What is Resonance Theory?

Linus Pauling, 1931.

[Ed Note: In 2009, we dipped our toes into an unusual Pauling controversy involving the theory of resonance and Soviet scientific dogma. Today we begin a much more detailed look at the “Soviet Resonance Controversy,” beginning with a detailed discussion of the scientific work that resided at the heart of the matter. This is Part 1 of 7.]

Linus Pauling’s resonance theory helped to unify the classical roots of organic chemistry with the new field of quantum physics. In so doing, the theory provided a hugely important framework for understanding observed atomic behaviors that did not correlate with then-known mathematical explanations or models of the atom.

The theory would also help to usher in an onslaught of new approaches to organic chemistry and the nature of the chemical bond, lifting, in Pauling’s words, “the veil of mystery which had shrouded the bond during the decades since its existence was first assumed.” It was, in short, one of the most adaptive and applicable postulates ever put forth by Pauling.

But the theory of resonance was not immune to controversy. Specifically, it was initially not widely accepted within the scientific community in the United States and, in a very different way, abroad in the Soviet Union. The disputes surrounding the theory were ultimately short-lived though, and Pauling’s ideas on resonance continue to inform today’s understanding of molecular architecture.


August Kekulé

Pauling’s ideas on resonance were grounded in the work of several other scientists but most notably August Kekulé and Werner Heisenberg, both of whom were also interested in the structure of molecules.

Kekulé (1829-1896), a German chemist, notably devised a proposed structure for benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon of interest to many. Kekulé’s model put forth a structure consisting of six carbon atoms forming a ring, with hydrogen atoms attached externally to each carbon. Though intriguing, this basic structure did not explain where, on the interior carbon ring, double bonds were located. Partly because of this, Pauling would later lament that, “the Kekulé structure for benzene is unsatisfactory.”

Shortly after Kekulé published his basic benzene structure, multiple isomers – or alternative structures – of the same compound were predicted and even isolated by Kekulé. But even these breakthroughs were not enough to explain the “correct” model of benzene. Recognizing as much, in 1872 Kekulé posited that, in actuality, benzene “oscillates” between the various isomers, and that all isomers may in fact be regarded as “correct.”

This notion of oscillation between isomers was hugely important, but despite its utility Kekulé never succeeded in accurately predicting the “true” structure of benzene. The solution to the benzene puzzle would lie in waiting for nearly sixty more years and would rely heavily upon Pauling’s resonance breakthrough.


Despite its shortcomings in accurately predicting a structure for benzene, Kekulé’s oscillation theory served well in disrupting traditionally held beliefs regarding the number of valence electrons that must be present in aromatic compounds. This, in turn, helped to usher in new theories about the chemical structure of aromatic compounds more generally.

By the 1920s, a community of American, British and German chemists had developed a set of theories related to aromatic compounds that built on Kekulé’s ideas. The group’s basic hypothesis was that, instead of molecules oscillating between various isomers, perhaps all isomers actually existed simultaneously. This idea of simultaneous existence piqued Pauling’s interest because it seemed related to work that he was doing with quantum mechanics — specifically, ideas related to quantum resonance that had been introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1926.

Werner Heisenberg

Heisenberg (1901-1976), a contemporary of Pauling’s, was working to understand the wave mechanics of subatomic particles. As part of this work, he theorized that, on the subatomic level, molecules exist in quantum states – meaning discrete states – and that the actual wave function of a given molecule can be described as the sum of its various quantum states. Heisenberg coined the term resonance to refer to this process — e.g., the summation of various quantum states to comprise a molecule’s wave function.

Pauling was intimately familiar with Heisenberg’s theory of quantum resonance as well as the hypotheses proposed by the British, American, and German contingent. Thus equipped, he began to construct a theory of his own that would prove crucial to building a “truer” understanding of molecular architecture and chemical bonding.


Pauling built and circulated his resonance theory in a series of papers that were published from 1931 to 1933. In them, he reasserted the ideas stated above, before emphasizing that

the actual normal state of such a molecule does not correspond to any one of the alternative reasonable structures, but rather to a combination of them, their individual contributions being determined by their nature and stability.

In other words, the individual isomers of a given molecule should not be viewed as existing in a state of rapid switching from one to another. Instead, a hybrid of every isomer is, in fact, the “true” form of the molecule.

The distinction that Pauling drew between rapidly switching isomers – which was known as tautomerism – and isomer hybrids was conceptually difficult for many scientists to grasp, but Pauling was able to cite experimental evidence in support of his theory. Namely, Pauling had found that resonating molecules existed at a much lower energy state than tautomerism would predict. Pauling believed that these lower energy states resulted in more stable molecules, an effect that lent support to the viability of resonance – as opposed to tautomerism – as an operating theory.

The experimental data continued to be important to Pauling as he pushed his theory forward. Some had argued that there was no real difference between resonance and tautomerism, because the classical understanding of tautomerization portrayed isomers as switching so rapidly as to be in a virtual hybrid state of their own accord. But the data showed that Pauling was describing something different and that, to use Pauling’s words, “it is easy to distinguish between the two.”

In a 1946 speech delivered to a private industry group, Pauling restated the basics of his theory using language that is useful for summarizing here. For a hypothetical molecule known to have two isomers, “neither the first structure nor the second structure represents the system. Instead, the molecule is ‘a combination’ of the two structures.” And importantly, when scientists

can write two structures, neither one actually represents the state of the molecule but both of them together represent the state of the molecule. The molecule is more stable actually than it would be if it had any of the structures that you can assign to it.


Benzene calculations in Pauling’s research notebook from June 1934

Though he faced early resistance, Pauling was eventually able to persuade most of his colleagues to align with his thinking on the theory of resonance, and he did so in part by using the theory to solve the elusive structure of benzene.

One of the reasons why chemists knew that Kekulé’s model of benzene was incorrect was because the observed energy level of the molecule was much lower than the number that Kekulé would have predicted. Something else, then, was causing the energy of benzene to be lower (and thus more stable).

Pauling’s theory suggested that resonating hybrids exhibit lower energies, and ultimately he was able to use his ideas to build a structure of the molecule that fit with the energy data. Once the model was accepted, the benzene breakthrough did much to secure resonance theory as a valuable and accurate tool for understanding molecular structure.

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.

Remembering Barbara Low

Barbara Low in California, 1947. Credit: Low estate.

Barbara Low, a former research fellow for Linus Pauling and an esteemed scientist, died earlier this year at the age of 98. Low spent most of her career as a researcher and professor at Columbia University’s Vageos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is perhaps best known for her work with protein structures, particularly her work on the structure of penicillin and her discovery of the pi-helix.

Barbara Wharton Rogers was born in Lancaster, England on March 23, 1920 (she married in 1950 and changed her name thereafter). After receiving her B.A. from Somerville College – an Oxford women’s college – in 1942, she went on to earn an M.A. and D. Phil. from Oxford University. As a component of her education, Low learned the techniques of x-ray crystallography, a field within the chemical sciences that was emerging for women. A major reason for this trend was the fact that one of the leading crystallographers of the era, Oxford professor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, was banned from teaching to men, so instead she taught crystallography to women at Somerville.

Low was one of Hodgkin’s star pupils, and after Low received her B.A. in chemistry, Hodgkin became Low’s advisor for her graduate studies. It was during these years that Hodgkin and Low determined the structure of penicillin using x-ray crystallography. In 1964, Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work determining the structures of various important biochemical substances, penicillin certainly among them.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Credit: Luke Hodgkin

While she was working on her doctorate, Low spent a year at the California Institute of Technology as a research fellow, supervised by Linus Pauling. This was the start of what would become a fruitful and mutual working relationship between Pauling and Low. After leaving Caltech and graduating from Oxford, Low took a position as a research associate, and later as assistant professor of physical chemistry, at Harvard University. As her career advanced, Low kept in touch with Pauling and this connection proved beneficial on more than one occasion.


In the early 1950s, Low began to apply x-ray crystallographic techniques to a study of the structure of insulin. She did so during a period of much debate within the scientific community about the structure of various proteins. Pauling famously solved a piece of this puzzle in April 1951 when he published, “The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain” with collaborators Robert Corey and Herman Branson. In this paper, Pauling described for the first time the alpha helical structure of many proteins, a watershed moment that ushered in a whole new era of understanding across the discipline.

Barbara Low was, of course, also working on the structure of proteins, and she became particularly inspired to investigate the connection between structure and function after attending a lecture that Pauling gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1951. Low believed, as did Pauling, that the configuration of the folding of the protein was of more importance to its function than was the molecular make-up itself. Determined to apply this belief to her work on the structure of insulin, Low wrote several letters to Pauling asking him to verify the bond angle distances for the proteins about which he had lectured. Pauling gladly supplied Low with the requested data, even noting that he had double-checked the calculations as he was writing her back. Pauling also helped Low to secure scientific models for the structures that he had described.

Pi-helix diagram published by Low and Grenville-Wells, 1953

These data and models proved vital to one of Low’s most famous discoveries: the pi-helix. Like the alpha-helix, the pi-helix is a type of structure found in some proteins, though one that was not published by Pauling as part of his alpha-helix investigations. This failure may have been due to the pi-helix’ small size, which at the time of its discovery led some researchers to believe it to be an infrequent and rare structure. More modern day findings indicate however that the pi-helix is much more common than previously thought; present in about 15% of protein structures all told.

Low wrote about her discovery to Pauling shortly after the news was made public and received a mixed reply from her former mentor. At the beginning of his response, Pauling suggested that the pi-helix was most likely something that he “too ran across a while back” but acknowledged that Low’s structure was not “intermediate between the alpha helix and the gamma helix,” and thus both novel and genuine. The letter concludes with an admission from Pauling that his researchers may have “overlooked it” in their previous work.


Pauling’s hedging congratulations in this instance did not seem to negatively impact the duo’s relationship, and throughout their correspondence one intuits that the colleagues remained on friendly terms throughout the years. In many letters to Pauling, Low often concluded by giving her regards to Ava Helen. Low also developed a love for the comic Li’l Abner by way of Pauling, who had introduced her to the satirical strip at a dinner party in the early 1950s.

Pauling and Low were also, at times, involved in one another’s careers. When Pauling was denied a passport to travel to the Royal Society Meeting to attend the Protein Symposium in 1952, Low wrote to express her “shock” and to express how “shaken” she was that he had been treated this way. For his part, Pauling helped Low to secure grants and funding through multiple letters of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Low as her research position at Harvard came to an end in June 1956 by putting her in contact with colleagues Detlev Bronk of Johns Hopkins University, John Kirkwood of Yale University, and DeWitt Stetten at the National Institute of Arthritis. While it is unclear how influential these contacts may have been in Low’s gaining her eventual position at Columbia, it is certainly worth noting that Stetten had recently left Columbia after having served there for nine years as an instructor of biochemistry.

However it came to pass, Low started at Columbia in 1956 as an assistant professor and was promoted to professor in 1966. She formally retired from Columbia in 1990, but stayed on as a lecturer until 2013. Like Pauling, Low was active both socially and politically, devoting significant time and energy to affirmative action activities at her institution. She passed away on January 10, 2019 at her home in the Bronx, New York.

Dr. Edna Suárez-Díaz, Resident Scholar

suarez-diaz

Dr. Edna Suárez-Díaz delivering her Resident Scholar lecture at the Valley Library, Oregon State University.

Dr. Edna Suárez-Díaz is the most recent individual to complete a term as resident scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center. A professor in the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, Suárez-Díaz is an accomplished scholar of molecular evolution and molecular disease who serves on the editorial boards of Osiris and Perspectives on Science, among other publications.

Dr. Suárez-Díaz’ current research focus is the geopolitics of disease with a particular interest in approaches taken toward blood diseases in the twentieth century. This project brought her to Corvallis to study components of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, focusing on Linus Pauling’s work on sickle cell anemia.

Pauling is, of course, well known for his discovery that sickle cell anemia traces its origin to the molecular level, a concept first published in 1949 with Harvey Itano, S. J. Singer and Ibert Wells. As Suárez-Díaz noted in her resident scholar lecture, the group’s finding that the basis of a complex physiological disease could emerge from a simple change in a single molecule made a profound impact on the history of biomedicine. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to suggest that the concept of a molecular disease led to massive shifts in post-war research and public policy.

Importantly, these shifts were accompanied by technological breakthroughs that enabled many other laboratories to explore new ideas related to molecular disease. In particular, the modernization of gel electrophoresis techniques served to democratize research in a way that had previously not been possible. When the Pauling group was conducting their initial experiments, electrophoresis was a tool that lay within the grasp of only a handful of well-funded laboratories. As the equipment and methodology required to do this work became less expensive, practitioners around the world began to enter the field and the impact was profound.

Suárez-Díaz is particularly interested in blood diseases and malaria in developing countries, noting that these afflictions were to the “Third World” what cancer was for industrialized societies and the middle classes. It is important to note as well that there exists a strong connection between blood diseases (like sickle cell anemia) and malaria, as the mutations that gave rise to blood diseases also provide a certain degree of immunity to malaria. As such, the geographic distribution of blood diseases correlates closely with malaria epidemiology, a phenomenon that has had consequences for public health campaigns over time, including decisions to use DDT on a massive scale in attempting to eradicate the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

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Harvey Itano and Linus Pauling, ca. 1980s.

It is also interesting to chart Linus Pauling’s role – or lack thereof – in the further development of molecular disease as a field of study. Though he and three colleagues essentially created a new discipline with their 1949 paper, Pauling gradually became marginalized within the community, in part because he devoted so much of his time to political activism during the 1950s. His departure from Caltech in 1963 further distanced his scientific activities from what had, by then, become a truly international body of work.

As such, while undeniably important, Pauling’s contributions to the field might now be seen as one of many important nodes in a transnational network of scientists and practices. Moving forward, Suárez-Díaz’ work will continue to explore this transnational network, touching upon several other key issues including G6PD deficiency and the genetic consequences of atomic fallout.

Now in its eleventh year, the Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries has provided research support for more than two dozen visitors traveling from locations across the United States as well as international scholars from Germany, Brazil and, now, Mexico. New applications are generally accepted between January and April. To learn more, please see the Resident Scholar Program homepage.

Pauling’s “Immoral Man”: Nuclear Testing, the Nature of Leadership, and Letters to the Kennedys

[This is post 3 of 3 originally authored by SCARC Student Archivist Ethan Heusser for the Rare@OSU blog.]

For internationally renowned scientist and activist Linus Pauling, the early 1960s represented a time of feverish peace work that matched the dangers and necessities of an ever-escalating international crisis. One of the most interesting (and complicated) examples of his correspondence to world leaders during this time was to President John F. Kennedy.

Most of Pauling’s communications with JFK happened during his tenure as President of the United States between 1961-63. (Pauling, meanwhile, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1963.) The topics of their letters varied widely between nuclear disarmament, nuclear test bans, international peace treaties, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis itself.

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Though Pauling’s letters frequently asserted an authoritative tone, the two did not always maintain the level of peership this might imply; many of Pauling’s letters went unanswered, and those that did get replies were sometimes written by others on Kennedy’s behalf.

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Pauling was often vehemently critical of President Kennedy’s policies and public relations efforts regarding the cold war and nuclear disarmament, attacking his moral character for failing to take strong enough action to de-escalate rising nuclear tension.

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It’s also worth noting that Ava Helen Pauling played a similar role in advocacy to the Kennedys; she wrote Mrs. Kennedy with a similar message about the threat of nuclear weapons, albeit focusing specifically on the impact this might have on her own children. The Paulings’ two-pronged approach is emblematic of their larger team effort.

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Nevertheless, Pauling’s lengthy diatribes and urgings to the Kennedys ended abruptly after the infamous assassination in 1963. Of particular significance is a brief letter written to the First Lady three days later, within which Pauling expresses remorse over the death “of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

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The tone of that letter is hard to interpret due to its pithiness, but the typically stoic manner in which Pauling writes reveals here a brief moment of vulnerability. For all his “urgings” and his attacks on Kennedy’s moral character, Pauling clearly also had a certain amount of faith in Kennedy’s ability to listen to reason, make compassionate decisions, and lead the nation through moments of immense political pressure. Not only that, but as someone familiar with death threats due to activism, it’s hard to imagine Linus Pauling seeing November 22nd as anything other than a sobering and uncertain experience. The long and difficult relationship between them was snuffed out, but the legacy of the work, unfortunately, needed more than ever to be continued.

Papers for Peace: Vietnam, Linus Pauling, and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Burning Lotus

lotus

[Ed Note: This is the second of three Pauling-related posts authored by SCARC Student Archivist Ethan Heusser for the Rare@OSU blog, which explores the rare book collections held in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.]

Though people often come to SCARC to access our collection of two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling’s documents and correspondence, an important but oft-overlooked part of the archive is his personal library. It contains an incredibly diverse amount of material, including history, fiction, science, psychology, drama, and activism. That last category is particularly important given Pauling’s shift toward peace and anti-nuclear activism in his mid-40s; a closer examination of the books in his library from that point onward offers a possible view of the mental landscape that gave his peace activism its sustained intensity.

One salient example is “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” by Buddhist monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. Published in 1967, the book offers a piercing look into the real experience of Vietnamese people mid-crisis and how this commonly overlooked mindset contributed to the continually escalating Vietnam conflict.

It begins by discussing “the historical setting” of religion in Vietnam before quickly pivoting to the rise of communist-capitalist tensions as global powers began to get increasingly involved. Hanh uses this context to address inaccurate perceptions held by the American public about Vietnam’s cultural climate; for example, he demonstrates that the majority of NLF (National Liberation Front) soldiers were not in fact fighting for communism, but rather for the end of American occupation. In escalating the conflict for the sake of fighting communism, therefore, the U.S. occupying force only drove the people of Vietnam against it more.

Hanh also undermines the misconception that non-affiliated Vietnamese citizens helped the NLF because of coercion; rather, they assisted the NLF because of the promise of achieving national independence. (In his view, this perspective mainly developed due to the historical presence of French imperialism in Vietnam. He claims that people in Vietnam associate American presence with age-old French oppression, thereby carrying that anger and resentment directly over.)

“Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” was published at a critical point in American history and in the history of the Vietnam conflict. It complicated the overly-simplistic narrative presented by American media, arguing that the best solution for Vietnam is a neutral one free from the control of both capitalist and communist superpowers. To Hanh, this neutral solution involves establishing an interim government truly representative of the people of Vietnam in order to conduct a free and fair election. He advocates for the emergence of engaged Buddhism as a necessary part of this change. (“Engaged Buddhism” was first coined by Hanh as a philosophy that asks Buddhists to use the principles of their faith to fight injustice and ameliorate inequity.)

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about the edition of “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” in our archives, but its presence in Pauling’s personal library can perhaps reveal some of the thoughts and ideas that inspired his anti-Vietnam War activism. Both Linus and Ava Pauling were strong public critics of the Johnson administration’s escalation in Vietnam – and books such as this make it easy to see why. Firsthand accounts from peace activists like Hanh make it difficult to interpret America’s role in the conflict as something other than immoral and ineffective.

It’s inaccurate to assume a person agrees with a book simply because it exists in one’s library – but taking this book in context of the tenor of Pauling’s larger collection as well as the vehement discourse he used in fighting for peace can perhaps shed some light on how the sharing of ideas from peace activists around the world allows for stronger resistance against global injustice.