This coming Sunday will mark the 115th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth on February 28, 1901. While we here at Oregon State University are commemorating the birthday anniversary with cake and conversation at the Linus Pauling Science Center, the Pauling Blog observes the occasion in our traditional manner, by looking back at Pauling’s life 100, 75, 50 and 25 years ago.
As a junior at Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, Pauling took his first chemistry class in spring 1916. That fall he began his senior year at Washington and then, in 1917, enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College, at the age of sixteen and lacking a high school diploma. Pauling did not graduate from high school because he neglected to take a required history course, and back then OAC didn’t require high school equivalency for admission. Linus was always a good student, of course, but during his junior year at Washington he struggled a bit, earning C’s in English and Latin, alongside the expected A’s in solid geometry and chemistry.
With the onset of war in Europe, Pauling faced a major personal crisis of his own in 1941. While giving a lecture in New York, Pauling made light of his alarmingly swollen face:
I am happy also that this occasion has brought me in touch with many old friends – with Paul Emmett and Joe Mayer and many others. Several of them said to me tonight that I appeared to be getting fat. This is not so. You know, when I was a boy in Oregon I used to go around a great deal in the green, damp Oregon woods, and I always came into contact with poison oak, which caused my face to swell and my eyes to swell shut, and me to apply so much lead acetate solution that it is a wonder that I didn’t die of lead poisoning. Yesterday I must have bumped into something similar, for my face began to swell, and I began to be afraid that I would have to speak here tonight with my eyes swollen shut – which I could have done, with the practice I have had speaking in the dark. Well, while I was wondering what the responsible protein could have been, I decided that it was a visitation – that I was being punished for thinking wicked thoughts. The other day I said “It is too bad that something doesn’t happen to Senator Wheeler – nothing serious, just something that would lay him up with his eyes shut for two or three weeks” and my wife said “No what you want is something that would keep his mouth shut – his eyes are closed already.”
As it turned out, Pauling’s edema was the result of his having fallen ill with glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease that was usually fatal. Fortunately for Pauling and for the history of science, he sought out an alternative treatment from Dr. Thomas Addis that saved his life.
Even prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was shifting gears in response to the outbreak of World War II. This shift made a direct impact on Pauling’s work at Caltech, and he began putting the brakes on his massive program of research on the structure of proteins in favor of new studies funded by government war contracts, including, in 1941, investigations of elastic explosives and rocket propellants.
Pauling’s life and work took another dramatic shift in 1966 when he made the acquaintance of Irwin Stone, initially through correspondence. At a talk on “Science and World Problems” delivered in New York, Pauling had made mention of a desire to live another fifteen years, so that he might be able to witness some of the major advances that he foresaw as being on the close horizon. Stone was in the audience and sent Pauling a hugely influential letter that detailed a “High Level Ascorbic Acid Regimen” that could “help you achieve this goal and possibly tack on a few extra decades.” Pauling was intrigued and thus began his famous fascination with vitamin C.
Now 90 years old, Pauling experienced a difficult year in 1991. As the year began, the United States was preparing to invade the Persian Gulf, an action that Pauling protested vehemently, taking out a paid advertisement in the New York Times imploring the government to “stop the rush to war.”
Closer to home, Pauling’s friend and close colleague Ewan Cameron, with whom he had published some of his most controversial papers on vitamin C, passed away at the age of 68, a victim of cancer. That fall, Pauling himself was also diagnosed with prostate and rectal cancer, which he began treating using megadoses of vitamin C and an experimental hormone therapy. He would live for three more years before passing away on August 19, 1994.