Pauling’s Guggenheim Work During His Battle With Nephritis

Pauling family portrait taken in 1941. Back of photograph is annotated, “1941. Daddy very ill.”

[Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation]

In 1941, Linus Pauling’s second year on the Committee of Selection for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he developed a serious renal disease, glomerulonephritis, that often proved fatal. The onset of this disease emerged during a period of travel that coincided with the Committee’s second meeting of the year, on March 8th and 9th. The night before the first meeting, swelling in Pauling’s face became so pronounced that he was forced to acknowledge it during his acceptance speech for the William H. Nichols Medal, granted to him by the New York Section of the American Chemical Society. In his remarks, Pauling joked

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 [Anti-interventionist Senator Burton 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.”

After speaking with physicians from the Rockefeller Foundation who were able to properly diagnose him, Pauling made plans to see Thomas Addis, a renal disease specialist at Stanford. He did not, however, beg out of the Committee of Selection meetings, though he left immediately afterwards.


Once Pauling made it back to Pasadena, he was peppered with letters from Guggenheim Foundation Secretary Henry Allen Moe, who wanted Pauling’s input on applicants but, more pressingly, urged Pauling to take care of himself. Following a heavily restricted diet put forth by Dr. Addis, Pauling gradually improved and, by September, reported feeling much better.

Noting this, Moe asked Pauling if he would be interested in traveling to Buenos Aires for six months the following spring to represent the Foundation as a chemist interested in biological questions. Pauling was initially receptive to the idea, writing that it sounded “fun, and perhaps good for me,” but he eventually concluded that he was too busy with war work to seriously entertain the possibility. Though he remained on the Addis diet for quite a long time, Pauling’s most pressing issues with nephritis appeared to be largely behind him. However, five and half years later, Pauling still had to deal with the lingering effects of his poor health.


Thomas Addis, 1920s

In March 1947, Linus and Ava Helen were busy planning a trip to Oxford University, where Pauling was slated to begin a tenure as George Eastman Visiting Professor. Pauling had also been invited to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge that June. Knowing of these forthcoming travels, Addis suggested that Ava Helen take the lead in finding the couple a residence, one outfitted with kitchen suitable to preparing the types of foods that Pauling would need to stay as healthy as possible. The search proved difficult and was compounded by financial issues that Moe and the Foundation eventually helped to ameliorate.

Pauling’s delicate condition also led Addis to suggest that the Paulings travel across the Atlantic by boat rather than plane. But even with three months to go before their planned departure, arranging passage seemed close to impossible. As options began to run out, Pauling asked Moe if he would contact the British ambassador to the U.S., Lord Inverchapel, to see if any room might be available on a government ship. Moe was happy to do so, explaining Pauling’s situation to the diplomat and emphasizing its significance to the two nations’ scholarly relationship. Inverchapel made no promises in his reply, telling Moe that all routes were fully booked, but that he would place Pauling on a waiting list should anything arise. Pauling thanked Moe for trying, but also noted that the situation was less critical now, as Addis had given him the okay to fly and had placed him on a regimen in preparation.

Before he left for Oxford, Pauling got to thinking about Addis’ nephritis treatment and how well it had worked for him. Pauling thought it better than any other treatment then in use and wanted Addis to speak with researchers in England about it. Addis was eager to do so, but hamstrung by a lack of funding. Pauling relayed the details of Addis’ situation with Frank Aydelotte, the Chair of the Foundation’s Committee of Selection, who suggested that Addis could obtain a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his travel. Secretary Moe, on the other hand, did not think Guggenheim funds to be the best avenue of support and recommended that Addis try the Rockefeller Foundation first. If that did not work out, then Moe promised he would reconsider Addis’ case.


Richard Lippman, circa 1950s

Thomas Addis never received a Guggenheim Fellowship, but after he passed away in 1949, his colleague Richard Lippman did. Lippman had worked on renal disease with Addis for two years at the Stanford University School of Medicine in San Francisco, and had also served in the Medical Reserve Corps during the Second World War. After concluding his stint with Addis, Lippman moved south to the Institute for Medical Research at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where he also became Pauling’s personal physician.

With much support from Pauling, Lippman applied for a 1950 Guggenheim Fellowship to go towards the cost of color plates for a book that he had written and to hire an assistant to help him review Addis’ papers. Pauling found Lippman’s proposals “very important in all their aspects” and they ultimately won generous support, including a $3,600 stipend for one year, $1,500 for working with Addis’ papers, and $1,500 towards the publication of his book. (A $500 Dictaphone was not approved.) Lippman received a renewal the following year, garnering another $3,600 to research renal functions and $1,400 to study Addis’ papers.

In 1960, Pauling himself applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his own work, noting in his application that he had “conquered” his nephritis. Moe was very happy to hear this as he still remembered how Pauling had experienced his first acute episode around the time of the 1941 Committee meeting. In the intervening years, Moe helped navigate some of the logistical consequences of Pauling’s illness and Pauling used his own experience with the disease to put forth quality candidates for Guggenheim Fellowships.

Yuri Ovchinnikov, 1934-1988

Yuri Ovchinnikov

Yuri Ovchinnikov, a friend of Linus Pauling’s and the youngest person to ever serve as vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, died thirty-two years ago this month at the age of 53, the victim of an undisclosed illness. A prominent biochemist, much of Ovchinnikov’s work focused on gene-engineering interferons and their potential use in the manufacture of insulin and other medical applications. Ovchinnikov’s contributions were immense and garnered a great many accolades including the Hero of Socialist Labor prize, the Lenin Prize, and the Soviet State Prize, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Poland, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain, Peru, and East Germany.

Ovchinnikov was born on August 2, 1934 in Moscow. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Moscow State University in 1962, and was promptly hired as a research fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, working under a future Nobel laureate in chemistry, Vladimir Prelog. In 1966 Ovchinnikov returned to Moscow to teach at his alma mater, and in 1970 he attained the rank of full professor at Moscow State University. That same year, he became the director of the Shemyakin Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, a position that he held until his death in 1988.


Ovchinnikov’s scientific and professional achievements paralleled one another and fueled his rise to prominence in the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe alike. Part of his success could be attributed to his ability to deftly straddle the scientific ideals of a failing Lysenkoist system while incorporating these same principles into the new field of membrane biology. Perhaps more importantly, Ovchinnikov was comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries from chemistry to biochemistry to biophysics, a trait that he shared with Linus Pauling.

Ovchinnikov is perhaps best known for his work on developing gene-engineered interferons, insulin, and other medically useful preparations, but his scientific contributions were not limited to these areas. Working in Switzerland with Vladimir Prelog, Ovchinnikov was introduced to the stereochemical structures of peptides, a line of inquiry that he continued in the years that followed.

Specifically, Ovchinnikov was interested in unraveling the structure of peptides, a task that had stood as a huge challenge for the scientific community up until that point. As he worked on the problem, Ovchinnikov developed a novel spectroscopic approach that ultimately proved successful in developing an understanding of the structures of various depsipeptides as well as certain antibiotics, such as gramicidin. Ovchinnikov’s achievements were so significant that he is now considered to be a father of what is today called dynamic conformational studies.

Ovchinnikov next turned his attentions to molecules that were even more complex, and in 1979 he published what was perhaps his most influential paper. In it, he outlined a correct model for bacteriorhodopsin, the first time that this had been done for a membrane protein. In fact, many of the structures that he found in bacteriorhodopsin, which were completely novel at the time (such as its seven transmembrane sections) are found in other molecular structures, including membrane pumps, channels, and receptors.

The biomedical implications of Ovchinnikov’s work quickly became apparent, and it did not take long before he was collaborating with scientists all over the world. As the collaborations matured, Ovchinnikov began to apply computer modelling techniques to correctly decipher other highly complicated structures, including pig kidney enzymes. This particular discovery eventually led Ovchinnikov to use recombinant DNA to investigate human enzyme functions and structures, which in turn led to the gene-engineering work for which he is so highly regarded today.


Ovchinnikov speaking at the Lomonosov Gold Medal ceremony, Moscow, 1978

In 1974 Ovchinnikov became vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and it was in this capacity that his life began to overlap with Pauling’s. One of Ovchinnikov’s tasks for 1977 was to edit a book to honor the 70th birthday of M.M. Shemyakin, a famous Soviet scientist, and Pauling was asked to submit a contribution. Pauling agreed to do so and drafted a paper titled “The Nature of the Bonds Formed by Transition Metals in Bioogranic Compounds and other Compounds.” Not long after, Pauling was awarded the Lomonosov Medal during a trip to the USSR, and it was during this visit that he met Ovchinnikov for the first time.

The two became much more closely acquainted in the summer of 1984 when Pauling spent an additional three weeks in the Soviet Union, in part to attend a conference on “Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology.” Ovchinnikov was Pauling’s host for that trip, and the two men spent nearly the entire time together. Their friendship cemented by this experience, Pauling returned home from his travels with a profound respect for Ovchinnikov and his scientific work.

Indeed, evidence of a strong, cordial relationship shows up in the correspondence that followed. In January 1985, Ovchinnikov wrote to Pauling to tell him that he was writing a book about bioorganic chemistry and wished to include short biographies of some of the great men in the field. Naturally, he hoped to include Pauling, and asked if a suitable photograph might be supplied. (Pauling was happy to comply.) Two years later, when Ovchinnikov and his brother published a paper on organic polymer ferromagnetism in the highly respected journal Nature, Pauling took the time to send a note of congratulations and best wishes.


When Ovchinnikov unexpectedly passed away in 1988, large segments of the scientific community came together to mourn the loss. In Pravda, a Russian language newspaper based in Moscow, sixty-five prominent Soviet figures signed a letter expressing grief at Ovchinnikov’s passing. Notably, the first signature to appear was that of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Pauling seemed equally shaken by the news. In a letter to Ovchinnikov’s replacement at the Shemyakin Institute, Pauling wrote, “It was one of my pleasures to have been acquainted with Yuri Ovchinnikov for a number of years and to have the benefit of conversations with him about scientific problems. His death is a great loss.” In a separate correspondence, Pauling reflected of his old friend that

If he had lived, he would, I am sure, have become an even more valuable person in developing science in the Soviet Union and improving the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. He had a fine personality and a very good mind.

Remembering Frank Press

Frank Press

Linus Pauling’s colleague and friend, Frank Press, passed away last month on January 29, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Press was 95 and died of complications from a fall. Perhaps most widely known for his work as President Jimmy Carter’s chief science advisor and his twelve years leading the National Academy of Sciences, Press also collaborated with Pauling on multiple fronts, and the two ultimately grew close.

Press was born on December 4, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. After earning his bachelor’s degree at City College of New York in 1944, Press went on to Columbia University where he earned a master’s (1946) and a Ph.D. (1949) in geophysics. During that time, Press married his high school sweetheart, Billie (nee Kallick), and the couple remained together until Billie’s death of heart failure in 2009.

After a few years teaching at Columbia, Press was offered a professorship at the California Institute of Technology, where he remained until 1965. Press left Pasadena for a position as chair of earth and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and remained at MIT until he was asked to serve as President Carter’s science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Not long after Carter was voted out of office, Press was selected to serve as president of the National Academy of Sciences, where he remained until 1993. Following this, he took up a four-year fellowship with the Carnegie Institute as the Cecil and Ida Green senior research fellow in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. His fellowship concluded, Press remained on the Carnegie board for another ten years.


Press’ long and fruitful career brought him into contact with Pauling on many occasions. They first met at Caltech, but did not have cause to interact very frequently, owing to their different departmental affiliations and research agendas. The two began to find a bit more common ground through their shared interest in social justice issues concerning the United States and the Soviet Union. Like Pauling, Press pushed for both nations to sign the partial test ban treaty in 1963. Later, Pauling and Press spoke out to protest the USSR’s treatment of scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Indeed, shared interest in Sakharov seems to have prompted one of their first formal interactions, a 1983 telegram from Pauling informing Press that he had offered a job to their Russian colleague. Even though the offer did not appease the Soviets enough to release Sakharov, the telegram did catch Press’ attention. Perhaps influenced by Pauling’s actions, the National Academy of Sciences, led by Press, formally renounced the Soviet government’s mistreatment of Sakharov, and refused to participate in a joint US-Soviet scientific cooperation in 1984.


An example of the holiday cards that Frank and Billie Press routinely sent to Linus Pauling

Though Press and Pauling were not successful in securing Sakharov’s release, their shared effort on this issue created space for the two to form a friendship. As president of the National Academy of Sciences, Press sent Pauling a card nearly every year of his tenure, and Pauling become close to Billie Press as well. The friendship between the three was such that Billie often included her own note in the annual holiday card, at one point thanking Pauling for his gift of Florence Meiman White’s book, Linus Pauling Scientist and Crusader. When Pauling announced that he had cancer in 1992, the news shocked the Presses, though they were heartened to learn that he had been well enough to celebrate his 91st birthday with sixteen of his closest friends and family.

Pauling was also concerned with the well-being of the Presses, and it was here that friendship and current research intersected. As his work on orthomolecular medicine moved forward, Pauling was increasingly convinced that the Federal Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for certain vitamins, such as vitamin C, were far too low. Pauling believed the RDA should be much higher, and that a higher intake of vitamin C could drastically reduce the chance of developing cardiovascular disease, among other maladies.

Pauling was so convinced of this idea that he took pains to let his friends know that they could easily reduce their risk of heart disease by following the simple step of increasing their vitamin C intake. With this concern in mind, Pauling wrote to Press to urge him and Billie to have blood samples drawn so that their physician might determine the levels of lipoprotein (a) in their systems. Pauling specified that if either of their results came back elevated, “I strongly recommend that you begin a prophylactic regimen, that of taking some extra vitamin C and also perhaps 2 grams per day of L-lysin,” the latter because “the L-lysine interferes with the deposition of lipoprotein in the vascular wall.”

Pauling was also quite willing to review their results. “If the level is high,” he wrote, “there are orthomolecular measures that you should take. Let me know the results of the analyses, and I shall tell you what you ought to do.” Anticipating that the Presses might be nervous about vitamin C megadosing, Pauling wrote that a recent friend of his had used orthomolecular treatments to make a remarkable recovery after being bed-ridden following a third triple by-pass surgery. He signed the letter “Love From,” Linus Pauling.

From the correspondence, it appears as though Press trusted Pauling’s guidance. Shortly after receiving Pauling’s letter, Press replied that he would get his lipoprotein levels checked, and that he and his wife “appreciate[d] [his] interest in [their] well-being.” Press concluded the letter by noting the extent to which he and his wife “have admired you over the years.”


Several months later, in June 1992, Pauling asked Press for his help with an issue of mutual concern. Pauling’s request was spurred by an article that he had recently read titled “Reducing the Risk of Chronic Disease,” a summary of the National Research Council’s landmark, three-year study, “Diet and Health.” The aim of the study was to assist the public in making sound decisions related to their diet. (For one, the notion of “food groups” emerged from this study.)

Pauling called many of the study’s conclusions into question and, not surprisingly, took particular offense to a passage that read, “If you take a dietary supplement, do not exceed the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance.” Because the statement was coming directly from the National Academy of Sciences, Pauling thought that he might be able to enlist Press’ support in revising its language. In his letter, Pauling was clear in his intent, writing that

I believe that this is an important matter – important to the health of nearly all Americans and other people. It seems clear to me that the members of the Food and Nutrition Board are biased against the optimum use of vitamins and are unwilling to consider the evidence. It is my duty as a member of the Academy to try and rectify this situation.

Pauling’s pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Shortly after receiving his letter, Press replied that he would pass Pauling’s concerns on to the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) for their “thoughtful consideration” at their next meeting. Pauling’s timing could not have been better, Press explained, because the FNB had recently approved a study to look into nutrition requirements for older adults. As Press noted, this was partially due to Pauling’s inquiries into the “possible roles that antioxidant nutrients may play in preventing acute infections and chronic diseases.” Pauling passed away before the FNB had issued a verdict, but he surely took some degree of comfort at having been heard by his colleague and friend, Frank Press.

Pauling, the State Department, and the Right to Travel

[Ed Note: We conclude our posting schedule for 2019 with this look at a controversy from sixty-two years ago. See you again in January!]

Linus Pauling’s largely congenial relationship with Soviet scientists had always been motivated by a desire to foster academic exchange between the two world’s two superpowers. Pauling first visited the USSR in Summer 1957, and as soon as he returned home, he expressed an eagerness to continue collaborating with his Soviet peers.

Perhaps most notably, Pauling extended an offer to Academician V.N. Orekhovitch to come to Caltech and deliver a guest lecture on procollagen, which was Orekhovitch’s subject of expertise. To pave the way for this visit, Pauling offered an honorarium of $250, which was a large sum in absolute terms but especially so for Soviets, for whom “hard currency” like U.S. dollars had tremendous spending power.

Orekhovitch readily accepted this offer and the two initiated the process of securing a travel visa through the usual State Department channels. However, in November 1957, Pauling received an urgent telegram from Orekhovitch in which he stated that he was unable to obtain travel papers and that he desperately needed Pauling’s help.


Pauling in Leningrad, 1957

When Pauling received the telegram he immediately began to work towards understanding why the visa had been denied. One clue was a recent article that he had read that hinted that Pasadena – among other cities – had been declared to be off-limits for Soviet travelers. However, he was not certain of this information, or that this was the reason for Orekhovitch’s denial.

In search of answers, Pauling contacted multiple colleagues across the country asking whether or not they had encountered similar difficulties. Paul Doty, of Harvard University, replied that he had recently become aware that travel by Soviets was not permitted to the entire state of Massachusetts except for Cambridge, where Harvard was located. This bit of information seemed to confirm that Pauling’s initial fears were indeed true: the State Department had established certain areas of the United States as off-limits for Soviet visitors.


Despite this, Pauling was determined to get his Soviet colleague a visa. In December 1957, a month after having first received Orekhovitch’s desperate telegram, Pauling spoke to a State Department official, Lawrence Mitchell, who confirmed that Pasadena, San Francisco, and much of Los Angeles were forbidden for Soviet visitors. Speaking over the phone, Mitchell explained to Pauling that Pasadena had been put on the list specifically to exclude travel to Caltech – an important point that would be contradicted in later exchanges.

Mitchell also made it clear that the State Department did not intend to lift the restriction anytime soon. Nor could Mitchell grant exceptions for specific individuals, because then Soviet travel restrictions “would have little effect in applying pressure on the Russian government.” In effect, this meant that the State Department had barred travel to Pasadena for larger political aims.

For Pauling, the ramifications of this policy were unacceptable. In his view, the refusal of Orekhovitch’s visa was not just a matter of a single person being denied the right to travel, but was actually representative of a much larger problem: the stifling of US-Soviet scientific collaboration.


In the wake of his phone call with Lawrence Mitchell, Pauling set out to express his disapproval in a more formal way. In a December letter to Detlev Bronk, Pauling made clear his perspective, noting that

I feel most strongly about this issue matter because I think that it gives the Russian scientists who come to the United States a false impression –the impression that we are a police state, where scientists are not free to talk with other scientists, but are ruled by the Department of State. This surely is bad propaganda.

That same day, Pauling wrote a parallel letter to the State Department in which he outlined his frustration with the decision to deny Orekhovitch a visa. In this communication, Pauling emphasized the potential for loss of scientific progress, noting specifically that Orekhovitch’s “inability to come to Pasadena has prevented the scientists here from getting information that would be of value to them.” Further, he felt “strongly that it is wrong for the United States to give visiting scientists the impression that work in fundamental science is not conducted freely in our universities and research laboratories.” Simply stated, “the policy that has permitted this action to be taken seems to me to be one that clearly does harm to the United States of America.”

Importantly, Pauling was likewise bothered by a nagging feeling that Pasadena’s inclusion on the list of banned cities was directed specifically at him. In his letter to the State Department he couched this by writing in “protest against the discriminatory action” where Soviets were allowed to visit Harvard or UC-Berkeley, but not Caltech. A Harvard colleague echoed Pauling’s feelings, describing the situation as “embarrassing and frustrating” in his own letter to the State Department.


Pauling examining molecular models with Soviet scientists, 1957

The government’s response to these complaints was, for Pauling, far short of satisfactory. In its reply, and in contradiction to Lawrence Mitchell, the State Department explained that Pasadena was deemed to be a strategic city because of its geographic location; that Caltech was off-limits simply because it was a part of Pasadena; and that all Soviets, not just scientists, were excluded from traveling to the city.

The letter did not clarify why Pasadena’s location made it a strategic city, nor did it provide any indication as to why Berkeley or Cambridge were not geographically strategic. Rather, the suggestion was merely that Orekhovitch had been denied a visa as a matter of routine and that the ban on travel to Pasadena was logical due to the implied importance of the city.

After this initial exchange, several letters were sent back and forth between Pauling and the State Department. In them, Pauling continued to criticize what he believed to be an arbitrary decision, and the State Department adamantly defended its position that Pasadena was a strategically important city that must remain off-limits. In these exchanges, both the State Department and Pauling increasingly became focused on establishing that they were in the right, to the point where tangential details that were not germane to the main issue began to assume a place of primacy.

In one example letter, an official from the State Department wrote that he had reason to believe that Pauling had called the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Georgy Zarubin, and asked him to work on granting Orekhovitch a visa to visit Pasadena. Pauling, not wanting incorrect information to go unchecked, indicated that he had at no point ever contacted Zarubin or any other representative of the Soviet Union. In all subsequent letters, Pauling always included this piece of information, and the State Department continued to reply in kind. Petty behavior of this sort came to permeate much of the communication between the two parties during this time.


Sadly for Pauling, the issue was never resolved. Near the end of 1958, more than a year after initially extending his invitation, Pauling sent Orekhovitch another letter asking him to come to Pasadena as soon as the visa restrictions were lifted. Perhaps understanding that this opportunity might never actually come to fruition, Orekhovitch chose not to address the issue in his reply, instead wishing Pauling a happy new year and sending his best regards to Ava Helen. That letter appears to have marked the end of their professional correspondence and Orekhovitch does not seem to have ever made it to Pasadena.

Pauling and Sakharov

[Part 2 of 2]

Linus Pauling’s relationship with the scientist and peace activist Andrei Sakharov – a kindred spirit whom he never met – began in unusual fashion. In 1978 Pauling was in Moscow attending the International Conference on Biochemistry and Molecular Biology when an unidentified man handed him a letter written in Russian. As Pauling later recounted, the man, “who spoke with a pronounced Central European accent,” said that the letter was from Andrei Sakharov, and that Pauling “should have it translated by some reliable person.”

Pauling accepted the letter and, about a month later, had it translated by Sakharov’s son-in-law, Efrem Yankelevich, a US-based activist in his own right who helped to give Sakharov a “voice” to the world during his years in exile.

Page 1 of Sakharov’s handwritten letter to Pauling, 1978

But before Pauling could get the letter translated, Sakharov sent it to several news agencies for wider distribution. In it, Sakharov asked for Pauling’s support in the push to help free three Soviet scientists – physicist Yuri Orlov, mathematician Alexander Bolonkin, and biologist Sergei Kovalev – all of whom had been sentenced to terms in labor camps for acts of political dissidence.

Unfortunately, in addition to the original text, the published letter admonished Pauling for a perceived lack of action, and a claim that he was ignoring Sakharov’s plea for support. In actual fact, Pauling had been traveling when the letter was published and hadn’t even received a copy of the translation by the time of the letter’s release. Understandably, he was frustrated for having been called out by Sakharov in this way.

Wishing to set the record straight, Pauling penned an editorial for publication in Physics Today, which was already planning to run an article on Pauling’s receipt of the Lomonosov Gold Medal. In a note appended to the editorial, Pauling stressed that “no changes be made in my letter, unless I have given approval. This is a delicate matter.”

The piece was published, without changes, in the magazine’s December 1978 issue. In it, Pauling confessed that he felt duped and bombarded by Sakharov’s tactics and chided that “in the future he should be more careful in his selection of advisors and agents.”

That said, Pauling also took pains to make clear that he supported Sakharov’s activist work and noted that, in the past, he had written letters in support of Soviet scientists who had been wrongly imprisoned. Nonetheless, in this particular instance Pauling did not follow through on Sakharov’s request, choosing not to write letters asking for the release of the three scientists in question.


Time moved forward but Sakharov refused to let the issue fade. Two years later, in 1981, he sent several letters – including a handwritten message handed to Pauling via his son-in-law, Yankelevich – repeating the same urgent call to action in support of the three Soviet scientists. Some of these letters even included personal statements from the scientists themselves, and Yankelevich appears to have added updates on their lives. For Sergei Kovalev, the situation appeared to be deteriorating rapidly as he was reportedly suffering from tuberculosis as well as partial paralysis. 

In addition to the personal handwritten notes, Sakharov once again published a separate public letter to Pauling, which appeared in translated form in the now defunct Freedom Appeals magazine. In this instance, Sakharov sought to enlist Pauling’s support for the release of biologist Sergei Kovalev and his daughter-in-law, Tatiana Osipova.

While Sakharov’s initial correspondence had been fairly dry, this latest published letter was more emotional. Addressing Pauling, Sakharov wrote,

I know neither your political views nor the extent to which you may be sympathetic to the Soviet regime. But what I am asking of you is not politics. To save honest and courageous people who are about to perish is the duty of humaneness and a question of honor. Please make good use of your prestige; appeal to Soviet leaders and to the leaders of Western countries. Please do what you can.

This new approach seems to have made an impact, if in an oblique way. Even though Pauling once again did not act to free the imprisoned Soviet scientists – Sergei Kovalev was eventually released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 – he did eventually come to the aid of a different Soviet intellectual: Andrei Sakharov himself.


Gerhard Herzberg

In 1980, just five years removed from his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov was sent into exile in the city of Gorky, and was routinely subjected to harassment and isolation in the years that followed. In April 1981, Pauling and Gerhard Herzberg, a fellow Nobel Chemistry laureate, sent a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and the Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union demanding the “end of [Sakharov’s] confinement.” In the message, Pauling and Herzberg explained that their letter was not a publicity stunt, and that there would be “no communication about it to the ‘media.'”

Instead the authors put forth that, “every society needs its critics if it is to diagnose successfully and overcome its problems […] Surely your nation is mighty enough to tolerate a patriotic critic of the stature of Andrei Sakharov.” Pauling and Herzberg concluded by harkening back to the dark years of gulags and secret police, exhorting to Brezhnev that “Surely you do not want a return to Stalinism.”

Later in 1981, after having been in exile for a year, Sakharov began a hunger strike to demand that his daughter-in-law, Liza, be permitted to move to the U.S. to be with her husband, Sakharov’s son Alexei. As he initiated this protest, Sakharov sent a letter to his foreign colleagues rallying them for support. Though this plea was of a personal nature, Sakharov explained that

I consider the defense of our children just as rightful as the defense of other victims of injustice, but in this case it is precisely me and my public activities which have been the cause of human suffering.

In addition to the open letter, which was broad and impersonally written, Sakharov sent a direct message to Pauling, imploring him specifically to support the release of his daughter-in-law. Ultimately the campaign worked, and before the year had concluded Liza was granted an exit visa to live in the United States.

But the victory did not come without a cost. Namely, as a penalty for having gone on the hunger strike, Sakharov was stripped of all his accolades by the Soviet government. In reaction to this, an international campaign, initated by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee – a non-governmental organization dedicated to insuring that human rights are respected and practiced worldwide – solicited prominent scientists to urge Premier Brezhnev to release Sakharov from exile and allow him to return to his home in Moscow.

Pauling’s letter to Leonid Brezhnev, August 1981

Pauling, clearly aware of Sakharov’s plight, agreed to write a second letter to Brezhnev, and promptly sent the appeal arguing for Sakharov’s release on the grounds of human rights violations. Delivered in August 1981, the letter apparently fell on deaf ears.


By 1983 Sakharov had been in exile for three years and his health was beginning to decline. Pauling’s earlier attempts to secure his release had not worked, so he adopted new tactics. In mid-1983, Pauling sent a telegram to the Soviet Academy of Sciences and to then Soviet premier, Yuri Andropov, offering Sakharov a job as a research associate in theoretical physics at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto. Justifying this offer, Pauling told news reporters that “I feel sympathy for Sakharov as a person who gets into trouble for criticizing his own country.” Upon learning of the offer, Sakharov publicly announced that he was willing to emigrate, but the Soviets declined to grant Sakharov an exit visa, citing “state secrets” connected to his scientific work on the hydrogen bomb during World War II.

In 1986 Sakharov was finally released amidst the Gorbachev regime’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. The famed scientist and activist promptly returned to Moscow, and in 1989 he died in his home. While it seems that Pauling’s attempts to free Sakharov did not ultimately work, and there is no documentary evidence that their relationship advanced in the years following his release, it is worth mentioning that Pauling received an advance copy of Sakharov’s memoirs prior to their posthumous publication in 1990. It is not clear if Pauling requested the copy, but his receipt of the volume is a suggestion that, even in death, Sakharov remained with Pauling.

Andrei Sakharov: An Overview

[Part 1 of 2]

Esteemed scientist, subject to ridicule in his home country, becomes outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons testing and wins Nobel Peace Prize with activist wife by his side. Without thinking twice, one might quickly assume this to be a short summary of the life of Linus Pauling, but it also suffices nicely as a capsule biography of the Soviet physicist and activist, Andrei Sakharov.

Indeed, the lives of these two men were striking in their similarity. Both were famous scientists – Sakharov a nuclear physicist and Pauling a chemist – and, following World War II, both became very outspoken critics of the nuclear arms race. Both were likewise criticized by their governments for their rhetoric and world view, and both eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for their activist work. It is no surprise then, that the lives of these two men intersected more than once and that their relationship seemed to be based on a mutual understanding that their lives were unique, yet in some ways intertwined.


Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, born in 1921, spent the early chapters of his scientific career advancing research that directly led to the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. Regarded to be the “great equalizer” in the arms race against the United States, the first successful H-bomb tests were celebrated as a significant milestone within the Soviet Union, and Sakharov’s contributions to the project led to his receiving multiple accolades from Soviet leadership, including both the Lenin and the Stalin prizes.

Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, 1988. Credit: New York Times photograph.

As time moved forward however, decorations of this sort did nothing to quell Sakharov’s growing concerns about nuclear weapons and the threat that they posed to world safety. Sakharov soon channeled his worry into activism and protest, often rallying around the cause of nuclear disarmament. During this period, the recently widowed Sakharov also met his second wife, Yelena Bonner, who was an activist in her own right. The couple remained married and worked together until Sakharov’s death in 1989.


Sakharov’s protests were not always about nuclear weapons; he was also very concerned about human rights violations and was not shy about vocalizing his opinions. These activities were not embraced by the Soviet regime – outspoken criticism of the government was never welcome in the USSR – but for a time Sakharov’s voice was not entirely silenced by the government, probably because of his well-established prominence on the global stage, which included his receipt of the 1975 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Official tolerance had its limits though, and when Sakharov protested his country’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 he had crossed the proverbial line. Within a year, and despite receiving public support from respected colleagues including Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov was banished from his Moscow home and exiled to the city of Gorky, which was then a closed city to foreigners, and is now known as Nizhny Novgorod. Frequent reminders of governmental censure and dissatisfaction followed from there, including restrictions on telephone and visitor access, unannounced raids of his apartment, and force-feedings during hunger strikes.

Nonetheless, Sakharov endured and managed to find ways to spread his message around the world. Eventually, in 1986, under the promise of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev freed Sakharov from exile and allowed him to return to Moscow. Sakharov died just three years later at the age of 68.


Andrei Sakharov’s life was punctuated by moments of great passion and defined by an unbreakable determination. Throughout all of the hardships that he endured, he never wavered in his dedication to the causes that he believed in, a trait that he had in common with Linus Pauling. But despite the many similarities that these two men shared, they did not formally interact with one another until the late 1970s, several decades after they had both begun to speak out against a common foe: nuclear weapons. Sakharov, it seems, was the first to reach out and initiate a relationship between the two men. The specifics of this connection will be explored in greater depth next week.

Pauling and Priestley

Joseph Priestley

[Ed Note: This is the 750th post published by the Pauling Blog since its creation in March 2008.]

Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire, England on March 13, 1733 to a family of cloth dressers. Priestley’s mother died when her son was only seven years old, and he was raised by an aunt whose emphasis on religious studies – and eventually ministerial training – would impact the remainder of his life. A remarkable man of many talents, Priestley is remembered today as a theologist and philosopher; a chemist who conducted important work related to gases; a grammarian, political theorist and activist; a founder of Unitarianism; and the father of soft soda.


For the first thirty years of his life, Priestley was consumed by religion – until early adulthood he studied to be a minister, after which time he took on positions as a preacher or educator in religious settings. He was trained by a church that dissented from the Church of England, and Priestley himself often criticized the majority religion of his home country. This point of view would eventually manifest in his contributions to a new theological movement, Unitarianism, that was centered on his shared desire for a sound moral foundation and an ability to question the material world.

More unsettling to the English than his criticisms of the church was Priestley’s support of the French and American revolutions, both of which were taking place in the late 18th century. In 1791 this public stance led to the destruction of Priestley’s home and nearby laboratory by a mob of enraged Englishman. While Priestley and his family escaped unharmed, the bulk of his life’s work was lost.

Following what are now known as the Priestley Riots, the 61-year-old scholar was forced to immigrate to the United States with his family to escape the social ramifications of his political beliefs. The family settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where Priestley and his son sought to build a model community on a large piece of property, an idea that never panned out.


Though he is today best known for his contributions to chemistry, it wasn’t until the 1760s that Priestley began to take an interest in science. A decade later, Priestley initiated his now legendary experiments on gases. He began by simply examining naturally carbonated mineral water, a study that would ultimately lead to the discovery of how to control and reproduce the process of combining carbon dioxide and water, with the eventual creation of soft sodas following from there.

Priestley then attacked a larger project on the isolation of gases that would result in world-wide recognition. Through these experiments, Priestley discovered a great many gaseous compounds including ammonia, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide and, most importantly, oxygen (O2). His research also experimentally contradicted the popular belief that the space around us was simply “air” composed of all the same element. In subsequent years, Priestley made important advances in the scientific understanding of photosynthesis and respiration through his research on how these different gases interacted.


York (Penn.) Gazette and Daily, March 28, 1969

Though born nearly one-hundred years after Joseph Priestley died, Linus Pauling was profoundly influenced, both politically and scientifically, by Priestley’s legacy. Pauling had occasion to honor the great man when, on March 27, 1969, he received the eighteenth Annual Award in Memory of Joseph Priestley from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The decoration was conferred upon Pauling for his “contributions to the welfare of mankind” and he accepted the award with great pleasure.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to about 800 people and titled “The Origin of Scientific Ideas,” Pauling echoed Priestley in suggesting that “In much of our thinking we are just groping to find out what needs to be done rather how it needs to be done.” He then touched on familiar topics including his decades-long campaign against nuclearization and his more recent interest in vitamin C.

A few years later, Pauling appeared on the CBS Bicentennial Minutes program for a brief interview in which he mentioned Priestley’s “giant step in the creation of the science of chemistry” as well as the Englishman’s support for American “colonial independence.” In an earlier letter to colleague Fred Allen, Pauling further commented on Priestley’s move to the United States, noting his reverence for the U.S.’s historical role as a place of refuge for those with liberal ideas, and his sadness that the country had “deteriorated greatly” since.


Priestley’s scientific import was such that, in 1922, the American Chemical Society established its Joseph Priestley Award in his honor. The ACS was formed in 1876, only two years after a small group of chemists met in Priestley’s former home. (Chemist and historian Derek Davenport characterized Priestley as “something between a posthumous founding father and a reigning patron saint” of the ACS.) Some 250 years after his birth, the ACS held a symposium titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley” in which Pauling was aptly granted the Priestley Medal.

Pauling was nominated for the award on account of his being “the most Priestley-like figure of his time,” both for his groundbreaking work as a scientist and his courageous social and political stances. In his acceptance speech, Pauling reviewed his long-running opposition to militarism and war, using Priestley’s theology to support the moral grounds on which he stood. Pauling also drew comparisons between his own work on crystal structures and Priestley’s examinations of gases. A fuller exploration of Pauling’s receipt of the Priestley Medal will be topic of next week’s post.