The Messenger Lectures

Linus Pauling, 1958

Linus Pauling, 1958

[Ed note: October 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. This is part one of a four post series discussing participation in the Messenger series.]

The Messenger Lectures on the Evolution of Civilization, better know simply as the Messenger Lectures, is a prestigious lectureship hosted by Cornell University.  Upon the 1924 death of Hiram Messenger, a Travelers’ Insurance Company actuary and graduate of Cornell University, a portion of his fortune was bequeathed to Cornell, his alma mater.  The following year, Cornell began its now famous Messenger Lecture series, defining it as “a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business, and social life.”

In 1925, James Henry Breasted, a historian-archaeologist made famous by his work in the Middle East, delivered the first Messenger lecture.  In his talk, he explored the implications of moral growth in the human race through a study of ancient European and Egyptian societies.  His scholarly, introspective lectures which married the history of science and philosophy, set the tone for future speakers.

Since 1925, a great number of intellectuals have served as Messenger lecturers.  Over the course of the lectureship’s history, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Robert A. Millikan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have all taken the position.  Perhaps the most famous of the Messenger Lectures are those by Richard Feynman, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.  In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures on “The Character of Physical Law.”  In 2009, Bill Gates purchased the rights to the BBC recordings of Feynman’s seven talks and made them available to the public as part of Project Tuva, giving Feynman, Microsoft, and the Messenger Lectures a great deal of publicity.

The lectureship has been particularly famous among academicians because it allows researchers and scholars to approach the human experience through the lens of their own field of study.  The series encourages scientists, historians, writers, political theorists, etc. to meaningfully apply their life’s work to problems of philosophical thought, resulting in unique and often striking conclusions about the human condition.

Because of their prestige, only the best known intellectuals of the day were invited to serve as Messenger lecturers.  In fact, it took Pauling more than twenty years of work as an internationally-known chemist to be given the honor.

In 1936, Linus spent four months in Ithaca as the George Fischer Baker Lecturer.  During his stay, he established lasting friendships with the Cornell chemistry department faculty and became something of a campus celebrity.  At that time, however, he was deeply immersed in the sciences and was of only minimal interest to the non-scientific community at Cornell.

Two decades later, however, Pauling was much more than just a chemist; he was a Nobel Prize winner, a peace advocate, and a household name.  What’s more, by the late 1950s, Pauling’s interests had fallen in line with the core focus of the Messenger Lectures.  Pauling was deeply concerned with the molecular basis of individuality, community, free will and, of course, peace and violence.  Where sociologists, anthropologists, and biologists were all looking at human civilization on a macroscopic scale, Pauling was examining the very particles of life and extracting astounding theories from the molecules of the human body.

When the Cornell faculty was asked to nominate a speaker for the 1959 Messenger Lectures, chemistry department members remembered the success of Pauling’s previous stay at Cornell.  In April 1957, Linus Pauling received a letter from A. W. Laubengayer, the acting chairman for Cornell’s chemistry department.  Laubengayer asked that Pauling hold six lectures in the Fall Term of 1959.  As was traditional, the university would provide only the broad topic, the evolution of civilization, leaving Pauling to interpret as he wished.

Pauling readily accepted the appointment, citing his fond memories of serving as Baker Lecturer.  His topic, he declared, would be “The Molecular Basis of Life.”  The concept was one that Pauling had lectured on several times before.  For a lectureship as significant and the Messenger series, Pauling needed to introduce a new and unique concept rather than rehash established ideas.

Over the course of the next two years, Pauling set about refining his theories on the influence of molecular evolution in individual and group behavior.  In February of 1959, he began his work on the lectures themselves.  The series was to be divided into six parts: Science and Philosophy, Molecules and Life, The Molecular Basis of Disease, Molecules and Heredity, Molecules and Evolution, and The World of the Future.  Lectures three, four, and five relied heavily on the material Pauling had presented in various publications and talks over the past five years.  Lectures one, two, and six, however, were unique.  It is on these three lectures, the focus of which were Pauling’s philosophical interests, that we will discuss over the course of our series Pauling and the Messenger Lectures.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

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