Linus Pauling: Scientist, Activist, Entertainer

Linus Pauling and Robert Corey examining models of protein structure molecules. approx. 1951.

Linus Pauling and Robert Corey examining models of protein structure molecules. approx. 1951.

“Linus came and gave a fabulous talk at the medical school. An enormous mob of people was there to hear him tell the whole story of molecular biology…and there was such a huge crowd that the hotel that he was to give it in couldn’t deal with it, so it moved next door…It was a big church next door and I got to hear Linus talking in the pulpit. There, it was magic.
– Dudley Herschbach, “Linus Pauling as an Evangelical Chemist.” The Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen: Linus Pauling and His Era. 2007.

Linus Pauling was known for his quick wit and ever-present sense of humor. His lectures were filled with jokes and stories, and his astounding knowledge, combined with his charismatic personality, made him famous as a public speaker.

Only a lucky handful of his audience members ever experienced that same charisma one-on-one with Pauling. Ken Hedberg, a doctoral graduate from Caltech, and now an OSU chemistry professor emeritus, recalls one particular incident with Pauling:

“Graduate students at Caltech were, as a group, in awe of Linus Pauling, who had a tendency to pad through Gates and Crellin (the building which comprised the site of the chemistry department) in his house slippers on Saturday morning. I felt this way one Saturday when he walked into my office, sat down and put his feet up on the adjoining desk, and said, “How are things going?” As it happened, they were going pretty well and I was just a bit relieved when he stood to go without asking me any penetrating questions. Then he noticed a key chain on my desk which had attached to it a small device consisting of an eyepiece with a lens containing a photograph which could only be viewed by looking directly into it against a strong light. The photograph was that of a beautiful girl, completely naked, standing on a large black rock in the middle of a rushing mountain stream. Pauling picked up the device and clapped it to his eye. “Hmmm,” he said, “Basalt.” And he walked out without another word. I was stunned, and had to look for myself for I had never noticed the rock. I think it was then that I first realized what a wonderful sense of humor Linus Pauling had, and what a showman he could be even on a small scale.”

(Ken Hedberg 1995, as quotes in Mead, Clifford and Thomas Hager. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. 243.)

Stories such as this abound in the biographies of Linus Pauling. His sense of humor and his enthusiasm were widely-regarded as an invaluable part of his teaching style.

For more “facets of Linus Pauling,” check out Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from Oregon State University Press.

For more information on Pauling the educator, visit the website “The Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen,” a conference devoted to the Pauling legacy. In particular, “Linus Pauling as an Evangelical Chemist,” a lecture by Dudley Herschbach that focuses on Pauling’s flair for showmanship, can be found here.

One Response

  1. My dad took chemistry from Linus Pauling. He told a story about how Dr Pauling once set the class up by talking about the properties of sodium metal, tossing a chunk of it around while he lectured. He described how violently explosive it could become if it came in to contact with water, then casually tossed it into a sink at the front of the lecture hall, sending students in the front rows diving for shelter. Of course, the sink was dry…

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