Pauling’s Year as ACS President: A Busy Conclusion

Pauling seated with Wilbur Miller and Gene McGuane for a radio broadcast sponsored by the Western Connecticut section of the American Chemical Society, 1949

[Part 4 of 4]

As Linus Pauling moved into the second half of his year as president of the American Chemical Society, the organization’s financial issues briefly took center stage. In July 1949, a committee tasked with analyzing the society’s expenditures and incomes began working in earnest. In particular, the committee sought to compare the costs associated with producing each of the society’s various publications against the income generated by subscription rates and member dues.

Pauling’s administrative records indicate that financing its publications was one of the ACS’ greatest monetary hurdles. And while the issue was beyond the committee’s ability to resolve, there was talk of increasing membership dues and publication subscription rates, decreasing financial support for certain niche publications in favor of more lucrative ones, and contacting chemistry-dependent industries that frequently took out mass-subscriptions to ask for additional financial support. Ultimately, it was decided that the 1950 membership dues would be increased; an explanation and defense of this move was published in the end-of-year report that was circulated to the full membership.


By late August, Pauling was once again attracting attention from his political critics within the ACS. This time, Pauling’s plans to travel to Mexico City to attend and present at the American Continental Congress for Peace were the source of the controversy. One especially prominent detractor, ACS board member A.C. Elm, wrote a letter to an unspecified recipient requesting that Pauling be dissuaded from attending the conference and, if that failed, that he be asked to resign from his leadership position. In his letter, Elm wrote that many ACS members were “greatly disturbed” to learn that Pauling was a sponsor of the meeting, which was “inspired and dominated by comunists [sic].”

Other members agreed that the act of requesting the president’s resignation over his political activities was unprecedented but necessary in light of the potential smear on the society’s reputation. Subsequent correspondence flew between ACS members, including every board member except for Pauling (Elm specifically stipulated as much in his first communication), trying to rally the organization against Pauling and “…use their influence to prevent Pauling from embarrassing the Society.”

These efforts failed and, in September, Pauling attended the Mexico City meeting. While there, he presented a talk titled “Man – An Irrational Animal,” in which he endorsed the idea of a world government, headed by the United Nations, to which all countries would need to transfer their sovereignty. Pauling believed that such an arrangement would guarantee world peace by uniting the globe under a single umbrella rather than a collection of competing nations.

To this end, Pauling placed the responsibility for seeking and ensuring peace into the hands of citizens instead of governments, since the latter’s historical impulse toward national sovereignty had frequently been antagonistic to the cause of peace. Pauling believed that international problems like hunger would never be solved while war continued to cause divisions between countries and waste resources. Pauling took particular aim at a segment of the scientific population for focusing on weapons development instead of conducting work to better the human condition.  


Just two weeks after the American Continental Congress for Peace, Pauling presided over the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. Held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the meeting was the largest in ACS history, with a record 1,064 papers presented in 151 sessions over five days. Such was the scale of the meeting that, in addition to space reserved at six different hotels, three temporary rooms were constructed at the ACS convention hall to satisfy meeting requirements. Several field trips to glass, wine, and food producers were included on the conference program as well.

Pauling gave his presidential address, titled “Chemistry and the World of Today,” on September 19. He opened,

What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today?’ My answer to this question is that I can say anything, discuss any feature of modern life, because every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is affected by chemistry.

He went on to give examples of scientific achievements that had fundamentally altered western society during the war years, including the invention of nylon and the medical application of penicillin. He then argued that the majority of scientific discoveries that are significant to modern life come about as a result of basic rather than applied research, noting that it is impossible to arrange or design life-changing discoveries. In emphasizing this point, Pauling used the example that “Nobody, not even Einstein himself, could plan to discover the theory of relativity.” [Pauling’s italics]

From there, Pauling complained bitterly about institutional qualms related to the costs of scientific equipment and research funds. In so doing, Pauling quoted the Russian physicist P.L. Kapitza, who, in a 1943 speech before the Soviet Academy of Science, had asked

When you look at a painting of Rembrandt, are you interested in the question of how much Rembrandt paid for his brushes and canvas? Why, when you consider a scientific job, do you want to know the cost of apparatus of the material used on it?

Pauling was unequivocal in his belief that the benefits of scientific achievement far outweighed the costs involved in producing the work, never mind the cost of equipment. As a means of easing the burden on educational institutions, Pauling reiterated his support for the creation of a National Science Foundation and stipulated that funding should be made available to universities and research institutes without limitations on how it could be used. He also suggested that corporations that rely on scientific discovery for their products bore an obligation to fund a large chunk of that research by providing similarly unrestricted research grants. Pauling felt that $250 million a year in federal money through a National Science Foundation, and $75 million a year from science-dependent industries, would work well as starting levels of support.

There were some concerns, raised by Pauling himself, that such large subsidies might invite inappropriate outside influence on scientific studies. But in general it was agreed that the need for funding and the value of research were greater than the associated risks. Notably, Pauling also believed that the smaller contribution from industry would still be enough to protect against a government monopolization of science.


Newsweek‘s reporting on the annual meeting portrayed Pauling’s address as the highlight of the convention, while making passing mention of that fact that, at some point, “…a rare chemical element disappeared from the convention hall where it was on exhibit.” The element was indeed very rare, and quite expensive as well. Called promethium (originally spelled prometheum) it had first been synthesized at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the war years and had been kept secret for reasons of national security.

According to the article, the sample on display weighed only 2 milligrams yet was worth about $120,000 in 1949, which is equivalent to well over a million dollars today. After doing the math, the Newsweek reporter who filed the story concluded that

…the national debt of the United States would buy about 10 pounds of prometheum. The loss was deplorable but completely unpreventable, for prometheum is radioactive and slowly disintegrates.

The implications of the last sentence are never explained; instead, the article moves on to a discussion of new processes for electroplating aluminum coatings to other metals. Whether the prometheum was stolen or somehow degraded down to nothing during the course of the conference is unclear, though theft seems more likely considering its monetary value (and its 17.7-year half-life).


Michael Somogyi

One research paper presented at the national meeting caused turbulence for the ACS in the months that followed. In Atlantic City, Dr. Michael Somogyi gave a talk on the treatment of diabetes in which he stated that most cases could be managed through dietary means alone and did not require the use of supplementary insulin. In fact, Somogyi argued that doctors were overprescribing insulin treatments to the point of afflicting their patients with “insulin poisoning.”

The American Diabetes Association was infuriated by this stance, and complained that medically driven research with severe implications for the treatment of a disease should never have been presented by a chemist at a chemistry convention. The ADA also pointed out that, in allowing the paper to be presented, the ACS had undermined the ability of medical practitioners to effectively treat diabetics, since many patients had begun to request Somogyi’s insulin-free treatment plan. The association further stressed that Somogyi’s research had not been clinically validated and did not actually include a “treatment plan” per se, but rather consisted of a series of recommendations for treatment possibilities and a call for further research.

An ADA representative wrote to Pauling that Somogyi’s actions had the potential to “jeopardize the lives of persons under treatment for diabetes” by encouraging potentially lethal abandonment of treatment plans involving insulin and weakening patients’ trust in their doctors. The representative concluded that changes in the scientific understanding of medical treatments should not be released to the public until clinically approved by qualified medical practitioners, and then released by an appropriate scientific journal or medical body.


The Somogyi controversy was one of the last major topics that Pauling was forced to address during his term as president of the ACS and, as 1950 approached, he was ready to move on to other priorities. His popularity as a speaker and as a scientist did not wane, but the controversies surrounding his liberal political leanings and accusations of Communist sympathies continued to hound him for years to come. Elected to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for 1950, Pauling remained tangentially active with the ACS for the rest of his life.

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