The Story of 1935

Linus Pauling, 1935.

[A look back 75 years in honor of the Pauling birthday anniversary on February 28th.]

In 1935 Linus Pauling turned 34. He continued in his position as a full professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, and, per usual, stayed very busy for the duration of the year. Now recognized nationally and internationally for his work with structural chemistry, he showed no signs of slowing down his scholarly progress.

Pauling was well aware of the benefits that his presence brought to Caltech, and he used this advantage as leverage to advance his evolving research agenda. As a result, friction began to develop between him and other members of the department. He was a brilliant scientist and theorist at the start of an impressive career, but still comparatively young and impatient. He was traveling, networking with scholars from other institutions, conducting innovative research and making plans for his future. As a result of so many contrasting variables, the year 1935 would prove to be both substantive and challenging for Pauling.

The year also marked the conclusion of a time period renowned as Pauling’s great years of achievement in structural chemistry. During a trip to Berkeley in the spring, Pauling formulated a theory that explained the configurational entropy of ice in relation to hydrogen bonds. A paper using the theory was eventually published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, but Pauling would also later use this theory to inform a wide range of other structural work.

Though Pauling still published several crystal structure determinations during this time, his interest began shifting to the field of biology. He published an important paper dealing with the interaction between oxygen molecules and iron atoms in hemoglobin – work which proved, among other things, to be an important development in his budding relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation.

With the help of a former student, E. Bright Wilson, Pauling also managed to publish a book, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, with Applications to Chemistry. The book was a transformation of lecture notes developed for one of Pauling’s classes, a three-year endeavor in the making. The book initially faced slow acceptance by fellow scholars, but remained in print for thirty years and proved to be a popular textbook for introducing chemists and physicists to the newborn field of quantum mechanics.

Pauling traveled for a little over one month straight during the spring of 1935. He traversed much of the country, making stops in Chicago, New York, Washington D. C. and Atlanta. He was sought after for a number of meetings and speaking engagements, many of which he had to turn down, most notably a September meeting of the British Association in Norwich, Norfolk UK. Around Christmas time of the same year, Ava Helen went for a trip to visit her mother who was ill. As usual, Linus wrote to her every day during the length of her absence.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, Painted Canyon, California. 1935.

As Pauling’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation intensified, he began pursuing research that was generally more in line with the goals of the foundation, and quickly formed a sort of strategic alliance with Warren Weaver, the man in charge of dispensing Rockefeller grants in the natural sciences. This relationship with Weaver would prove to be beneficial for Pauling not just in terms of finances, but later on as well when a dispute at Caltech required special resolution. Around this time Pauling also received the Simon Flexner Award from the Rockefeller Institute for his work in relation to the medical sciences. He met with Simon Flexner, the institute’s president, and arranged for a man named Alfred Mirsky to spend 15 months working with him at Caltech.

Mirsky, a professor of cell biology, worked with Pauling on protein denaturation experiments, and the two spent part of their summer at Caltech’s marine laboratory in Corona del Mar. Mirsky began a number of experiments upon his arrival to Caltech, and Pauling let him handle most of the laboratory work involved.  Once the laboratory data was gathered, Pauling translated the observations into chemical-bond terms, and the two spent a substantial amount of time collaborating and discussing the research. The two wrote a paper that was eventually published in July 1936 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper, “On the Structure of Native, Denatured, and Coagulated Proteins,” theorized the relationship between hydrogen bonds and protein structure, and proved to be an important advance in the field of protein analysis.

Though everyday business was being adequately managed around this time, a great conflict was growing at the California Institute of Technology. It had been generally understood that Pauling was being groomed to replace A. A. Noyes as director of the Caltech Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. However, as the years passed and Noyes’ health deteriorated, it became increasingly clear that Pauling would most likely not be assuming the position in its entirety. There were a number of reasons for this, but foremost among them was opposition from several key Caltech faculty members.

As the ensuing dispute continued, Pauling began looking outside of the Institute for opportunity and leverage. He was presented with a very generous offer from Ohio State University, and it was made clear that there was a place for him at Harvard as well. Pauling was keenly aware of his value, and made it clear to all parties involved that his allegiance would come at a premium. This new strategy was a source of resentment at the Institute, and the resulting conflict would inflict Pauling with a heavy burden. Though Pauling continued much of his normal activity throughout the following months into 1936, he was largely preoccupied and affected by the unsteady turn of events. The conflict would eventually be resolved in a manner satisfactory to most participants, but Pauling paid a heavy political toll for advancement at this stage in his career.

For more on Pauling achievements in chemistry and biology, check out the documentary history series of websites available at Linus Pauling Online.

One Response

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