed intensive objection to U.S. President John F. Kennedy over the nation’s nuclear weapons testing program, but his ire was not solely aimed stateside. In addition to Kennedy, Pauling also pressed hard on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, whom Pauling viewed as being equally culpable in bringing the world to the brink of disaster.

Over the course of the early 1960s, Pauling wrote multiple harsh letters to Khrushchev, always urging him to stop testing nuclear weapons. Khrushchev eventually responded to Pauling in October 1961, with an eight-page typewritten letter that outlined the Soviet position on testing. In it, Khrushchev put forth the notion that the Soviets wanted to end their program but could not do so, because the British and Americans were not slowing down their testing. As such, to protect the safety of his people, Khrushchev was compelled to continue testing.

To add historical weight to this idea, and to convey the intensity with which it was held, Khruschev went so far as to equate the threat posed to the USSR by the western nuclear alliance ro that of another decidedly bad actor from the past.

Try to understand, dear Mr. Pauling, what the Soviet Union would be like if it continued to refrain, as if nothing at all has happened, from taking additional measures to strengthen its defense capacity, including measures to perfect nuclear weapons, while the NATO powers are responding with threats to its proposal that a German peace treaty be concluded. If we had not taken those measures, we could have committed an act which could not be justified either by history or – even less so – by our people and by the people of those countries which fell victims of invasion by the Hitlerite hordes.

On a philosophical level, Khrushchev was quick to point out that “The Soviet people and the peoples of other Socialist countries that engage in peaceful constructive labor do not need wars.” Likewise, the Soviet government “has repeatedly declared that it is ready to sign a treaty on general and complete disarmament under the most strict international control.” It seemed then, at least from this letter, that Khrushchev might eventually be open to the idea of disarmament and that progress in that direction was a possibility.


The reality was something different though, and the Soviet testing program continued. In August 1962, Pauling wrote again to Khrushchev, this time echoing Khrushchev’s own words from the October 1961 letter. In it, Pauling urged that

…the Soviet government reconsider its decision and exert its great influence in the struggle for peace rather than in its preparation for catastrophic war.

When this plea received no reply, Pauling pushed again. In his next letter he once more exhorted that

I cannot believe that any person or any nation in the world would benefit from the decision to resume the testing of nuclear weapons. I beg that you and your associates in the governments take this matter under consideration again.


Mikhail Menshikov

This time around, the Soviets issued a response, though it came to Pauling via the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Menshikov. In this letter, Menshikov repeated and expanded upon Khruschev’s earlier argument, stating that the Soviets viewed the U.S. and the British as the real threats, because they had not scaled down their testing efforts. And while acknowledging the validity of Pauling’s plea, Menshikov again argued that the Soviets could not stop their testing program because of their need to protect themselves from the western nuclear powers. Quoting Menshikov:

In the face of unconcealed threats to use arms against the Soviet Union, at the time when the Western powers are feverishly speeding up the arms race[…][we hope] that the peoples will realize the forced character of our decisions, will realize that we had no other choice.

Menshikov also acknowledged that “we are aware of the consequences of the nuclear weapon tests for living organisms” before suggesting that “…at present it is far more dangerous to allow certain circles to push the world unimpededly to the abyss of World War III.” The ambassador concluded with the notion that “Any person who will look at the facts without prejudice will have to admit that it is the USA and Great Britain that are responsible.”  

Menshikov’s letter made clear that the Soviet Union was never going to stop testing without securing an agreement from the U.S. and the U.K. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the letter also marks the end of Pauling’s private correspondence with Khrushchev on the issue of nuclear testing. But this is not to suggest that Pauling gave up. Instead, he shifted his rhetoric for disarmament into the public sphere, where he could not be so easily ignored.

Letters to President Kennedy

Excerpt from Pauling’s “night letter” to John F. Kennedy, March 1962

[With this post, we begin an examination of Linus Pauling’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev during tense times. This is part 1 of 4.]

The private relationships that Linus Pauling maintained with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were surprisingly similar, despite the fact that the two figureheads were personally very different, and that they represented highly divergent values and interests. For Pauling however, both men were key proponents of testing nuclear weapons, and because of that, both needed to be lobbied to work toward disarmament.

In the few short years that the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations overlapped, Pauling wrote to both men relentlessly, urging each to stop testing nuclear weapons. The tone with which Pauling addressed both men was nearly identical, cementing the fact that Pauling viewed this issue as being of the utmost importance. However, the response and subsequent correspondence between Pauling and the two world leaders differed markedly.

Pauling and Khrushchev corresponded frequently on the topic of disarmament, even agreeing, at times, about the need to do more. Kennedy, on the other hand, never formally responded to Pauling’s pleas, though he did seem to want to enlist Pauling as a science advisor and even an ally. Nothing of the sort ever materialized, though the two did engage socially.

Ultimately the story of Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev is one of Pauling’s enduring activism and perseverance, even in the face of generally indifferent responses to his warnings of doom and demise. While this series will explore his communications with both leaders, today’s post focuses more intently on Kennedy.


At multiple points during the Kennedy presidency, Pauling sent letters pleading that the United States cease its nuclear testing program. Often these letters were prompted by Kennedy’s public rhetoric surrounding nuclear issues. On November 11, 1962 for example, Kennedy made a public address to veterans at Arlington National Cemetery where he commented on the state of affairs, suggesting that, “The only way to maintain peace is to be prepared in the final extreme.” In a printed edition of Kennedy’s speech, Pauling scrawled this particular passage in the margins, and then wrote in large block letters that “SUCH A POLICY WILL MEAN THE END OF CIVILIZATION.” For Pauling, clearly, this was not merely rhetoric; this was the potential end of life on Earth.

The speech prompted Pauling to write a “Night Letter” to Kennedy, with copies sent to several of his scientific advisors. In it, Pauling offers Kennedy a stark choice: either stop the American testing program or “go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race.” Pauling based his argument on his calculation that the Carbon-14 fallout from continued testing would be the source of birth defects for more than 20 million children yet to be born. Accordingly, were Kennedy to continue down this path, he would personally be “guilty of this monstrous immorality, matching that of the Soviet leaders.”

This incendiary tone was perhaps extreme, but certainly characteristic of the peril that Pauling sought to emphasize in his Kennedy letters. In a different exchange, Pauling criticized a series of interviews that Kennedy had given to LIFE magazine in which he seemed to represent nuclear radiation as being relatively benign. For Pauling, statements of this sort would only “have the effect of increasing the danger to our nation and to the American people.” Kennedy’s response, as authored by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, implied that the LIFE article had taken the President out of context and was not representative of his actual views. Regardless, the interview had already been published and the proverbial damage was done.


Ava Helen Pauling, by now a high profile activist herself, took a different tack from her husband. Instead of excoriating Kennedy for his decisions, Ava Helen wrote that he could potentially “become the greatest president that the United States has ever had” were he to successfully end the testing of nuclear weapons.

She also wrote a letter to the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, issuing a plea on behalf of the health and safety of the world’s children. In the letter, Ava Helen leaned heavily on a “mother to mother” connection, while painting a decidedly grim portrait. Absent a ban on nuclear tests, Strontium-90 would continue to build up in the bones of children and create all manner of ill health effects. Though it may seem rash, Ava Helen urged the first lady to support what she believed to be a sensible path in pushing for a test ban treaty.


Carbon copy of different letters written to Khruschev and Kennedy, as typed on the same piece of paper.

President Kennedy, of course, was not the only person who needed to be held accountable for nuclear weapons testing. In Pauling’s mind, nothing of consequence would happen unless both Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to mutual agreement.

At various points – and in a somewhat literal manifestation of their equal status in Pauling’s mind – Pauling drafted letters to both Khrushchev and Kennedy on the same piece of paper. On other occasions, Pauling chose to question the leaders’ motivations. Notably, in 1962 Pauling sent a telegram to Kennedy urging that he end nuclear testing in the United States. In it, Pauling also insisted that the testing that Kennedy had already approved had not been driven by Khrushchev’s actions – a motivation that Kennedy had publicly declared – but rather because he was “forced by the U.S. militarists, the military-industrial complex” to do so. Nuclear testing then, was nothing more than an extension of a longer striving for military superiority and power. In Pauling’s view, this was deeply immoral and wholly unacceptable.

Science for Life and Career

Linus Pauling, 1950

[Wrapping up our series on Linus Pauling’s rhetoric as it related to the development of post-war science. This is part 5 of 5.]

Academic research as a career.” Chemical and Engineering News, November 1950

This 1950 article was written by Pauling as the twentieth installment of the American Chemical Society’s “Careers in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering,” column published in Chemical and Engineering News. “Careers” came out weekly and featured advice from leading scientists for college students and recent graduates. Pauling’s contribution, “Academic Research as a Career,” focused on the values, characteristics, and practices necessary for a scientist to succeed in a college or university setting.

Pauling began by suggesting that “A career of academic research…is the best of all possible careers, for those people who are suited to it by nature and disposition.” In exploring this notion, Pauling defined academic research as basic rather than applied, and advised that young scholars interested in an academic career avoid getting too bogged down in applied research projects sponsored by industry. He then noted that most academic research is carried out in universities, although a few non-affiliated research institutions do exist. As such, the academic scientist should be prepared to spend a portion of their time teaching. They might also expect to be paid considerably less than a peer who was employed in an applied research setting in the same discipline.

Pauling’s ideal academic researcher was characterized by several main personality traits, first and foremost

…a deep curiosity about nature, [and] a consuming desire to know more about the world; in short, he must have the scientific spirit. He must be a scholar by disposition. It is good also, if he is to be a teacher as well as a research man, that he have a strong desire to communicate his knowledge to other people.

Pauling also differentiated between the characteristics of scholarly interest and scholarly aptitude, citing interest as the more important of the two but acknowledging, of course, the usefulness of aptitude. Even still

…experience has shown us that some men who could not be described as brilliant students have become outstanding figures in academic research. Such a man might be a gifted experimentalist, or a careful, penetrating analyst of fundamental theoretical principles.

Pauling likewise encouraged young scientists to find a specialization and devote themselves to becoming an authority in that niche, but not to focus too narrowly and to maintain active research interests in other subjects or disciplines. Doing so would allow one to more fully experience the primary advantage of an academic career: the freedom of research. For Pauling’s “scientific spirits,” the promise of intellectual exploration was sure to make the career a worthwhile choice, despite the lower salaries.

Lastly, in order to prepare for an academic career, Pauling advised that students seek out as broad and fundamental an education as possible. For Pauling, this included developing a proficiency in the major languages of scientific research and publication (in 1950, French, German, and Russian were itemized as being the most important). Students should also be prepared to work toward a doctoral degree, and Pauling recommended studying with multiple faculty members on several distinct phases of a project, rather than selecting one faculty member to oversee their entire PhD process. Overall, Pauling found the greatest indicator of success in an academic position to be temperament – one is either suited to the work, or they’re not.


The significance of chemistry to man in the modern world.” Engineering and Science, January 1951 

Later reprinted under the title, “It Pays to Understand Science,” Pauling originally wrote this 1951 article for UNESCO, but it also appeared in Caltech’s monthly, Engineering and Science. Pauling began the piece by justifying his claims regarding the significance of science – and particularly of chemistry – for the average citizen. He then put forth a proposal for science education that resembled the way that math is now taught; that is, beginning in kindergarten with simplified, foundational concepts and working steadily up through each grade level.

Pauling’s model was tailored to the objective that students, by the time they finished high school, would have built a solid understanding of each of the branches of science, and would be capable of pursuing them at the university level if they so desired. At the time that Pauling was writing his piece, most students were not formally introduced to science until they had arrived at college, and most non-scientists had at best a rudimentary comprehension of basic scientific concepts that intersected with their lives in the forms of electricity, synthetic materials, the effects of gravity, and the like. But because most chemistry is done at the molecular and atomic levels, non-scientists tended to have less of an understanding of it than of the other sciences, which are more readily observable to the naked and untrained eye.

Pauling also recognized and pointed out that many advertising campaigns functioned on the principle that almost everyone has a very elementary understanding of chemistry, but no practical comprehension of its application. By way of example, he offered the following:

[The reader] is asked to buy wonderful new green medicines, containing chlorophyll. [The advertiser] hopes that the reader will remember that chlorophyll is the wonderful substance in the leaves of green plants, that purifies the air. He hopes that the reader does not know…that chlorophyll that has been extracted from the plant has, so far as any scientist has been able to discover, no action as a medicine, no activity whatsoever. Moreover, he must be hoping that the reader of the advertisement will not even think enough to ask why he does not eat a green leaf…in order to get his chlorophyll.

Chemistry’s intersections with pop culture were a recurrent theme in Pauling’s post-war lectures and general audience articles. They were also one of the biggest catalysts in his push for refocusing and intensifying science education in the public school system.

Pauling felt very strongly that a solid understanding of science was necessary for a citizen to operate in the modern world, since “…the modern world is largely scientific in its constitution.” By extension, it was crucial that the citizenry be equipped with the tools to critically evaluate the world around them – including depictions of science seen in comic strips and advertisements – and to make informed political decisions in the emerging nuclear age. As science progressed and once disparate facts could be connected into larger theories, Pauling’s proposed public education program would accordingly shift toward an emphasis on theory. Doing so would empower individuals with the capacity to recognize and understand phenomena that they came across without the need for rote memorization of individual facts.  

Finding Resources for Basic Science and Medical Research

Linus Pauling, 1949

[Exploring Linus Pauling’s popular writings on the shape of post-war science, part 4 of 5.]

Our job ahead.” Chemical and Engineering News, January 1949

The onset of 1949 brought with it the beginning of Linus Pauling’s one-year term as president of the American Chemical Society, and Pauling’s article “Our job ahead” outlined the message that he wished to convey to the society. In it, Pauling specifically addressed the financial concerns being faced by the ACS as well as the scientific community at large.

The society’s problems centered on the need to manage operating costs and member remunerations in the midst of rising costs of living. More broadly though, Pauling saw for the society a responsibility to try to improve financial conditions for science as a whole. Pauling argued that the destruction of war, in tandem with the massive consumption of natural resources required by the war effort, had resulted in increasing levels of poverty throughout the world. Pauling encouraged the ACS to do its part to combat the problem by supporting and participating in global interdisciplinary scientific cooperation.

Pauling also pushed for ACS support of basic research, believing that work of this sort was most likely to lead to significant breakthroughs. Doing so would be made all the more effective by the creation of a National Science Foundation, which would issue and administer unrestricted grants on behalf of the federal government. It was Pauling’s ultimate vision that the majority of research dollars be provided by the federal government, with supplementary funding being made available by state governments, permanent endowments, private foundations, and industry.


Chemistry and the world of today.” Chemical and Engineering News, September 1949.

The themes put forth by Pauling in his initial message to the ACS – particularly the need for a National Science Foundation – were continued in his presidential address, delivered in fall 1949.

Pauling opened his talk with a broad question, “What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today?'” His answer was “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.”

Pauling’s all-roads-lead-to-chemistry perspective informed his strong support of a potential National Science Foundation and his firm belief in the value of basic research. He lamented the ongoing struggle for funding faced by so many of his colleagues, and pressed the notion that even applied science was dependent on advances in basic science. Moreover, Pauling suggested that applied science often received the credit for ideas that had initially been discovered or cultivated by basic researchers.

Above all, Pauling believed that, in the post-war era, “…a nation’s strength will lie largely in the quality of its science and scientists.” That noted, Pauling emphasized that government funding for scientific research should not be funneled toward military channels. To this end, it was the responsibility of the ACS, as an organization representing American chemists, to make its voice heard in the fight for the creation of a National Science Foundation.

During Pauling’s presidential year, the concept of the NSF had been put forth in political circles but had not yet been acted upon. Looking forward to that day (which would, in fact, come the next year) Pauling put forth an ideal scenario where the NSF would fund $250 million a year in research, while science-dependent industries would fund an additional $75 million. Of this latter contribution, Pauling believed that private funding ought to be considered as a form of insurance rather than charity, since it was certain to fuel the scientific discoveries necessary to drive industrial development.


“Structural chemistry in relation to biology and medicine.” Second Bicentennial Science Lecture of the City College Chemistry Alumni Association, New York, December 7, 1949. Baskerville Chemical Journal, February 1950. 

At the end of 1949, Pauling gave another high profile public lecture, this time to the City College Chemistry Association in New York. In this talk, he focused on the relationships between structural chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular medicine.

Pauling began by citing the role that chemistry had played in catalyzing immense achievement in medicine over the preceding half-century, referencing in particular the discovery and refinement of chemotherapeutic agents including antibiotics. That said, Pauling was quick to point out that scientists still had a very poor understanding of the principles and structural attributes underlying chemotherapeutic functions. It was Pauling’s belief that “…if a detailed understanding of the molecular basis of chemotherapeutic activity were to be obtained, the advance of medicine would be greatly accelerated,” and that structural chemistry was fast approaching a point where it could produce this understanding. Once done, Pauling suggested that the decade or two that followed would surely offer significant advancements in the scientific understanding of medicine and the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Pauling then identified a collection of major areas where he thought biomedical research should be focused. The first involved developing a detailed molecular structure of 1) chemotherapeutic substances (i.e., antibiotics and other medications), 2) the organisms against which they are directed (bacteria, viruses, etc.), and 3) the human organism which they are meant to protect. A second major program of work should delve into the nature of the forces involved in the intermolecular interactions between the above substances and organisms.

Pauling pointed out that the last quarter century had seen great progress in the first goal – the science of organic chemistry had been developed and the structures of many organic compounds had been confirmed. But progress elsewhere, though promising, had not come about so quickly. For questions related to the physiology of disease-causing organisms and of the human body itself, advancements were fated to be slow simply due to the immensity of the task. In addition, structural chemistry was a fairly new field and, although it was growing quickly, the stock of previous discoveries upon which one might expand was finite (research thus far had mainly focused on the structures of amino acids and peptides).

The latter goal, an understanding of the intermolecular interactions between chemotherapeutic substances and the organisms they are meant to treat or defeat, had seen the least progress of all. It was a complicated task for sure, and though he had very little data in hand, Pauling offered a back of the envelope theory about what might be going on, speculating that

…some drugs operate by undergoing a chemical reaction with a constituent of the living organism, and that others operate by the formation of complexes involving only forces that are usually called intermolecular forces.

Regardless, Pauling felt that work in these areas would prove integral to the conduct of future medical research, and he put forth his own work on sickle cell anemia as an example of how other investigations might unfold. Specifically, Pauling and his team had discovered that the hemoglobin present in the red blood cells of afflicted individuals differed structurally from normal hemoglobin. Were other investigators able to develop a similar molecular understanding of a given disease, producing new treatments would be that much easier, since chemotherapeutic agents could be tailored to fit a particular molecular architecture. Work of this sort would

…represent the first time that a chemotherapeutic agent had been developed purely through the application of logical scientific argument, without the significant interference of the element of chance.

Similar to his call for an NSF, Pauling encouraged the creation of an institute for medical chemistry that would train a new generation of students to apply chemistry to medical problems. Doing so, in Pauling’s view, ought to be prioritized due to its potential significance to the health and happiness of all people.