Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 5, A Long and Distinguished Career


[This is the final post in our series celebrating the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg (1920-2019).]

Ken Hedberg participated actively in many professional organizations and received numerous fellowships and awards throughout his distinguished career. He was a member of the American Chemical Society, a fellow of the American Physical Society – for which he served terms as secretary-treasurer and vice-chairman – a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Chemical Physics.

Included in a long roster of decorations were the OSU Sigma Xi Research Award (1974), the OSU Alumni Distinguished Professor Award (1975), the International Dr. Barbara Mez-Starck Prize (2005) given for outstanding contributions in the field of experimental structural chemistry, and the OSU College of Science Lifetime Achievement in Science Award (2016).

His connections to Norway also resulted on numerous honoraries. In 1982 he was named a Norwegian Marshall Plan Fellow and he served as the Odd Hassel Memorial Lecturer at the University of Oslo in 1984. He was elected a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in 1978, a member of the Royal Norwegian Society of Science and Letters in 1996, and in 1992 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Trondheim, Norway. He also enjoyed visiting professorships at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Reading, England.


Scientifically, Hedberg is probably best known for being the first investigator to use gas-phase electron diffraction to determine the gas-phase structures of the fullerenes, C60, C70, and C60F48. But in addition to his contributions to research in physical chemistry and his expertise in the field of electron diffraction, Hedberg’s lasting impact can be measured, at least in part, by the genuine care and admiration that he engendered in his colleagues.

David Shoemaker, Ken’s former Caltech office-mate and later his department chair, nominated Hedberg for the OSU Alumni Distinguished Professor Award that he received in 1975. In his nomination letter, Shoemaker wrote that “Dr. Hedberg is a distinguished and dedicated teacher, among the finest in the department” and “certainly one of the outstanding researchers in this University and would be considered outstanding in any University I know of (and I was on the MIT faculty for 19 years).”

Shoemaker then described Hedberg’s scientific impact

Dr. Hedberg’s research specialty is determination of molecular structure by gas phase electron diffraction. In this field he has risen to the position of world leader, eclipsing all others in my judgement (and I am close to the field, being an x-ray diffractionist). This field had a heyday a quarter century ago, and many people said that there would be nothing left to work on in a short time. However, largely due to the ingenuity of Professor Hedberg, the field is still (or rather again) going strong.

Along with his own letter, Shoemaker also forwarded support notices penned by a collection of Hedberg’s former students. One wrote that “With all Ken has done for me it would be hard for me to name a person I think more highly of,” and recalled that “His enthusiasm in participating in experimental activities along with the students and a primary interest in developing a person as a scientist and member of society, not just a well-qualified technician, are traits of Ken’s that made his guidance most useful to me.”


Another student wrote that “He was the most influential person in my undergraduate chemistry education” and “was able to communicate to the students according to the level of their background…Professor Hedberg was extremely fair and expected fairness and honesty from his students.” The student then added that “Although he had research assistants and post-doctoral fellows, he took the time himself to show and explain the experimental procedures to this undergraduate student. He cultivated independent and rational thinking throughout the progress of the research….He is a man of integrity, leadership and honesty. He is one of the best teachers I have ever had and one of the best persons I have known.”

Many years later, in 2010, another former student wrote to the OSU alumni magazine to comment on a profile that had been published in a recent issue. The student wrote

I was thrilled to read that Ken Hedberg is still with us and still carrying out his very important research. I took his chemistry class as an engineering freshman 50 years ago. In one lab session we had a nice conversation about cars…I remember the exchange after all these years because he was such a nice guy and so good to us poor confused undergraduates, always cracking gentle jokes during lecture and helping us in every way he could…OSU is blessed to have him, and I am blessed to have known him.


A page from Ken Hedberg’s “visiting researcher scrapbook,” a sixty-three page volume that contains photos and inscriptions from all of the researchers who visited Corvallis to conduct work in the Hedberg electron diffraction laboratory.

A few years ago, Ken and Lise Hedberg entered into a retained life estate agreement with OSU, in which they effectively transferred ownership of their home to the university at the ends of their lives. Once sold, the proceeds will be used to create two new endowed scholarships and to add to the Ken and Lise Hedberg Endowed Student Fund for chemistry doctoral students. Giving back to OSU was important to Ken for many reasons, and the imperative to support undergraduate learning especially so because of Hedberg’s own student experience during the Depression. “As I look back over a very long career,” he noted, “I see that the good fortune I’ve enjoyed was kicked-started by scholarship aid; without it I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Ken Hedberg’s career was defined by scientific excellence, but even more so by his collaborative spirit and his relationship with his wife Lise, who was his scientific partner as well as his life partner from the day they met until his death this year. Science, for Hedberg, was a social endeavor as well as an academic one, and his lab was a hotspot for visiting researchers from around the world as well as a safe space for generations of OSU chemistry students. With his passing the university has lost a true icon, but his impact will be felt for many years to come.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 4, An Influential Friendship

Ken Hedberg performing in “The Road to Stockholm: The Appalling Life of Linus Pauling,” December 1954. Hedberg and other Caltech colleagues sang and danced on stage to celebrate Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Chemistry Prize.

[Celebrating the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg (1920-2019), part 4 of 5.]

Though he left Caltech at the end of 1955, Ken Hedberg maintained a friendship with Linus Pauling that lasted for the rest of Pauling’s life. Despite their physical distance, the two kept an active correspondence and Pauling sometimes sent samples from his own research for Hedberg to run through his electron diffraction apparatus in Corvallis. Pauling also wrote multiple letters of recommendation in support of various fellowship applications submitted by his former student, frequently noting the many important contributions that Hedberg had made to the field of electron diffraction.

James Jensen, President of Oregon State University from 1961-1969.

Hedberg’s friendship with Pauling turned out to be especially fruitful for Oregon State University, because it was partially through his persistent efforts that the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers made their way to OSU.

The story begins in the early 1960s, when Hedberg was chatting with Ava Helen Pauling at a banquet where they happened to be seated next to each other. During the course of the conversation, Ava Helen revealed that she and her husband had been pondering the question of what to do with their papers when they died, noting that they had received expressions of interest from several universities and other institutions. Although OSU was not among those courting the Paulings, Ava Helen felt that their alma mater was the right home for the materials and had run this idea past her husband. Though Linus had been embroiled in a rift with the university for most of the 1950s (over the firing of his former student, Ralph Spitzer, on political grounds), Ava Helen was now trying to convince him to “let bygones be bygones” and renew his bond with Oregon State.

Ava Helen also confided that Pauling was not happy with offers that he had received from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Caltech, and many other highly-respected institutions, because they only wanted his papers and not hers, wanted to cherry pick the items that they would keep (Pauling wanted everything kept together), or wanted the papers right away, despite Pauling’s need to retain many of them for his ongoing research.

Hedberg was fully aware that, were OSU to be selected by Pauling as the repository for his papers, the announcement would serve as a major boost in prestige. He also understood that if Pauling’s bitterness against the university were to be assuaged, the conciliation would have to come from the university president. In short order, Hedberg wrote to OSU President James Jensen, stating that “…it seems to me that Pauling’s eminence in science and in world affairs together with his historical association with the State of Oregon and Oregon State University makes this a proper place for these papers.” He further suggested that if “…handled correctly, it might be possible for Oregon State to obtain these papers.”

Pauling’s split with Oregon State College came about as a direct result of actions taken by President August Strand, who led the institution from 1942 to 1961. His successor was James Jensen, who took over shortly after OSC became OSU, and it was under Jensen’s watch that the relationship with Pauling came to be repaired. Spurred by Hedberg’s note, Jensen wrote to Pauling lamenting the rift that had grown between him and the university, assuring him that he remained one of the university’s most beloved alumni, and concluding that

When it comes time to think of a repository for your letters and other documentary matters, I hope you will consider the possibilities of Oregon State University and its repository of important papers which is located within a stone’s throw of where you and Mrs. Pauling met!

Jensen also created a Distinguished Service Award in 1964 and made Pauling the first recipient.

Finally, in 1966, the president extended an invitation to Pauling to speak at the university, which was accepted. In December of that year, he delivered a well-attended convocation lecture titled “Science and the Future of Man” at Gill Coliseum. It was the first talk that he had given on the Oregon State campus since a 1937 lecture on hemoglobin and magnetism, which he had presented at the dedication ceremonies for the Oregon State chapter of the Sigma Xi scientific research honorary.


With the ice finally broken, Pauling began returning to the university more frequently, eventually regaining his old affection for OSU and choosing to make trips to Corvallis whenever he was passing through the area. Pauling also admitted that he was “pleased” by OSU’s request for his papers, telling Jensen that in addition to OSU, he had offers in hand from the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Oregon, among others. As he continued to ponder the final home for his materials, he asked that Jensen have the university archivist send him a letter describing OSU’s archival facilities and the plans that it would put in place for the preservation and use of the papers.

In March 1967 Jensen again wrote to Pauling, this time including a draft donation agreement as well as the requested comments on facilities from the university archivist. By July, Pauling had largely been won over and claimed that he felt ready to begin giving his papers to the university. That said, he was as busy as ever and seemed reluctant to actually part with any of his material. His continuing research and trips to Europe, combined with disruptive California wildfires, meant that he never had time for OSU’s archivist to visit him to evaluate and organize the collection.

For whatever reason, Pauling continued the stall tactics for the remainder of Jensen’s tenure as president. In 1972, Hedberg wrote to Jensen’s successor, Robert MacVicar, to loop him in on the conversation. In addition to forwarding copies of past communications between himself, Jensen, and Pauling, Hedberg expressed his point of view that Jensen’s negotiations seemed to have been successful, but hastened to add that a final agreement was never reached. Jensen, sensing Pauling’s hesitation, had eventually stopped asking about the papers for fear of endangering the relationship that he had successfully rehabilitated.

Hedberg encouraged MacVicar to pick up where Jensen had left off in trying to obtain the papers. MacVicar took the suggestion to heart and contacted Pauling, but kept Hedberg in the loop since he knew Pauling so well. Over time, Hedberg was able to mediate communications somewhat, often advising MacVicar on how he thought Pauling might interpret different phrases of a draft letter and predicting how he would respond. Pauling still felt that he was not ready to part with the papers, so MacVicar followed Jensen’s precedent and focused on maintaining a good relationship with Pauling with the occasional gentle reminder about his promise to give his papers to OSU.

Activist Norman Cousins, Portland mayor Bud Clark, Linus Pauling and OSU President John Byrne at a celebration marking Pauling’s donation of his papers to Oregon State University.

Ava Helen passed away in 1981 and the next year Hedberg helped to found the Ava Helen Pauling Lectureship on World Peace at OSU. Meanwhile, in 1984 John Byrne replaced MacVicar as OSU president and, once again, Hedberg forwarded copies of past correspondence and encouraged the new president to continue the effort. Byrne saw that, while his predecessors had succeeded in winning Pauling over, their gentle reminders had done little to motivate Pauling to actually make the donation.

Byrne decided to change tactics by setting up a committee to handle the negotiations, from which emerged a concrete offer to build a Special Collections unit that would house and manage the donated materials. Byrne also agreed to all of Pauling’s requests regarding the treatment of the collection: namely, that Ava Helen’s papers be included in the acquisition, that the collection be kept intact, that the collection be made available for use by any qualified researcher, and that Pauling himself also receive unfettered access should he need to consult any of his old letters or manuscripts. Among these requests, the Ava Helen piece was likely the most significant; with her passing, it became particularly important to Pauling that her papers be treated with the same deference as his own.


Hedberg and Pauling among others at an event celebrating the donation of the Pauling Papers to Oregon State University, April 1986.

At long last, on April 18, 1986, Pauling formally announced that he would be transferring his papers to the Oregon State University Libraries. The first item that Pauling sent to OSU was the three volume United Nations Bomb Test Petition, an encapsulation of the work for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963. Other materials were added gradually over the rest of his life, once he had decided that he did not need them for his current research activities. Eventually the university sent a representative to Deer Flat Ranch to see how big the Pauling collection was, and they found that he had over 90 filing cabinets full of materials just at his Big Sur home.

As Pauling made more frequent trips to Corvallis, Hedberg was usually assigned to act as his guide and chaperone. On one reminiscent wander around campus, Pauling pointed out to him the room in present-day Furman Hall where he first met Ava Helen. He also showed Hedberg the house on 15th street where he had lived as a student.

Frequently, the Hedbergs and the Paulings were participants in the same dinner parties, some of which were hosted by Ken and Lise. Pauling was fond of vodka and often favored a drink prior to attending a formal event; Ken always made sure that Pauling’s preferred brand was in the cabinet. Another time, at a dinner party hosted by the Hedbergs, Pauling recognized the wine that they served as being of the same vintage as that served at a similar party the previous year. Hedberg was shocked that, of all the dinner parties and events that Pauling attended, he would remember the wine that had been served at a particular gathering a year prior.


Ken Hedberg, David Shoemaker and Lise Hedberg at a dinner party hosted by OSU President John Byrne, 1991. Linus Pauling was seated across the table from Ken Hedberg.

Though they saw one another with some frequency, Pauling and Hedberg continued to make time to provide updates on their lives through correspondence. Pauling wrote to Hedberg about his own rectal cancer, and Hedberg asked Pauling for advice concerning a friend’s inoperable cancer and for managing Lise’s arthritis. Ken also shared the unhappy news when their mutual colleague, David Shoemaker, died of complications related to kidney disease. Ken likewise expressed his frustrations to Pauling when the National Science Foundation reduced his grant funding in 1992 due to concerns about his age.

Political and social issues also frequently came up in Pauling and Hedberg’s communications, and the two friends tended to share a similar mindset on the issues of the day. Like Pauling, Hedberg was firmly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and, following a 1961 visit to Hiroshima, wrote that “…I believe world peace could be assured by simply escorting the world’s political leaders through the park and museum.” In a different letter written that same year, Hedberg confided that

Lise and I…were utterly dismayed at the resumption of nuclear testing. Most of us feel that the fallout problem is bad enough, but what really frightens is the return to the mailed fist kind of diplomacy they represent… I’m quite convinced that the world is controlled by people gone mad. My more optimistic friends aren’t so worried – ‘after all, another world war is unthinkable.’ What impresses me over and over, though, is how full of irrational people the world is, how singularly alike in some respects the opinions of such people are, and how easily national attitudes seem to be born of such opinions… Most people seem unable to comprehend that the ancient techniques of enforcing national interests on an international scale will lead only to their destruction. Perhaps a part of this is due, at least on the local scene, to what people imagine death to be like. Corvallis is a religious town, and as one of my physicist friends put it, ‘most people here feel that death is a new experience, rather than what it is – the complete absence of experience for all eternity.’

Hedberg retired from OSU in 1987, a moment that prompted a letter of congratulations from his friend and former mentor. In it, Pauling confessed that “I remember you, Ken, as one of my favorite graduate students in the California Institute of Technology.” Once his retirement festivities were completed, Hedberg penned a note of gratitude in response.

I think this is also the time for me to tell you how much I have appreciated your help and support during my professional career. You’ve written many recommendations on my behalf without which my life would have been totally different. It would have been nearly impossible to build my laboratory without help from the Research Corp., the Sloan Foundation, and others, to which you sent words on my behalf. Perhaps you are even responsible for Lise’s entering my life – without my Guggenheim to Norway we would never have met! And lastly, you are surely responsible for my accepting a position here at Oregon State. You encouraged me to accept the job, and apart from problems at the start, Lise and I have been very happy here.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 3, On Faculty at Oregon State


Ken Hedberg, a colleague, and the Hedberg electron diffraction apparatus, 1960.

[Kenneth W. Hedberg (1920-2019) in memorium, part 3 of 5.]

Ken and Lise Hedberg, along with their three-month old son Erik, moved back to Corvallis in January 1956 during a heavy storm. As the couple approached their final destination, Hedberg remembers water reaching almost to the hubcaps of their car. When they finally did make it to Corvallis, the city was largely flooded for the next couple of days.

In a turn of events that fit well with the dreary weather, on Ken’s first day of work at Oregon State College he learned that, in addition to his supervisory responsibilities, he would also be teaching a graduate-level physical chemistry course. The class was scheduled to meet three hours a week and he had been given no time at all to prepare lecture notes. Hedberg ultimately made it through the term, during which he tracked the time that he had spent on teaching-related activities. Including office hours and lesson planning, and found that he averaged 56 hours per week just on his instructional work.

At the same time, Ken was also tasked with getting his research program running. The first step in doing so entailed designing and building an electron diffraction apparatus for which he had received a $30,000 grant. He made an arrangement with the Physics workshop on campus to have the machine constructed, overseeing the process from start to finish. The device took several years to complete, but it worked well and has been used to significant effect for more than fifty-five years. Indeed, Linus Pauling was one of many colleagues from around the world to run samples through the instrument.


When it was built, Hedberg’s gas phase electron diffraction apparatus was state of the art, and during most of his career there were only two laboratories in the U.S. that could perform similar work. As time moved forward and other techniques were developed, gas phase electron diffraction fell out of view for many scientists, thus rendering Hedberg’s lab even more valuable for those who wished to employ the methodology in their advancement of basic science. As a result, Hedberg rarely encountered difficulty in acquiring grant support. His position as a hub for electron diffraction research also led to his making and maintaining a vast number of friendships with scientists across the globe.

The electron diffraction unit that Hedberg built utilizes a nozzle to release gas-phase samples in a stream that runs perpendicular to a vertical beam of electrons. The collision that ensues scatters the electron beam and results in a diffraction pattern that is subsequently recorded on a photographic plate fixed at the bottom of the device. These diffraction patterns are then analyzed to determine specific characteristics of the sample in question. It only takes a few minutes to run a sample, so lots of substances can be run in a day, but the analysis takes much longer — elucidating molecular structures from diffraction patterns is a complicated process.

Another hurdle that Hedberg sometimes faced was transforming particular substances into a gas phase in order to enable this type of analysis in the first place. One notable example was C60, which needs to be heated to 800°C to obtain any kind of vapor. Another instance was N2O4, which degrades to NO2 very rapidly as temperature and pressure increase. Nobody knew for sure if it was even possible to run gas phase electron diffraction analysis on these two substances but, in both instances, Hedberg and his team found a way to create the sample and collect the data.


David and Clara Shoemaker analyzing diffractometer data, 1983

A few months after he had arrived back in Corvallis, Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on how he was settling in. He reported that, as expected, he and Lise both liked Oregon a lot, and that Erik was growing very fast and had learned a few Norwegian words. He also let Pauling know that his picture was on display in the Memorial Union, one in a series featuring distinguished alumni of the college.

Ken’s correspondence with old Caltech colleagues was certainly not limited to Pauling and, in one particular instance, Hedberg’s connections played a key role in shaping the Chemistry department at Oregon State. When the chair’s position in Chemistry opened up in the late 1960s, Hedberg encouraged his former Caltech office-mate, David Shoemaker, to consider the opportunity. Shoemaker was then on faculty at MIT but he had ties to the west and was open to the idea of returning to that side of the country. He and his wife, Clara Brink Shoemaker, were both distinguished crystallographers, and one of David’s conditions for coming to OSU was that Clara be offered a research position as well.

This condition presented a bit of a problem due to a Depression-era anti-nepotism law that prevented members of the same family from being employed in the same department, except under unusual circumstances. Ken and Lise Hedberg had been able to work together because OSU’s president, Robert MacVicar, good-naturedly regarded a husband-wife scientific team to be an “unusual circumstance.” He allowed the Shoemakers to use the same loophole with one stipulation: officially, Hedberg was to serve as Clara’s supervisor and Shoemaker as Lise’s. This arrangement stood as a running joke between the two couples for several years until the rules were ultimately relaxed.

Three years after he came back to Oregon State, Hedberg was moved into the physical chemistry division of the Chemistry department. With that change, Ken still taught general chemistry and took up new courses in physical chemistry, but was no longer responsible for supervising the department’s graduate teaching assistants. His teaching load remained heavy for a while as he prepared lecture notes for his new classes, but eventually he settled into a more manageable routine. When he finally achieved that balance, Oregon State revealed itself to be a very comfortable place. The Chemistry department was cohesive and friendly, dinner parties and holiday gatherings were common within the faculty, and the competitive divisiveness that often plagues academic units was refreshingly lacking.

Meanwhile, life continued to evolve for Lise as well. During their years together in Pasadena, the Hedbergs had worked as a team on a variety of electron diffraction projects. And although Lise wanted to continue her work at Oregon State, she was unable to for the first few years because she needed to care for young Erik. Their daughter, Anne Katherine – known as Katrina – was born a couple of years after the move to Corvallis, thus further extending Lise’s stay-at-home period.

At long last, when the kids were finally old enough to go to school, Lise would drop them off in the mornings, head over to the university to work in the lab, and then pick them up at the end of the school day. Later, when they were old enough to get to school on their own, she would watch them leave the house and then be home in time to meet them in the afternoons. According to Ken, it took a while for the Hedberg children to realize that their mother worked out of the home, because she was always there when they left and waiting when they got back.


Wine tasting with Kolbjörn Hagen in 2008

In a 2011 oral history interview, Hedberg identified his proudest accomplishment as having overcome his humble beginnings to live a happy, successful life. In offering these reflections, he was quick to point out several moments where small twists of fortune made a dramatic impact on the trajectory of his life. Chief among these was his fateful late fellowship application that ultimately led to him going to Norway instead of Belgium. He mused that if he had submitted the first application on time, he would never have met Lise nor had any of the professional and personal affiliations in Norway that he enjoyed throughout his life.

Indeed, Norway was a critical component of Hedberg’s journey, both personal and scientific. Over the years, the Hedbergs returned to the country numerous times on sabbatical and research trips, and also to visit Lise’s family. The scientific work that they conducted during these visits ultimately led to numerous decorations for Ken. By the end of this life, he had received an honorary degree from the University of Trondheim – offered for “more than 40 years in collaboration with scientists from Japan, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, Hungary, Austria and China” – and been inducted into the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. One one occasion, Hedberg met the Norwegian king at a banquet and spent much of the evening talking with Crown Prince Harald.

Likewise, many of the students with whom he worked in the Oslo and Trondheim electron diffraction labs made their own visits to Corvallis to collaborate with Ken. One of these individuals, Kolbjörn Hagen, emerged as an especially important research colleague, as well as a dear friend.

Collaboration was a fundamental component of Hedberg’s approach to science, and throughout the years his most important scientific colleague was Lise, an expert computer programmer. While Ken took the lead in experimentation and analysis of diffraction patterns, it was Lise who wrote or tweaked many of the programs that the Hedbergs used in their work. In a letter that David Shoemaker wrote to OSU’s Dean of Science, he noted that the Hedberg lab contained a library of computer programs unmatched by any other lab of its kind, due to Lise’s expertise. Shoemaker also wrote that

…Professor Hedberg has more understanding of the nature of chemical bonding in molecules than any other person in the Chemistry Department or on the Oregon State University campus. Perhaps one can even include all of Oregon, except when Linus Pauling is visiting.

The Hedbergs’ son Erik was also handy with computers and often helped his parents manage their programs. The family published two papers together – one by Ken, Lise, and Erik, and one by Ken, Lise, and Katrina – and the authorship shorthand of “Hedberg, Hedberg and Hedberg” was a source of continuing delight for Ken.


In 1983 Ken notified Shoemaker that, after twenty-seven years on faculty, he felt ready to retire, which he did officially in 1987. Hedberg’s primary motivation for this change was to free himself from his teaching burden, but he had no intention of stopping his research.

A few years into his so-called “retirement,” Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on his life. Amidst news about family, travel and tennis, he noted with glee the enjoyment that he was experiencing in being able to work 12-hour days in his lab. This remained the pattern of Hedberg’s life for another thirty years, a run of time marked by steady grant funding, continuing research, collaboration with faculty colleagues, supervision of graduate students, and mentorship of OSU undergraduates several decades his junior.


Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 2, Caltech and Norway


Ken Hedberg and others onstage at Caltech, performing in the celebration held for Linus Pauling on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, December 1954.

[A celebration of the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg, 1920-2019. This is part 2 of 5.]

Once enrolled as a graduate student at the California Institute of  Technology, Hedberg worked under Linus Pauling and a fellow doctoral candidate, C. Gardner Swain, on a study of the oxidation of leuco malachite green to form a dye called malachite green. The group published a paper on the subject at the conclusion of Swain’s tenure as a student. It was unusual for a PhD candidate rather than a professor to supervise another doctoral student, but Pauling suggested the arrangement because the only professor doing the kind of work that Hedberg was interested in at the time – chemical kinetics and mechanisms – had died the year before and not yet been replaced.

Hedberg’s laboratory experience with Shell Development Company prepared him well for his studies, and proved especially useful to Swain, who had actually logged fewer lab hours than had Hedberg by that point. Ken also quickly discovered that the facilities at Caltech were not on the same level as those outfitted at Shell, and he soon realized that a major piece of his job would be to build basic instruments, an impediment that slowed progress significantly but was a simple fact of life in Pasadena (and that later came in very handy once Hedberg returned to Corvallis).

After Swain left, Hedberg began to work with a young faculty member, Verner Schomaker, who had also studied under Pauling. Together, Hedberg and Schomaker launched an investigation of the structure of boron compounds, starting with diborane, which they determined to have a non-ethane-like structure.


Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1948.

As one might expect, Hedberg came to know Pauling well and retained many fond memories of their interactions at Caltech. Later in life, he recalled that Pauling was friendly and generally well-liked but that he tended to maintain more formal relationships with his students and colleagues rather than embracing casual relationships. By Hedberg’s recollection, Pauling was always referred to as “Dr. Pauling,” even though most of his colleagues were on a first-name basis with one another. Pauling also rarely attended the frequent parties that were a mainstay for most others in the division.

Hedberg became trusted enough that he housesat for the Paulings several times and watched the Pauling children. He remembered in particular that Peter and Linda Pauling used to go around the chemistry department inviting everyone to come swim in the Pauling’s pool. The Pauling pool was a popular location, and was heavily used particularly when Dr. and Mrs. Pauling were out of town.

Pauling also sometimes let his childhood friend Lloyd Jeffress stay in the house if he was on holiday in the area while the Paulings were away. In one such instance, Pauling had asked Hedberg to stay at the house with the kids, and had also invited Jeffress to stay at the same time but had neglected to let Hedberg know. It took Ken three days to realize that Jeffress was also living in the house because their schedules were so different. Jeffress, on holiday, was waking up long after Hedberg had left the house in the morning, and was otherwise staying out late or staying in his room. With a laugh, Hedberg recalled waking up late at night two nights in a row thinking he heard someone splashing in the pool, but deciding not to investigate further once he had confirmed that the kids were in bed. He only realized Jeffress was there when he walked into the kitchen one day and saw a strange man making breakfast.

On another occasion, Hedberg was seated at his desk one Saturday morning when Pauling wandered into his office. Many of the Caltech graduate students were intimidated by Pauling, who often roamed the Gates and Crellin Laboratories in his slippers on Saturday mornings. In this instance Pauling sat down, put his feet up on Ken’s desk, and asked how things were going. Hedberg reported that all was well, and felt relieved when Pauling seemed about to leave without asking any probing questions.

Pauling then noticed a keychain on Hedberg’s desk, which he picked up and looked at. The keychain consisted of a device with an eyepiece and lens containing a small photograph which could only be viewed by looking into the eyepiece against a strong light. The image that one then saw was of a naked girl standing on a large rock in the middle of a mountain stream. Pauling peered through the eyepiece for a moment and uttered a response that Hedberg delighted in retelling. “Hmmm,” he said, “Basalt,” and then walked out of the office. Shocked, Hedberg had to look through the device himself to notice the rock.


Otto Bastiansen

Hedberg had initially planned to spend an extra year on his studies at Caltech before writing his thesis so that he would be able to work under Dr. Richard Badger, a renowned spectroscopist. Pauling suggested instead that Hedberg finish his thesis and get his degree, after which point he would make sure that Hedberg received a fellowship to stay on an extra year under Badger. Verner Schomaker was in Denmark at that time, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, so Hedberg’s work was actually being overseen by Robert Corey. He finished his degree and took his examination, and then found out that he had indeed been awarded a Noyes Fellowship to work with Badger for a year, learning spectroscopy and continuing his electron diffraction work.

At the end of the Noyes Fellowship year, Hedberg was appointed a research fellow at Caltech and worked on Schomaker’s grant through the Office of Naval Research. During this time, he met many researchers from abroad who came to collaborate with Pauling, and eventually he decided that he wanted to gain some international experience himself. In short order, he put in a Fulbright application to study spectroscopy in Belgium but was denied because his application missed the deadline. From there, Otto Bastiansen, a Norwegian scientist who had come to Caltech to work with Pauling and became good friends with Hedberg, suggested that Ken submit a new application for the following year to spend time in Bastiansen’s electron diffraction lab in Oslo. Hedberg did so and, at Pauling’s urging, he also submitted a Guggenheim application for Norway. As Ken later recalled,

…Pauling walked into my office and said to me ‘Well, are you getting ready to go to Norway?’… I said ‘I didn’t know I was going.’ And he said ‘Well, the selection committee generally follows my recommendations.’ And then he turned and walked out. That was the total conversation we had on the issue.

Shortly thereafter, Hedberg was informed that he had been awarded both a Fulbright and a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Norway. Meanwhile, Hedberg’s wife, who had initially planned to accompany him, dissolved their marriage shortly before they were scheduled to depart, so Ken went to Norway alone and with a considerable amount of funding in hand. Bastiansen met him upon his arrival, helped him find an apartment, and set him up with some recordings and a lesson book to help him learn the language. Ken’s Norwegian friends later came to be amused by him reciting his lessons to them because the way he talked reminded them of the rector of the university.

Ken made a very positive impression on his scientific colleagues as well. In 1954, after Hedberg left Norway, Bastiansen wrote to Pauling that

It was very nice to have [Ken] here, and I should like to take the opportunity both on behalf of the institute and myself to emphasize how much we appreciated having him working at our laboratory. We are very grateful that you made it possible for him to come here and that you let him stay so long. There have been many foreigners at our institute during the last years, but no one has been of such a great value for our team as Ken… He is now really a kind of key man in electron diffraction.



Ken and Lise Hedberg in 2018

Oslo was the setting for an important moment in Hedberg’s personal life as well. Once Ken had settled in, Bastiansen introduced Hedberg to his research assistant, Lise Smedvik. Her ability to speak English well, even though she had never been to an Anglophone country, immediately impressed Hedberg. Later he ran in to her by chance at a symphony and they went out for a snack together afterwards. More dates quickly followed.

In 1954, after a year in Norway, Hedberg’s fellowship was expired and he was obligated to return to the States. He and Lise had talked about getting married, but Hedberg had not felt ready because he was still reeling from the way his first marriage had ended. After arriving back in the U.S. he realized that he could not leave Lise behind, so he proposed to her. She accepted, and he returned to Norway that summer to be married. Their wedding took place in the Oslo City Hall and they remained together until Ken’s death earlier this year. Hedberg got along well with Lise’s family and remained deeply interested in Norwegian culture for the rest of his life. In time, he became fluent and literate in Norwegian and gave his lectures in Norwegian whenever he was invited to speak at a Norwegian university.

After they were married, Lise decided to move to the U.S. with her husband, but encountered difficulty in obtaining a visa. After weeks of waiting and not hearing back from the American embassy, Hedberg learned that they had not yet processed Lise’s application. He wrote a letter to his congressman complaining, but the congressman was dismissive and pointed out the embassy’s obligation to insure that this was not a marriage of convenience meant to get around U.S. immigration laws. Hedberg found out that the congressman was a conservative Republican and cited that experience as paramount in insuring his life-long allegiance to the Democratic party.

Once the couple finally obtained the necessary papers and moved back to the States, Lise almost immediately wanted to get right back on the plane and go home because she hated the smog that permeated the Los Angeles region at that time.

As it turned out, the Hedbergs stayed in Pasadena for more than five years, during which time Ken worked as a senior research fellow. One day a colleague in organic chemistry, Carl Niemann, stopped him in the hall to tell him that he had received a letter from an associate at Oregon State College regarding a position that had recently opened up in their Chemistry department. Niemann thought that Hedberg might be interested in this opportunity, on account of his Oregon State ties.

Back in 1952, prior to leaving for Norway, Hedberg had written to Pauling that he considered himself “a Californian in spirit” and expressed an interest in settling permanently in the state. But now things were different: Lise detested the southern California air pollution and she was also pregnant. The idea of raising a child in that environment was deeply off-putting, so Ken decided to explore the possibility of moving back to Oregon.

After investigating the OSC opportunity some more, Ken turned it down because he found out that the college was mostly looking for someone to supervise graduate teaching assistants and hold recitations for freshmen classes. It seemed unlikely to Hedberg that he would be able to get a good research program going in these circumstances, and he was not willing to give up his scholarly work.

Following Hedberg’s rebuff, OSC increased its salary offer in an effort to get him to come. But it was a conversation with Pauling that played a deciding role in Ken’s change of heart. Asked for his advice on the matter, Pauling admitted that “I think that Oregon State will not be a first class institution for research in my time and probably not in yours,” but he also offered that, “On the other hand that’s not really important… Lise will be very happy there, Oregon is a wonderful place to live… I think it might be worthwhile giving it a chance. I think you could make it go and you’d be very happy there.”

Thus encouraged, Hedberg decided to accept the position, and it turned out to be the right choice. Lise liked Oregon much better than dry, dusty California, because, as with Oslo, there were “trees in the forests and water in the rivers.” The couple made the move and so began a faculty career at Oregon State that lasted for sixty-three years.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 1, Early Years


[Ed Note: Today we mark the 118th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth by hitting the pause button on our Pauling as Administrator series and celebrating the life of Dr. Ken Hedberg, a friend to Pauling and many others. An accomplished structural chemist, a student of Pauling’s, and an Oregon Stater through and through, Ken passed away on January 5, 2019, a month shy of his 99th birthday. This is part 1 of 5.]

Kenneth Wayne Hedberg was born in Portland, Oregon on February 2, 1920. He had one sister who was two and half years younger than himself. His family moved to the Coos Bay region when he was six years old, then to Hoquiam, Washington when he was 12 years old, and finally to Medford, Oregon when he was 16 years old; he finished high school there.

Ken’s mother was a housewife who worked at a naval station in Astoria, Oregon during World War II. His father was a wholesale grocery salesman for a company called Mason-Erhman. His work required him to travel to the company’s storefronts around the state to take grocery orders, which he then transmitted to warehouses for delivery the next morning. Ken sometimes accompanied his father on his routes, but he found the work boring. The Hedberg family was close and often played cards together in the evenings and on the weekends, and also went to movies and listened to radio shows together. Ken also enjoyed physical activity, playing on the tennis team in high school and lettering on the varsity squad while an undergraduate at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). As a child, he also played touch football with the other kids from his neighborhood and collected stamps as a hobby.

Academically, Hedberg was very successful from the outset and skipped a couple of grades during his grammar school years. And though he always did well in his science courses, it took a little while for him to realize that he wanted to pursue science as a career. In an oral history interview conducted in 2011, he recalled that

My real interest in science developed…but it wasn’t clear to me that I was going to be a scientist as a professional. And through high school and so on, science was easy for me, both physics and chemistry…there were a number of people who always came to me with questions about science. We didn’t have homework in the same way then but it seemed to come so easily to me that I didn’t have much trouble answering the questions.

Ken graduated from high school in 1937 – the height of the Great Depression – and found work picking pears in the nearby orchards. His real ambition though was to attend college. Neither of his parents had gone – his father stopped attending school after eighth grade and his mother finished high school but did not continue on to university. Both of Ken’s parents wanted their children to have that opportunity, but money was tight.

Despite the financial roadblocks, Hedberg did not give up on the idea of a college education. As he thought more about it, he decided that he would pursue science, but was unsure about whether to choose physics or chemistry. To solve that difficulty, he wandered into the public library one day and checked out some books on physics and chemistry that went beyond what he had been taught in school so that he could get a clearer picture of the types of research questions and methods that characterized each discipline. Based on his reading, he decided that the research opportunities available in chemistry appealed to him more than physics.

In 1939 Hedberg’s father lost his job and the family found itself in dire financial straits. His father moved to Portland to try to find work and sent what little money he earned back to the family in Medford. Hedberg later recalled that

…we were enough destitute that the power company turned off all the electricity so that we cooked with a stove with some wood and we had a camping lantern that we used in the evening. We managed to avoid getting thrown out of the house, which was a rental in Medford, but just barely.

Somehow, in the midst of this extreme hardship, Hedberg’s mother scraped together enough money to enable Ken’s registration at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University). He lived at home and caught a ride each morning with a friend to the neighboring city of Ashland, which was home to the college. He took mostly science and music classes during this time period.

The family chose not to tell Ken’s father that he had started school, out of fear that the news might anger him. But as Hedberg later recalled, these fears proved unwarranted.

My father told me that somebody in Portland had said ‘you know there was a guy, Kenneth Hedberg, I noticed he got all A’s at Southern Oregon Normal, is that your son?’ My father knew nothing about this and I guess my mom didn’t want to tell him that we had found money to send me to college… So he said ‘no that can’t be my son’ and when it turned out that it was, he was not angry; he was delighted actually.

Buoyed by his dad’s approval, Hedberg stayed on at Southern for another term and continued to excel in his courses.


Ken Hedberg (back row, second from left) posing with his OSC varsity tennis teammates, 1941.

In the spring of 1939, Ken’s father found a job in Astoria and Hedberg transferred to Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon, where his younger sister was also starting school. Their mother moved to Corvallis with them in order to provide support. Notably, she bought a house where the three of them lived, and she rented out its extra rooms to help pay the bills. Hedberg was also awarded a full-ride scholarship by OSC and was able to land a student job in the Chemistry department supply room.

By 1940, Hedberg had pledged a fraternity – Theta Chi – and his sister moved into a co-op affiliated with the university. Confident in the security of her childrens’ positions, Ken’s mother closed down the boarding house and joined her husband in Astoria. Reflecting back on his first year in Corvallis, Ken paid homage to his mother’s contributions, noting that

At the time I didn’t realize what a sacrifice that was, but as time has gone on, I can see what a monumental contribution that was because I wouldn’t have been able to go to Oregon State at all [without it].

The switch to OSC was also a source of some initial culture shock, in part because Southern Oregon Normal did not offer a degree in chemistry. While in Ashland, Hedberg had only been able to take one elementary chemistry course that was taught by a non-chemist — a classmate recalled that Hedberg knew more chemistry than the professor did. In contrast, Ken’s first chemistry class at OSC was analytical chemistry and he got a C on the first exam, but worked hard to ultimately pull a B overall.

Once he became accustomed to the culture and academic rigor of a college chemistry program, Ken did very well academically and particularly enjoyed the smaller class sizes and increased interaction between students and faculty offered by OSC. He eventually became a member of the Pi Mu Epsilon national honor society in mathematics, as well as the Phi Lambda Upsilon honor society in chemistry. His student job in the chemistry lab stock room was also a source of satisfaction. Students who needed equipment for lab classes could check out materials by filling out a sheet indicating what they needed. Ken would then go in the back and collect the items, reshelving them when the students were done.

Social life was central to Hedberg’s OSC experience, particularly dances and formal events hosted by the college’s fraternities and sororities. One regular happening was a “nickel hop,” wherein all of the school’s sororities would move the furniture out of their living rooms so that male OSC students could move from house to house, paying a nickel to dance with the girls from that sorority. These were heavily chaperoned and dry events. Indeed, alcohol consumption played little part in campus life at that time, as the city had mandated that no alcohol retailer could operate an outlet within two miles of campus.


OSC professor Joseph P. Mehlig.

When asked to identify professors at OSC whom he considered influential to his development as a chemist and the path that he followed, Hedberg identified J.P. Mehlig, James W. Ferguson, and Bert Christensen. Mehlig was an analytical chemist who taught the first chemistry course that Hedberg took at OSC. (the one that he got a B in) Mehlig’s precision in every aspect of his life was renowned, even spawning a legend that one could set a wristwatch by Mehlig’s arrival at the “Chem Shack” – as the chemistry building was known at the time – at precisely the same time every morning. A further tale had it that Mehlig’s life was turned upside down when, during the war years, he could not buy tires for his car on the precise front-back alternating schedule to which he had grown accustomed.

Ferguson was an organic chemist who left OSC during the war years, but whom Hedberg considered to be a superb teacher. Christensen was department chairman after Hedberg joined the faculty at OSC, and Hedberg credited him with facilitating research during a period when federal grants were scarce.

It was with Christensen that Hedberg had first research experience. While still an undergraduate, Christensen enlisted Hedberg’s help with a project on the micro-determination of hydroxyl groups, an analytical technique that utilizes a sample of microbalances to determine molecular composition. The duo published their findings together – Hedberg’s first article – and the Shell Development Company, a major research laboratory and Ken’s future employer, later used their method to good effect, a source of continuing pride for Hedberg.


Hedberg’s 1942 yearbook portrait.

World War II broke out during Hedberg’s undergraduate years at OSC and, as a science major, Ken was deferred from the draft until after his graduation. In reflecting on that period, Ken recalled that “…campus was pervaded by a sense of what was going to be happening to almost everybody, the men on campus.”

As Hedberg neared the conclusion of his studies in late 1943, he found that he had two choices: seek out a job doing war work within the chemical industry or join the Air Force and pursue meteorology or armaments (he could not fly because of poor visual acuity). While he was wrestling with this decision, Shell Development Company offered Ken a job, an opportunity that his faculty mentors encouraged him to accept. He decided to follow this advice, graduated from OSC in December 1943, and subsequently married a fellow OSC graduate, Jean Read.

Ken remained on 1-A status throughout the war, which meant that he was eligible for the draft, but Shell appealed five separate times and eventually got him reclassified as deferred status 2-B, on the grounds that he was doing scientific war work. In 1945, near the end of the war, he narrowly missed being included in an occupation draft group because had recently turned 26, and no one over 25 was eligible.

During his years at Shell Development Company, Hedberg worked on a few research projects that were central to the war effort, including the development of synthetic rubber. Rubber was integral to the production of military technologies like gas masks, tanks, military vehicles, and fighter jets. The need for synthetics was magnified by the fact that Japanese forces controlled most of the plantations where rubber trees were grown, causing a shortage of natural rubber in the Allied countries. Hedberg also worked to streamline the process by which penicillin is extracted from its growth medium so that it could be produced more efficiently for use in military hospitals.

The project that Hedberg was most interested in was the development of an aviation gasoline inhibitor. Aircraft during the Second World War ran on high-octane fuel, which, if stored for extended periods of time, tended to develop a gummy substance that could damage their engines. Since tanks of fuel needed to be stored in the desert for the North African campaign, this gum formation emerged as a major problem for the military. The solution that they had in hand was a red dye additive that would occlude and color the fuel if it began to degrade, such that problematic barrels could be more easily identified and used for purposes where the gum would not cause issues. Unfortunately, in the heat of the North African desert, the red dye revealed a tendency to occlude before the fuel had begun to deteriorate, resulting in good barrels being wasted.

Hedberg’s team worked on a project to develop a special inhibitor that would delay the fuel deterioration process. The group also researched the ways in which different weather conditions affected the condition of the fuel and the behavior of the dye, in order to predict how long the fuel could be expected to last in any given environment.

Hedberg spent three years working for Shell, but opted for graduate school once the war came to an end. Having been accepted by both Harvard and Caltech, Hedberg sought out the advice of his Shell lab supervisor, Dan Luten, to determine how the two departments stacked up. “Caltech has got Linus Pauling,” Hedberg remembers saying, “who else do they have on staff?”

In a response that stuck with Hedberg for the rest of his life, Luten told him, “Look, with Linus Pauling they don’t need anybody else.” Hedberg had already been leaning toward Caltech because it was closer to home and he preferred the warm California climate over New England. With Luten’s firm endorsement registered, he made up his mind and accepted the offer at Caltech.

The Lomonosov Gold Medal


The late 1970s, a period still defined by Cold War tensions, was full of obstacles for Linus Pauling. Living in California, Pauling had been confronted with a number of serious issues within the research institute that bore his name, including a wrongful termination lawsuit and chronic financial instability. Likewise, his continuing research on the potential therapeutic impact of vitamin C on cancer drew mounting criticism from the scientific community, and he was often denied funding to further his work.

One of Pauling’s supporters and friends, psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, believed that the nature of Pauling’s research was not the only reason why funding sources had chosen to withhold support. For Osmond, it seemed that many granting institutions had been steering clear of Pauling ever since his loyalty and patriotism had been questioned nearly thirty years before.

So in the minds of many it was a mixed piece of news when, in Fall 1977, Pauling received notification that he would be awarded the Soviet Academy of Science’s highest honor, the M.V. Lomonosov Gold Medal. But for Pauling, the choice to accept was easy. Never shy in the face of controversy and always eager to improve scientific relations between the world’s two superpowers, Pauling happily agreed to the Soviet offer and began making plans to receive the award in Moscow.


M.V. Lomonosov

The Lomonosov Gold Medal was named after Mikhail V. Lomonosov, an eighteenth century natural scientist who developed the concept of heat movement as well as a basic understanding of matter. Lomonosov was particularly significant to the Soviet Academy of Sciences as he founded the organization’s first chemical laboratory in 1748. In addition to his scientific significance, Lomonosov was also a humanitarian who often commented on social issues within his writing.

First awarded in 1959, the Lomonosov Gold Medal was designed to honor individuals who had made especially significant contributions to the understanding of natural sciences. The purview of the award clarified a bit more in 1969, when the Academy decided to grant it annually to two recipients: one Soviet and one foreign.

In 1977, the year that Pauling was selected, Mikhail Lavrentyev also was recognized as the domestic recipient. Lavrentyev was a mathematician who had organized the Siberian branch of the Academy in 1957 and who had previously received many other national awards including the USSR State Prize, the Lenin Medal and the title Hero of Socialist Labor. Subsequent American winners have included Pauling colleagues James Watson, Alexander Rich and Roald Hoffmann.


Pauling delivering his lecture at the Shemyakin Symposium, September 1978

Pauling accepted his medal about a year after the award notification was circulated. He did so at the Shemyakin Symposium on Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology, which was held in Moscow in late September 1978. Pauling had initially been invited to attend the Soviet Academy’s annual meeting the previous March, but was unable to clear time in his schedule until the fall. The Shemyakin Symposium was arrived at as an agreeable compromise, and Pauling made the trip with his wife, Ava Helen, as well as his research partner Ewan Cameron and Cameron’s wife too. (Pauling insisted that both Cameron and the symposium would benefit from their combined presence.)

Bestowed “for outstanding achievements in the fields of chemistry and biochemistry” and for his work as “an active fighter for peace among the nations,” the medal was given to Pauling by Anatoly Alexandrov, the president of the Soviet Academy, at the symposium’s opening ceremony. Pauling accepted the award by giving an address that detailed the specifics of his most current work. Titled “Orthomolecular and Toximolecular Medicine Compared,” Pauling’s lecture was delivered to an audience of more than 300 people, including 70 scientists visiting from other countries.

Later on in the symposium, Pauling gave another talk on a completely different area of interest: “The Nature of the Bond Formed by the Transition Metals in Bioorganic Compounds and other Compounds.” While in Moscow, the Paulings also did their best to take in as much culture as possible, and following the close of the meeting the couple traveled to Uzbekistan where they visited the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.


Andrei Sakharov

Though Pauling’s receipt of the Lomonosov Medal would only serve to heighten the suspicions of certain stateside critics, the response from his colleagues was mostly very warm. But in one particular instance, an important peer saw the decoration as an opportunity for Pauling to do more, and quickly.

Only days before accepting the medal in Moscow, Pauling was handed an untranslated letter written by Andrei Sakharov, the famed Soviet dissident who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his activism. In the letter, Sakharov urged Pauling to use the Lomonosov trip to speak out against the wrongful imprisonment of Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov, mathematician Alexander Bolonkin, and biologist Sergei Kovalev. “I am convinced that today you share the concern of many Western colleagues over violations of human rights in the whole world,” Sakharov wrote, “and particularly in the Soviet Union.”

Kovalev’s case was representative of the persecution suffered by many scientists who spoke out in favor of reforms. A member and supporter of the organization Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, Kovalev had been sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp and another three year in a standard prison for his activities.

Pauling was caught off-guard by Sakharov’s communication which, unbeknownst to him, had also been released to the media. While in the Soviet Union, Pauling did not address the content of Sakharov’s request, and when he returned to the U.S. he found that his reputation had suffered for this in action.

In a letter to the editor of Physics Today authored a month later, Pauling defended himself, noting that

I had signed statements and had written letters about scientists and other people whose rights have been reported to have been violated by the USSR government and other governments, although I could not remember with confidence whether or not I had taken action about these three men. I added that all governments are immoral, and cited the example of the United States government, which in 1952 refused me a passport and thus prevented me from participating in the two-day symposium in London that had been organized by the Royal Society…

A response to Pauling’s letter by I.I. Glass of the University of Toronto called him to task for comparing “what happened to him during the McCarthy twilight era with the darkness in which many of our colleagues in the USSR are living today.” Pauling offered this reply:

All governments are immoral. But I agree with Glass that the immorality of the government of the US is different from that of the government of the Soviet Union. Also, I am concerned about Sakharov and other scientists in the Soviet Union. My letter to Physics Today expressed my concern, although only briefly, and expressed also another concern, about how the Sakharov problem is being handled. I wish that I knew more about the whole matter.

Although Pauling does not appear to have followed-up on the issue raised by Sakharov in September 1978, the two activists did maintain a correspondence and, in the years that followed, Pauling offered public support for multiple appeals issued by his Soviet counterpart.

James LuValle, the Olympic Chemist

“Mr. LuValle has made an excellent record in his graduate work with us. He is classed in the upper group of our graduate students, despite the fact that the graduate students are very carefully selected and have in general great ability.”

–Linus Pauling, December 1938

James Ellis LuValle, known for his Olympic prowess as well as his contributions to the field of photochemistry, was born on November 10, 1912. LuValle, who would later come under the academic tutelage of Linus Pauling, showed promise in the classroom at an early age and developed an interest in chemistry not long after.

The same year that LuValle completed his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, he also competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Competing alongside famed teammate Jessie Owens, LuValle was one of a handful of African Americans to participate in a games dominated by Adolf Hitler and the ascendant Nazi party.

LuValle had been a track star during his undergraduate years at UCLA, and during the Olympic Trials he clocked a personal best of 46.3 in the 400 meters. While competing in Germany, he posted the meet’s best qualifying times but finished third in the final, crossing the line at 46.8, just 0.3 seconds behind Archie Williams of the United States and Godfrey Brown of Great Britain.

LuValle, at right, finishing third in the 400 meters at the 1936 Berlin games.

While LuValle was appreciative of his experiences as an athlete, he always prioritized his scientific education. Notably, when considering his undergraduate options, LuValle turned down football and track scholarships to USC and Notre Dame on the premise that the sports programs at the two institutions had too much say in the academic arena.

Upon returning to the United States following the Berlin games, LuValle received good news: he had been accepted into a graduate program at UCLA and would be supported by an assistantship. Within a year, LuValle finished the curriculum and completed his thesis, “Photochemistry of Crotonaldeyhde at Elevated Temperatures.” During this period, LuValle also pushed the university’s Graduate Students Association to broaden its representation, and the organization was later integrated into the university’s student association, ASUCLA.

Eager to continue his education, LuValle applied to doctoral programs at Wisconsin, Harvard, and the California Institute of Technology. With support from the Julius Rosenwald Fund already in hand, Caltech’s offer of a teaching assistantship was all that LuValle needed to decide to move across town. He began his Ph.D. work under Pauling’s guidance in 1937 and is now believed to have been the first African American graduate student to enroll at Caltech.

While university assistantships were certainly nice, the Rosenwald Fund was key to LuValle’s pursuit of an advanced education. Established in 1917, the fund provided support to two categories of applicants: (1) African Americans, and (2) white Southerners who wished to work on a problem distinctive to the South and who expected to also build their careers in the South. The scholarship was open to men and women between the ages of 22 and 35.

While the fund was typically awarded for a single year and offered a stipend of $1,500, renewal was sometimes granted in exceptional cases, and LuValle certainly fit that mold. Ultimately he received a Rosenwald scholarship for both the 1937-38 and 1938-39 school years; by his own reckoning, he would not have been able to complete his doctoral training without this support.

While at Caltech, LuValle took several courses taught by Pauling, who had already risen to a high level of prominence within the academy. (LuValle later admitted to worshiping him during this time.) Pauling guided and mentored LuValle throughout his three-year “theoretical and experimental attack on the problem of resonance in conjugated unsaturated organic molecules containing oxygen.” Pauling viewed the project as very promising and was confident in his student’s ability to carry out the research.

In 1940 LuValle completed his Caltech Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry while also claiming a minor in Mathematics. His dissertation, titled “An Electron Diffraction Investigation of Several Unsaturated Conjugated Molecules,” detailed his research on the structure and deeper function of vinyl ether and oxalyl chloride, two important compounds that, at the time, had not been satisfactorily investigated. In his study of these two molecules, LuValle concluded that the conjugating power of two carbon-oxygen double bonds was equivalent to the conjugating power of two carbon-carbon double bonds.

LuValle’s laboratory work also revealed that thermolysis investigations could be conducted at much lower temperatures than had been used previously. In his Caltech research journal – which is now deposited in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers – LuValle likewise proposed a new slate of investigations using x-ray and denaturation techniques to study the structure of proteins.

Following U.S. entry into World War II, LuValle was invited by a member of the National Defense Research Committee to join a group of scientists who were actively working to develop a suite of weapons for near-term use. LuValle felt that his potential contributions to these efforts were absolutely necessary to helping insure the safety of the American people during World War II. In 1942 LuValle also returned briefly to Caltech to work with Pauling on war-related research, the nature of which neither was permitted to disclose. Based on his previous collaborations with Pauling, it is likely that LuValle contributed to the development of the blood plasma substitute oxypolygelatin, which was one of many government-funded projects that Pauling led during the war years.

After leaving Caltech for the second time, LuValle maintained a regular correspondence with his former mentor, discussing current research, ideas for the future, and personal matters as well. Pauling, who addressed LuValle as “Jimmy,” wrote many letters of recommendation for his former student, describing him as “reliable, industrious and conscientious,” blessed with an agreeable personality, and likely to “become a very useful member of a scientific organization.”

It did not take long for LuValle to find work. He landed first at Fisk University, a Historically Black College located in Nashville, Tennessee. However, he was quickly disappointed to discover how underdeveloped the Chemistry department was and also to learn that Fisk was facing major budget cuts for the following year. The school was eager to keep LuValle and offered him a raise in pay – from an annual salary of $1,800 to $1,900 – to stay, but LuValle ultimately decided to move north to Rochester, New York in order to work for the Eastman Kodak Company. Eastman Kodak proved to be a good fit, and during his time there LuValle made many significant advancements in the field of photochemistry.

In the years that followed, LuValle bounced back and forth between academia and the private sector as he pursued a wide array of career opportunities. Following Eastman Kodak, he worked as a lecturer at Brandeis University, and later conducted research at Technical Operations Inc., Fairchild Space and Defense Systems, Microstatics Laboratory, and the Palo Alto Research Center.

Pauling continued to support LuValle throughout all of these changes, writing letters of recommendation that commended his friendliness, industry, and willingness to work with everyone, and making particular note of his facility in the lab and his skill as an instructor. In these letters, Pauling often wrote that LuValle had compared favorably with a group of “extraordinary students” who had also attended Caltech during his years of association.

For the decade leading up to his retirement in 1984, LuValle served as Director of Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratories at Stanford University, a position that allowed him to develop summer programs for students of color interested in scientific fields. In 1987 he was nominated for the Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award by a Stanford colleague, chemistry professor David Mason, who lauded LuValle’s contributions to the field of photochemistry. In his nomination letter, Mason noted that

During the War and through 1953, [LuValle] was a top flight Chemist at Eastman Kodak and his research led to many innovations in the development and perfection of Kodachrome and Kodacolor processes. He holds important basic patents in the applied photochemical field together with Eastman Kodak.

Once again, Linus Pauling was happy to contribute a secondary letter of support for his former student, who would ultimately receive the award alongside four other prominent Caltech alumni: Morris Muskat (Gulf Oil Company), Stanley Pace (General Dynamics Corporation), Alvin Trivelpace (U.S. Department of Energy) and John Waugh (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

On January 30, 1993, James LuValle passed away, the victim of a heart attack suffered in Te Anau, New Zealand. At the time of his death, LuValle was on holiday with his wife, Jean – a fellow chemist – and his three children, John, Michael, and Phyllis, all of whom pursued careers in the sciences. Over the course of his career, LuValle published about thirty-five technical papers and came to hold eight patents, and his legacy as an Olympian and major figure in photochemistry is utterly unique. Today, the campus student center at UCLA is known as the James E. LuValle Commons, in recognition of LuValle’s career and his contributions to student life at his alma mater.