Saving General Chemistry

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Front cover of the Dover reprint edition of General Chemistry, 1988.

[Our seventh and final post examining the history of Linus Pauling’s textbook, General Chemistry, first published in 1947. This is also our last post for 2017. Many thanks to you, our readers, for another great year! Look for us again in early January.]

In 1979, Linus Pauling contacted his publisher, W.H. Freeman & Co., with the intent to order more copies of the third edition of his General Chemistry text, only to learn that it had gone out of print. Freeman’s new president, Richard Warrington, apologized to Pauling for the lapse in communication, and then noted that the firm had stopped printing the book the previous summer. Warrington explained that sales for 1978 were not sufficient to justify further printing runs of the book: just 387 copies had been sold that year, as compared to 13,469 copies purchased when the third edition went live in 1970. With the book now officially out of print, all rights to General Chemistry reverted back to Pauling and it was up to him to figure out what to do with the content, if anything at all.

Not long after, in 1980, Freeman & Co. came under new management, which promptly ushered in a series of sweeping changes. Now led by Neil Patterson, the firm chose to cease all promotion of back-listed books and allowed dozens of titles to go out of print. Freeman & Co. had merged with Scientific American in 1962 and now shared a CEO with their corporate partner. Because of these connections, Patterson also chose to move the company from San Francisco – the only home that it had ever known – to New York. This relocation led to the diminishment or outright severing of ties with several authors based on the west coast.

Pauling expressed regret that the company had chosen to move across the country, but it was his recent experience with Freeman & Co. – specifically their neglect in communicating to him that one of his signature titles was no longer being produced – that led him to cut ties with the company.

In the midst of all this, Freeman continued to navigate seas of change. Linda Chaput took over as president and executive editor shortly following the move to New York, but the company continued to flail financially. It eventually became an imprint of MacMillan – ironically, the firm at which founder William H. Freeman got his start – but was allowed to keep its name and to market the story of its propitious beginning.


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Cover of the Dover reprint of Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, 1985.

Meanwhile, time moved forward and General Chemistry remained out of print, a fact that gnawed on its author. In 1984, Pauling approached New York-based Dover Publications, Inc. to see if they might be interested in resuscitating the third edition. Pauling had reason to believe that this entreaty might be looked upon favorably, as the company had already agreed to release a reprint version of Pauling’s influential Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry, originally co-authored with E. Bright Wilson in 1938.

The Dover edition of Introduction to Quantum Mechanics appeared in 1985 and, as it turned out, sales were promising enough that the firm quickly agreed to sponsor the General Chemistry reprint, offering Pauling a flat sum of $2,000 in place of any royalties. This reproduction made it to market in 1988 and is still available for purchase today.


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Pauling’s notes for his talk, “Improving Science Education: Changes That Make it Possible,” January 30, 1984. In particular, Pauling emphasizes the sheer physical size of modern science textbooks, a consistent pet peeve of his.

While the paperback Dover reprint keeps General Chemistry alive today, it is the Freeman editions that stand as true classics. General Chemistry was sold by the firm for thirty-one years, an extraordinarily long life for a college science textbook. And for the bulk of those three decades, the title served as the flagship for Freeman & Co.’s chemistry series, while also providing inspiration, if not a template, for similar series written for other scientific disciplines. Feedback to the book also inspired Pauling to write College Chemistry, a slightly more traditional text which likewise went through three editions and remained very popular with chemistry teachers at the high school and college levels for decades.

General Chemistry and later College Chemistry reflected a change of style in textbook writing that sought to thread a small needle. Essentially, Pauling took it upon himself to challenge engaged students while also making scientific concepts more accessible. He did so by organizing and reimagining content in radically different ways. Pauling was, for example, the first author of a chemistry textbook to use chemical bonding and molecular structure as guiding pedagogical principles. His was also the first textbook to explain elements, isotopes, and compounds in terms of electron shells and atomic weight, an approach that has since become the norm.

General Chemistry was hugely important in at least one other way. Though Pauling had set out to write a textbook oriented primarily toward students of chemistry, the book initiated and propelled a much larger conversation among his colleagues, particularly those seeking to author their own volumes. Within a decade of Pauling publishing General Chemistry, introductory chemistry texts around the world had begun following the contours of Pauling’s model, emphasizing physical and descriptive chemistry as well as real-world applications of chemistry and the scientific method.

And even after he had moved on from devoting significant time or attention to the textbook game, Pauling strove to ensure that his revolutionary work would continue. At a 1984 meeting of the Oregon Consortium for Quality Science Education, for example, he urged textbook authors to work harder to make their material more engaging and accessible to students. Worried that many high school textbook writers suffered from a superficial knowledge of their subjects, Pauling warned that these authors risked discouraging otherwise successful students from becoming scientists by leading them to believe that they could not grasp fundamental topics. In issuing this warning, Pauling was also distilling a core belief of his own: a well-written textbook can influence student success at least as much as the initiative put forth by a teacher in the classroom.

General Chemistry – The Third and Final Edition

[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 6 of 7.]

By the time that Linus Pauling was preparing to revise and publish a third edition of General Chemistry, the cast with which he had been working since the 1940s had shifted considerably. For one, publisher William H. Freeman had left Freeman & Co. in 1962, following the company’s merger with Scientific American. His secretary, Margaret Cooper, left the company with him, and the couple subsequently married that same year.

In 1964, the newlyweds started a new publishing house, Freeman, Cooper & Co., where a primary focus on science textbooks expanded to eventually include philosophy texts as well. At the time that he was creating this new company, Freeman, in a letter to illustrator and long-time collaborator Roger Hayward, outlined his sense of the continuing need for independent publishing houses as well as his own continuing interest in being involved with independent ventures of this sort.

Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the idea of associating with a corporation as massive as Scientific American had prompted Freeman to reevaluate his involvement with Freeman & Co. in much the same way that he had reevaluated his career at MacMillan almost twenty years before. Pauling, on the other hand, did not harbor similar misgivings – comfortable in his relationship with Freeman & Co., he opted to continue publishing with the firm even after the departure of his long-time editor and the company’s namesake.


Illustration proposed by Evan Gillespie for use in the third edition of General Chemistry.

Bill Freeman was not the only familiar face to be absented from the third edition; Pauling also chose to shift gears with his visuals. By the end of the 1960s, Roger Hayward’s illustrations no longer seemed satisfactory to Pauling, who wanted to experiment with stereoscopic drawings rather than sticking with Hayward’s more traditional style. Hayward had made an attempt at creating the kinds of three-dimensional images that Pauling was seeking but, by the time of the third edition, his struggles with chronic asthma and declining vision were both restricting his availability for projects and compromising his ability to create superior work.

In the end, Pauling decided to begin a new collaboration with Evan Gillespie, the director of the art department at Freeman & Co. Hayward, by now formally retired, continued to find commission work for the remainder of his life. He passed away in 1979 at the age of 80.

With Freeman and Hayward no longer in the picture, the core of Pauling’s new team consisted of illustrator Gillespie and editor Stanley Schaefer, who was also chairman of the Freeman & Co. board. Family played a significant role in the third edition as well, with Peter Pauling and Barclay Kamb – Pauling’s son-in-law – contributing intermittently throughout the project


Released in 1970, the third edition of Pauling’s General Chemistry focused more on physical and theoretical principles while – in response to a trend in comments expressed about the second edition – largely avoiding abstract mathematics. (Instead, he included more statistical mechanics.) Pauling also pruned what had been a longer section on descriptive chemistry and shortened his chapter on organic chemistry.

The question of how best to treat organic chemistry had presented a particularly vexing conundrum during the revision process. Pauling’s first edition had been criticized for providing only a surface treatment of the subject, but his expansion on the topic as presented in the second edition was met with even more criticism. For the third edition, Pauling worked to strike a balance on the subject, though some reviewers protested that he had failed to update his ideas sufficiently, rendering his new textbook at least partially out of date.

Generally speaking however, the third edition received a warm response. Most reviewers applauded Pauling’s switch to S.I. units, and the typically rigorous nature of the book – perhaps, by now, less of a shock within the academic community – elicited more positive praise than had been the case in the past. One reviewer specifically pushed back against complaints that the textbook was too difficult by noting that it was a professor’s responsibility to present Pauling’s subject matter with clarity and assistance when introducing it in the classroom. In other published reviews, Pauling’s clarity, unification of scientific principles, and modernity were emphasized.

Nonetheless, as time moved forward it became clear that more and more people were using General Chemistry as a reference book rather than a textbook. Pauling’s approach, revolutionary in 1947, had, by the early 1970s, become classic. As a new generation of chemists, many of them trained using General Chemistry, moved through the ranks of their profession, Pauling’s textbook assumed more of an artifactual positioning: solid in its place in history but increasingly less vital for students.

Importantly, Pauling had likewise moved on to a new phase of his career: in the same year that the third edition was released, so too was Vitamin C and the Common Cold. This book’s runaway success and the maelstrom of work and controversy that followed would consume much of Pauling’s attention for the remainder of his life.

General Chemistry Goes Abroad

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[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 5 of 7.]

General Chemistry has been translated into twelve languages, and most of the foreign editions of the text were published in the interim between the release of the U.S. second and third editions, 1953-1970. As Linus Pauling’s book gained increasing recognition stateside, more and more translation requests began to pour in. Pauling himself bore only limited responsibility for responding to these requests; this was publisher William Freeman’s area of expertise, and he had developed strict guidelines which translators were obligated to follow.

In order for a foreign translation to be formally recognized by Freeman and Co., a translator had to submit a proposal to a publisher in their own country, who then contacted Freeman and Co. for approval. Once William Freeman had obtained Pauling’s permission to go ahead, he made an offer to the overseas publisher, negotiating royalty rates, the price of the book, and any considerations necessitated by differences in copyright law from country to country. Once Freeman and the overseas publisher agreed to terms, the two parties drew up a contract. Only then was the translator free to begin with their work.

Once they moved out of Freeman’s purview, these editions took on lives of their own, and results certainly varied. Many U.S. reviewers, for instance, were dismayed to learn that General Chemistry served as a high school text in several European countries, as well as in Japan. Additionally, German institutions tended not to use their translation as a textbook, except in rare cases. In providing an explanation for this phenomenon, the German translator, Friedrich Helfferich, explained that Chemie: eine Einführung

owes its success to its appeal to the general interested public, e.g., the engineer, physician, psychologist, etc., wanting to obtain a modern concept of chemistry; to the boy in his last year of high school who plays with the idea of taking up chemistry; even to the philosopher.

Pauling and Freeman, while disgruntled by the evident differences between American and European education standards, were nonetheless proud of the book’s wide adoption.


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The Spanish edition, which was the easiest translation to complete, was also the first foreign version of General Chemistry to appear, hitting the market in 1949, just two years after the U.S. first edition’s introduction to stateside readers. Fernandez Alonso, a professor from Universidad de Valencia in Spain, completed the work in only six months. Pauling was so pleased with this edition that he offered Alonso the job of translating his other text, College Chemistry, as well as subsequent editions of General Chemistry.

On the other hand, the German translation presented significant challenges. For one, Freeman and Co. encountered initial difficulties in determining whether there was even a market for the book, given the tenuous post-war relationship between the U.S. and a divided Germany. Further, when Chemie Verlag, a German publishing house focused on science, approached Freeman and Pauling for the rights to translate and produce a German edition, Freeman was already deep into negotiations with a different German option.

Pauling felt so strongly about Chemie Verlag, however, that he wrote to their director to make his preferences clear, encouraging him to match the offer being made by their competitor. Two months later, Freeman accepted Chemie Verlag’s offer and Friederich Helfferich began translating. While the work moved smoothly from there, all of the uncertainties that had preceded it meant that the German edition was not completed until 1958 and was based on the second U.S. edition.

The German translation was also the one in which Pauling became the most involved. Proficient in German from his upbringing, his university studies and his travels abroad, Pauling edited almost all of the proofs and often expressed his opinions about which German words would more appropriately address the concepts presented in his book. When he at last received the completed German translation, Pauling immediately wrote back to express his satisfaction with it and his gratitude to Helfferich.

In the years following, Helfferich took it upon himself to continue to update the material such that, just prior to the release of the third U.S. edition, Chemie Verlag had already published four editions of Chemie: eine Einführung. Part of this productivity was surely due to Helfferich’s self-directed industry, but perhaps more important was the lack of distinction made by the German publishers between a reprint (correcting technical errors) and a revision (a new edition). As it turned out, Helferrich had done some of both without a great deal of guidance from Pauling.

Thinking about how best to approach a translation of Pauling’s third edition, which was still in the works, Helfferich suggested two options. Option 1 was to discard all changes that he had made on his own to “update” the German editions to reflect recent scientific advances. Option 2 was to use the new edition as an opportunity to unify the changes that he had made with those that Pauling was considering for the U.S. edition.

Helfferich argued that, on the plus side, the latter option would produce a German edition that was even further customized to the German readership and, as a result, likely to sell very well. This option, however, would also require significant collaboration between author and translator, a commitment that turned out to be a deal-breaker for Pauling.

Ultimately, Pauling requested that Helfferich limit his own contributions to a two-chapter minimum. He also asked that Helfferich remove his name from the title page, so as to make it abundantly clear that Pauling was the sole author of the book. Helfferich subsequently decided to postpone a German 5th edition until Pauling had released the U.S. third edition, which he then translated in a more orthodox fashion.


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The international reach of General Chemistry was truly impressive. The first edition was translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, and Swedish. The second edition was translated, once more, into these five languages as well as German, Polish, Gujarati, and Portuguese. Russian, Romanian and Hebrew editions also eventually came to pass.

As the international profile of the book grew and grew, Freeman and Co. ran into a few problems with freelance translators. The most pressing issue that the publishing house faced however, were differences in royalty laws from country to country. Even in the U.K., where Pauling’s book didn’t require linguistic translation, it was nearly impossible to find a publishing company that could offer Pauling a royalty rate comparable to Freeman’s.

Perhaps most notably, for the Japanese edition, Pauling was compelled to collect his royalties in Japanese currency and then bring the yen back to the United States for exchange into U.S. dollars. It was in Japan, however, that the book was most successful internationally – sales were still increasing more than ten years after its release – a fact which no doubt contributed to Pauling’s close relationship with that country, including eight visits during his lifetime.