A Royal Welcome

The Paulings at Magdalen Great Tower, Oxford. 1948.

[The Paulings in England: Part 2 of 5]

Arriving in Oxford right at the start of 1948, the Paulings had ample time to settle in before Linus Pauling’s first lecture on January 20th.  Shortly after unpacking, the family purchased bicycles for the whole group, and taken time “to peddle around the countryside.” The Paulings also explored their new surroundings in England via a “four-day automobile trip – to Cambridge, Peterborough, Nottingham, Manchester, Chester, Shrewsbury, and back to Oxford.”

By February, they had assimilated well into their new temporary home, and Pauling’s Oxford lectures were proving to be very popular – as he wrote to his Caltech colleague Carl Niemann: “My lectures have been going across well – there are 250 or 300 auditors still attending them.” A good start for what Pauling would later refer to as “one of the happiest years of my life.”

His regular schedule – two lectures on the nature of the chemical bond at 5:15 Tuesdays and Fridays, plus a weekly afternoon seminar in inorganic chemistry each Wednesday at 2:30 – sounds light, but Pauling certainly wasn’t taking it easy. On the contrary, Pauling was in high demand as a lecturer; not only were his Oxford lectures packed with standing room only, but he was also invited to speak all around England and Europe.  Everyone from the Istituto Chimico in Italy to the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker in Hesse, Germany wanted to hear what this brilliant scientist and dynamic speaker had to divulge about their favorite field.

The clamor for Pauling was such that he was forced to turn many offers down, but still managed to give a mind-boggling thirty-nine lectures over six months, in addition to the three per week required by his Eastman Professorship.  As he wrote to his colleague Robert Corey, who was holding down the lab back in Pasadena,

I am continuing to get along very well – perhaps being kept a little too busy, with so many extra lectures to deliver. However, I feel that when there is so much interest in what I have to say it is proper that I make the effort to say it.

Among those who had the opportunity to hear him speak were attendees of many universities in England and Scotland, The Chemical Society, the British Undergraduate School of Medicine, as well as those who attended the three Scott Lectures for the Physics Department at Cambridge.  Pauling also gave three lectures at University College, London, the Sir Jesse Boot Lecture at Nottingham, a Bedson Lecture at Newcastle, The Liversidge Lecture for the Chemical Society and the first Lyell Lecture at Oxford.

In short, he was the toast of the town.  Priscilla Roth, Pauling’s secretary during his time at Oxford, wrote in a letter that Pauling was “getting a royal welcome everywhere he goes.”  And despite the Paulings’ initial disappointment in their lodgings, which kept the couple from entertaining their English friends to the extent they had originally hoped, the pair nonetheless found themselves swept up in a social whirlwind, attending an event almost every night – be it dinner, musical entertainment, or the ubiquitous English sherry party.

A prime example of this royal treatment was the reception afforded Pauling during his Friday Evening Lecture at the Royal Institution in London on February 27.   After a grand dinner, Pauling presented an hour long talk on “The Nature of Forces between Large Molecules of Biological Interest” to a glamorous audience of men in tuxedos and women draped in furs and jewels. Pauling biographer Thomas Hager described the evening as “an artifact from the days when the sciences were patronized like the arts … the scientific equivalent of playing Carnegie Hall.”

Trappings aside, the content of Pauling’s major lectures were ground-breaking.  As befitted his turn from structural chemistry to topics in molecular biology, his presentations typically brought to life new insight into the tiny world of molecules.

To begin, Pauling often posed the question, “what is it that defines living organisms as alive?”  He proposed that it is molecular architecture that makes creatures unique and imparts upon them the properties that we identify as life. Expounding on this thesis, Pauling would speak of the wonders of the giant molecules that comprise living organisms and their special biological roles.  In so doing, Pauling touched on the oxygen-carrying proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin as well as the mechanics of catalysis by enzymes.

Importantly, Pauling also remarked on the then-mysterious question of the genetic material – for this was in the years before the structure of DNA had been surmised by Watson and Crick. At the time, it was thought to be the “molecules of nucleoprotein” – instead of DNA itself – “that determine the characters of individual living organisms and that are involved in the transmission of these characters to their progeny.”

Pauling likewise questioned the boundaries of life by mentioning viruses: “Although these molecules may not ordinarily carry out the processes of respiration of air and metabolism of foodstuffs that we usually associate with life, they have one important property that causes us to regard them as living, the property of producing progeny.”  From there he brought the focus back to the triumph of the human body in discussing the operations of what he described as the biological “police force” of antibodies in identifying invaders, including viruses, and forming defenses against them.

After an exciting journey through the networks of biology and chemistry within the human body, Pauling often finished his lectures with a proposal that molecular architecture could be used to understand and attack degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, in the same way that penicillin and the sulpha drugs had so nearly eradicated infectious disease in the first half of the century.

Ava Helen Pauling at Stonehenge, 1948.

Though most of Pauling’s talks focused on scientific topics, he didn’t forget about the peace pledge that he had made on the Queen Mary. Indeed, as he traveled around England, Pauling was frequently able to make forays into the world of politics and peace in speeches such as the “The Third Party Movement in the United States,” presented to the English Speaking Union at Oxford University in March.

Somewhat radical in a time when Americans were fostering a mounting fear of communism and the Soviet Union, Pauling promoted a third party outside of the Republicans and Democrats called the Progressive Citizens of America, a group that identified itself as a “mild socialist organization” and supported George Wallace for President. Pauling’s speech painted for his British audience a portrait of the hysterical fears that were evolving into the Cold War. Socialism was lumped with communism in the minds of the American majority, and thus pressure from capitalists on the third party was very great – members and advocates of the movement were being questioned and losing their jobs.

Pauling was also critical of the Marshall Plan, which included $13 billion in U.S. aid for the European Recovery Program, and was worried about what would happen to industry in the hands of private owners now that there had been a “decision made that the Western European Union is to be capitalistic, patterned after past and present U.S., rather than socialistic, patterned after England.”  With the pressure building stateside on those deemed to have communist sympathies, it must have been a relief for outspoken Pauling to escape the tension, even if momentarily, prevailing in his home country.


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