Pauling’s Year as ACS President: Presidential Duties

[Part 3 of 4.]

Although Linus Pauling’s political activities were a source of irritation to many in the American Chemical Society, they did not seem to diminish his popularity to any noticeable extent. During his year as president, Pauling traveled the country, speaking to a great many local ACS sections and receiving many more requests than he could possibly accept.

Pauling’s talks also routinely drew audiences that were far larger than many of the sections had seen before, and sometimes bigger than the sections had capacity to accommodate. After one such occasion, a regional section, in sending Pauling a note of thanks following his talk at their meeting, even apologized to him in case “…those who had to stand became restless and in any way annoyed you.”

Prior to his visit, Pauling generally offered each section he lectured to a menu of three possible talks from which to choose: 1) The Valence of Metals and the Structures of Intermetallic Compounds, 2) The Structure of Antibodies and the Nature of Serological Reactions, or 3) New Light on the Structure of Inorganic Complexes. As the year moved forward, he began to introduce two additional possibilities: Structural Chemistry of the Metallic State and Relations between Structural Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry.

Each stop on his speaking tours typically included a luncheon with a few of the section’s higher-ups; a visit to a local university, factory, or laboratory where the majority of section members were employed; dinner out with the section; and finally the lecture at the end of the evening. For his talks, Pauling always requested a slide projector and a “good-sized blackboard,” complaining rather bitterly whenever he arrived at a venue to find that the blackboard had been omitted or was not as large as he had anticipated. Sections were generally quite diligent in accommodating Pauling, with many changing the dates of their regular meetings and rearranging other speakers to suit the president’s schedule.


In March, Pauling attended the William H. Nichols Medal dinner, which was hosted by the New York section of the ACS. Pauling had himself received the Nichols Medal in 1941 for his work on the chemical bond. Though the reasons why are unclear, the banquet at which the medal was customarily awarded had suffered a loss of prestige in the years since Pauling had received it.

Hoping to restore the event to its former glory, the organizers made a concerted effort to invite as many high-profile ACS members as they could, and Pauling enthusiastically accepted the section’s invitation to be present at the high table and say a few words about the importance of the award. The 1949 recipient of the Nichols Medal was I.M. Kolthoff, now often cited as the father of analytical chemistry.

Pauling also served as the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial lecturer for the Philadelphia section of the society. Smith was an internationally renowned chemist and educator as well as a past president of the ACS. Pauling’s appearance drew a much larger crowd than the organizers had anticipated, filling the lecture hall completely including standing room, with many others turned away once the room reached capacity. The title of his lecture was New Ideas on Inorganic Chemistry, focusing specifically on the structure of chemical bonds.

Pauling’s travels were interrupted in early April 1949 when he was hospitalized for a “varicocele repair job.” Though a minor operation, his recovery proved more difficult than the doctors had initially anticipated, and Pauling ultimately remained in the hospital for a month. As a result, he was forced to cancel a speaking tour he had arranged on the eastern half of the U.S. as well as numerous other engagements that had been booked throughout the spring.

Perhaps because of his forced removal from the public eye, Pauling seems to have enjoyed a quiet period during which he went about his own work as well as those put forth by his presidential duties. Those duties included appointing various awards committees as well as delegates to events and conferences that the ACS was invited to; participating in conversations related to budgets and logistics; and, once he was well, attending as many national-level meetings and local section events as he could.


Not all of Pauling’s activities as president attracted widespread attention. In the middle of the year, the ACS forwarded a letter to Pauling from a John Albert, aspiring research chemist, who introduced a tale of job search woe as follows:

Having been seeking employment for one year, having contacted more than one thousand prospective employers by resumes, having gone into debt more than $700 for bodily sustenance (food) during this period, having desired to marry, and having been refused even laboratory technician’s employment…

Albert included his résumé with the letter, requesting that Pauling critique it and offer any advice that he could to help the struggling chemist find work.

Pauling and ACS executive secretary Alden Emery both took note of Albert’s forwardness and pluck in contacting the president of the ACS as a job coach, and they decided to offer what help they could. After a little digging, Emery discovered that although Albert had spent five years studying full-time for his undergraduate degree, he never actually finished it, and from 1942 to 1949, a period of seven years, he had held six different jobs. In addition, the types of positions he was applying for – roles like lab supervisor – were too ambitious for someone lacking a degree and a strong record of long-term employment.

Pauling centered his response to Albert around those two questions: why hadn’t he finished his bachelor’s degree? and why had he changed jobs so frequently? Albert replied that he had “not succeeded” in his chemistry courses at university but had earned A’s in his music and German classes, and that, upon reflection, he may note possess the skill set necessary to really do well at chemistry. This moment of introspection, as initiated by Pauling’s queries, moved Albert to change career paths and seek employment related to music or German.

Pauling responded one final time to congratulate Albert on making the effort to discover his true passion and follow it, assuring his correspondent that “…sooner or later you will be successful.” Alden Emery wrote back as well with the suggestion that he take an aptitude test which might help reveal professions to which he was well-suited. Albert promised to stop in at the office that Emery had recommended to inquire about tests of this sort. He admitted that he was concerned about the fees associated with the process but “…shall not close my eyes to any possibility which might uncover this enigma’s secret…”


Several months had passed since Ralph Spitzer’s dismissal from Oregon State College, but Pauling had not forgotten the indignity. In June, he took part in a luncheon discussion panel titled “Should Communist Party Membership be Grounds for Dismissal from a College Faculty?” In it, Pauling argued the negative, and Dr. George C.S. Benson, the president of Claremont Men’s College, argued the positive.

The crux of Benson’s perspective was that the Communist party required its members to follow the party line in every aspect of their lives. As a consequence, adherent professors would be obligated to sneak Communist philosophies into their lectures for purposes of secretly indoctrinating students. Benson also held that a Communist party take-over would prevent minority groups from organizing, and that a country whose greatest legacy is liberty could not support the rise of a party which would suppress civil rights, violently overthrow the government, and engage in “intellectual double-dealing.”

Pauling’s counter was that “We are in danger, not from Communism, but from loss of principles.” He pointed out that many political liberals and progressives, including himself, had been attacked for “Communism” though they were neither Communist party members nor sympathizers. Rather, the label had become an umbrella accusation used to derail or overpower any individual or group that did not conform to appropriately conservative political beliefs.

Pauling then proposed that establishing Communism as grounds for dismissal from a university faculty showed disrespect for the academic integrity of professors and students alike, by implying that students could not be trusted to think for themselves and that allowing Communism a platform at all would be enough to ensure that it prevailed as a dominant ideology. Pauling suggested that it was cynics such as Benson, and not liberals, who ought to be brought for questioning before the Committee on Un-American Activities.


Though there is no documentary evidence for how the ACS reacted to Pauling’s stance on academic freedom, it was not long before his continued political activities brought him back under scrutiny in a major way.

In July, Pauling received a letter from the Hanson, Lovett & Dale law firm, which had been hired by Dr. Roger Adams, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ACS. Through the lawyer, Adams complained that Pauling had utilized his title as society president in his endorsement of an ad that had appeared in The New York Times the previous day. The ad was titled “Tom Clark’s Police State,” and as usual was a political statement that ran counter to conservative sentiments. The lawyer, Elisha Hanson, informed Pauling that the use of his title in such a manner was unauthorized and a violation of society regulations.

Pauling wrote back three days later, stating that “I am very much troubled by the information… [that] the name of the American Chemical Society is used in connection with my name, in this political activity,” and that he had asked specifically that his professional affiliations not be listed. Pauling expressed his disappointment that a lawyer had been contacted about the matter before anyone from the society had bothered to ask him for a clarification. Though mostly a matter of miscommunication, the society’s knee-jerk reaction to a relatively minor offense serves as evidence of the rift that had grown between Pauling and the ACS little more than halfway through his presidential year.

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