Letters to Peter

Linus and Peter Pauling at Warwick Castle, England. 1948.

Linus and Peter Pauling at Warwick Castle, England. 1948.

“You know how children are threatened ‘You had better be good or the bad ogre will come get you.’ Well, for more than a year, Francis and others have been saying to the nucleic acid people at King’s ‘You had better work hard or Pauling will get interested in nucleic acids.’”

Peter Pauling. Letter to Linus Pauling, January 13, 1953.

Normally, when Linus Pauling became interested in something, he would dive headlong into it. Hours and hours of his time, over weekdays and weekends, would be committed to research in pursuit of fleshing out every last useful detail. This arduous process is best illustrated by his work on the nature of the chemical bond, work which would later win him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Pauling’s experience with DNA, however, was not an example of this typical approach.

First, it should be noted that Pauling did not have years to spend working on DNA. Its importance was fully realized in the summer of 1952, less than a year before Watson and Crick elucidated its structure, and although Pauling actually began studying nucleic acids as early as 1933, he wasn’t able, or willing, to spend a significant amount of time on a molecule that was perceived to be relatively unimportant.

Even after learning of the importance of DNA, Pauling still didn’t make time for it. As emphasized in earlier posts on Linus Pauling and DNA, Pauling remained very much preoccupied with his work on the nature of proteins.

An examination of Pauling’s correspondence with his son Peter – a man uniquely positioned in the middle of the DNA story – reveals that other matters, many of them trivial, also took precedence over Pauling’s pursuit of the structure of DNA.

In the fall of 1952, Peter Pauling, an aspiring crystallographer and the second oldest of the four Pauling children, began his graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. Coincidentally, James Watson and Francis Crick were also at Cambridge at this time, and not long after his arrival, Peter had met them, become an office-mate, and was spending off-hours time with the duo.

Because Linus Pauling and the Watson-Crick tandem were both attempting to solve the structure of DNA, Peter’s arrival at Cambridge gave his father an excellent opportunity to keep tabs on the work being done by his competitors in England. A close examination of the voluminous father-son correspondence from this era suggests, however, that DNA was far from a pressing topic in Pasadena.

Also, as to your curtains: will you check the dimensions and let us know. You say in your letter two windows 6’ 6” high, 50” and 37” wide respectively, in other words four curtains each 48” wide. Mama thinks that you probably mean four curtains each 36” wide. It would be hard to get the wider material.

Also, would you write us as to the exact points between which the vertical dimensions are measured. What is the distance from, say, the top of the window frame (or some other exactly specified locus) to the floor, and also to the bottom of the window frame? Mama thinks that probably the curtains should reach all the way to the floor, but in any case they should extend from the top of the window frame to the bottom of the window frame (if you have window frames), or from a point a little below the opening at the bottom. She suggests that one of your old curtains might serve for one of the windows, and that she would then have to make only a pair for the larger window.

I sympathize with you about the bed. I remember sleeping on a bed which had a two by four across under my ear; it was not very comfortable.

-Linus Pauling, letter to Peter Pauling, October 22, 1952.

Linus first wrote to Peter in England on October 22, 1952. By this time, the elder Pauling was well aware of the importance of DNA, but had not yet devised a structure. Watson and Crick, on the other hand, had developed a structure for DNA a year earlier. Although their model turned out to be incorrect, the two men continued their work with nucleic acids. Clearly, for Watson and Crick, DNA was becoming extremely important. For Pauling this did not appear to be the case – although Watson and Crick were both mentioned in this first letter, DNA was not.

As it turns out, other subjects – including, but not limited to, curtains for Peter’s new apartment, recent travels and upcoming travel plans, finances, and, of course, cars – were much more prevalent than was DNA in the Paulings’ early correspondence.

As time went on, nucleic acids naturally became a slightly larger topic, though never did they assume center stage. Take, for example, this letter sent from Linus to Peter on February 4, 1953. By the time of its authoring, Linus Pauling had completely developed his structure, and had also sent off his manuscript for publication, a development which merited one paragraph worth of description. The rest of the letter is used to discuss, in great detail, Pauling’s plans to travel to England and also his keen interest in purchasing a new Riley from the U.K.-based International Motors. (Being something of a family obsession, cars were a very popular subject in many of the letters between Linus and Peter.)

In another letter from Pauling to Peter written on March 10, 1953, DNA plays a much larger role. This time, about half of the three-page document is dedicated to discussing various aspects DNA; the remainder focuses on travel plans and automobiles.

Peter Pauling, December 1954.

Peter Pauling, December 1954.

The other letters follow this same trend. Clearly, Linus and Peter’s lengthy discussions on subjects such as cars, traveling, curtains, and other aspects of science suggest that Pauling wasn’t interested in DNA on the level of certain other scientific pursuits.

Another interesting aspect of the correspondence between Linus and Peter Pauling is the opportunity that it provides for tracking the evolution of the consensus response to Pauling’s structure.

As might be expected, Peter’s reaction stayed upbeat throughout all of their letters. However, as time progressed, it is clear that Peter became less-confident that his father had solved DNA. For example, in a few of the earlier letters, Peter mentions that Watson and Crick earlier devised and discarded a structure similar to the Pauling-Corey triple helix, but that the opinion at the Cavendish Laboratory is that Pauling’s structure is a good one, albeit “pretty tight.”

From that point on though, Peter begins talking less about Pauling’s structure, and more about work being done by Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin. One might deduce that, although Peter didn’t specifically issue a disagreement with his father’s structure, he did develop a certain degree of skepticism as time progressed. Peter also does not often mention other opinions of his father’s structure, most likely because, upon further examination, it was not well-received by the English contingent.

Peter Pauling Discusses His Father’s Strengths and Personality

For more information on DNA, please visit the Race for DNA website. For more information on Linus Pauling, check out the Linus Pauling Online portal.

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