Peter Pauling: Exploring the Structure of Psychotropic Drugs, Searching for Comfort in the Country, 1970-2003

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The Pauling family at Deer Flat Ranch, 1973. Peter stands at left.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 8 of 9]

It was the 1970s, and Peter Pauling was studying the molecular arrangement and physiological effects of hallucinogens. The field of psychopharmacology, crucial to psychiatric treatments of mental disorders, was at the time almost brand new. Only in the 1960s did most physicians begin to consider the potential of psychoactive pharmacological treatments in treating mood disorders and neurologically based physical ailments. The role that different substances played in the alteration of brain chemistry, their influence on synaptic changes, and the modifications in nervous response that they could bring about were all still poorly understood.

Peter’s work modelling the structure of different neurotransmitters and psychotropic drugs was part of a larger effort in the late twentieth century that sought to address this gap in scientific knowledge. Many doctors of the era were studying drugs like mescaline, psilocybin, and lysergic acid (LSD). Often, these researchers self-administered as part of the experimental endeavor.

Peter Pauling was no exception. His first experiences with LSD came in 1962, when he began receiving small doses regularly as a treatment for his manic depressive symptoms. And while he generally found the results to be agreeable, his brother Linus Jr. was suspicious. A psychiatrist and graduate of Harvard Medical School himself, Linus Jr. advised that the treatment was not in favor in the United States, arguing that it was often prescribed by “unprincipled” doctors. Linus Jr. would later reflect that lithium as a treatment should have been offered to Peter at much earlier point, and that it might have more seriously and effectively addressed his condition.


This compelling new research topic in hand, Peter dove into biophysics and psychopharmacology, attending conferences in Moscow and Vienna that inspired him to study drugs and molecules active in the cholinergic nervous system. His electronics work from the 1960s also continued to expand in tandem with his new scholarly focus. The grant that he had received to build his own computer and diffractometer served as the kernel for a grander plan to develop his own data collection facility to research the nature of acetylcholine and other substances.

Indeed, Peter’s stated aim was nothing less than to become “the world’s expert on the structure of drugs,” a goal he pursued with vigor throughout the 1970s. From 1966 – when the Medical Research Council began a systematic investigation and correlation of nervous system pharmacology – through 1979, Peter published no fewer than forty-eight papers in the field. His major works came to print in 1970 with “The Conformation of Molecules Affecting Cholinergic Nervous Systems”; in 1972 with “The Molecular Structure of LSD”; and in 1973 with two articles, “Neuromuscular Blocking Agents” and “The Conformations of Neurotransmitter Substances.”

During this fertile period, Peter was supported by grants averaging about $100,000 dollars a year, including funding to purchase a computer graphic display and to employ a programmer to assist in the development of an interactive graphics system for the study of molecular structures. He described the function of the new technology to his father with awe:

One just pulls up a picture of the molecule and wiggles it around until one gets a pretty view, and punches a button which sets up a file which consists of the entire job input file for another computer to draw the picture. One then rings up the other computer on the telephone and sends the file down to it!

To date, no serious consideration appears to have been given to the impact that Peter Pauling may have had on the young field of psychopharmacology during his short but prolific research career at University College, London. He himself saw his work as influential, claiming in 1993 that his goal had been to discover details overlooked by other researchers and lamenting that, in his view, scientists in his own field had, in fact, overlooked these discoveries for years.


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Peter Pauling, with his mother, nephew and sister, at Deer Flat Ranch. Ca. late 1970s.

Peter’s personal life seemed to be improving at this point as well. Having moved out of the slum and into a new flat on Hornton Street, everything looked to be coming together.

Early in the decade, Peter began dating a book publishing agent by the name of Bud. The two had originally met at a party in Cambridge years earlier, and before long, Bud and Peter were married, with Peter’s daughter Sarah giving her father away at the ceremony. The couple subsequently moved in together and spent Christmas week in 1971 with some friends in a cottage in North Wales. Peter was enchanted by the place, noting that its Roman tracks and bridges inspired him to imagine someday owning a cottage of his own nearby.

But in stark contrast to pastoral dreams of retiring to the Welsh countryside, Peter Pauling’s life had become a blur of work and travel. He flew to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, and Sweden for conference after conference between 1970 and 1978. He also spoke, in 1974, at Peter Waser’s Cholinergic Nervous System conference in Zurich. (Waser had first outlined the role of cholinergic receptors in 1960, and is an early and influential figure in psychopharmacology)  Peter even received an honorary MD from the Karolinska Institute at Stockholm in 1972.

By now, Peter was also priding himself on his ability to keep what he called the “demon rum” securely in the bottle, though he likewise admitted that his was an ongoing struggle. By 1978, he had been hospitalized about five times – sometimes having himself committed – where he received psychiatric treatment for his depression as well as aversion therapy for his alcohol dependence. He took nicotinic acid and Antabuse to treat his symptoms, and adhered to a steady regimen of small doses of lysergic acid as well. When he was feeling well, Peter rewarded himself for all of his hard work with a new classic car; this time a 1938 Rolls Royce Phantom III with a 7 liter, V-12 engine.


Meanwhile, by 1972, Peter’s ex-wife Julia had finished both a teacher’s training degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in Education. The children also seemed to be flourishing: Thomas had joined his school’s rowing team, finishing in the top eight and winning a pewter cup in one race, and Sarah was beginning secondary school. The next year, Peter spent Christmas with Sarah and Thomas for the first time since 1966, after which his visits to both of them became more frequent, especially with Thomas. In 1979, Thomas joined his father for a trip to California to see his grandparents, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. Sarah accompanied Peter and Bud on a separate holiday that Peter admitted was an “eye opener,” showing him that he and his daughter could connect on a level that he hadn’t been sure was possible.

Before long, Sarah was heading off to the University of Bristol, and Thomas was coming up on his final exams at Sussex. Much like his father, Thomas possessed a mind that was mechanically focused, delighting in daydreams of designing bicycles or of someday becoming an electrical engineer.  In 1980, Thomas took a position at an engineering firm working in “forecasting expenditure,” and living in the same Hornton Street building as his father. Sarah would later complete a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s in Forensic Science, ultimately forging a career in pathology at the UK Home Office.


By the early 1980s, Peter had entered into a romantic relationship with another woman, Alicia, a librarian and classics instructor who lived in the same apartment building as he. Bud had moved out, and though she wished to maintain contact after their separation, Peter was less open to the idea. He preferred to continue to see Alicia, their “on again, off again” relationship percolating for many years before the two finally married. And though they took their time before sealing their vows, Alicia pretty quickly became a crucial fixture in Peter’s life, providing much needed support when tragedy repeatedly struck.

In 1981, Ava Helen Pauling, in failing health and suffering a recurrence of stomach cancer, decided against chemotherapy. She passed away on December 7th at the age of 77. Not long after, Peter lost his son Thomas, who, in 1983, died tragically at the young age of 26. The next year, Peter was admitted to the Queen Mary’s Hospital burn ward in Roehampton, where he received surgery to aid in his recovery after unintentionally setting his mattress on fire in the middle of the night.


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The final Pauling family portrait, taken on occasion of Linus Pauling’s 85th birthday. Pasadena, 1986. Peter stands at far left.

In 1986, Peter accepted an offer to take an early retirement from his job at the University of London. His academic career now concluded, Peter channeled his energies into fulfilling the vision that had first occurred to him in 1971: a small home in Wales. After many trips spent looking at properties, Peter and Alicia eventually came across a house that was adjacent to an isolated and run down mill out in the countryside of Dyfed.

For Peter, the mill itself was the real attraction. It was called Abergwenlais, and it was 250 years old. It’s specs included two big rooms, five bedrooms, two wood stoves, and a leaky roof in need of repair. Parts of the facility still retained the original equipment, though the mill wheel itself, which likely had been twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, was missing. Linus Pauling Jr. later described the property:

Through the ground ran a stream, part of which was diverted into a sluiceway to   motivate the wheel. Inside the mill was still the mechanism for transferring energy from horizontal to vertical grindstones, which had big doors on each side so wagons could go in underneath and get loaded up and then on out the other side. Only a small portion had been made barely habitable, with running water and a bathroom, and what passed for a kitchen. The Welsh countryside was beautiful. The place suited Peter.


Peter and Alicia married in 1991, taking a trip around the world as their honeymoon, and paying visits to Linus and Linus Jr. along the way. The next year, Alicia retired from her university job and sold her London flat, moving full-time into the house by the mill in Wales. But she continued to travel back and forth and remained academically active in her spare time. She also brought to the mill a number of cats that Peter considered “bloody awful things” on the grounds that they preyed on the local birds.

It is clear, however, that Alicia’s presence was supremely positive for Peter, both physically and psychologically. In a 1992 letter to his father, Peter admitted that, after years of struggle, he had finally found someone who would look after him. “I try not to complain, but just let things slide by,” he said of pastoral life with Alica, confiding that “it works quite well. She says she will be here more or less permanently by the end of September, but this may be a bit optimistic. It always has been.”

It was optimistic; but only just. Alicia returned permanently to the mill a month later than planned, and the pair lived out their lives there together among the old Roman roads, the green hills, the grey skies, and the deep winter snows.

Peter Pauling died on April 22, 2003. He was 72 years old.

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