The Joseph Priestley Medal

On August 30, 1983, almost exactly 250 years after the birth of famous chemist Joseph Priestley, Linus Pauling was offered the most prestigious award granted by the American Chemical Society: the Priestley Gold Medal.

The medal, granted to an individual who has made tremendous and innovative contributions to chemistry, was established in 1922. Initially awarded every three years, the ACS decided in 1944 to make it an annual prize. The Society elected to name the prestigious award after Priestley as his work with gases influenced the field of chemistry as well as general science, and his interests in a whole host of other areas made a significant impact on a number of additional disciplines, including political theory and religious practice.

By the time that Pauling received the Priestley Medal he had been affiliated with the American Chemical Society for over fifty years, and many were shocked to discover he hadn’t already received the award. As an ACS past president as well as the recipient of the Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, and the Willard Gibbs Award, he was certainly a lauded and highly decorated member of the society. For many, the explanation for his omission could be sourced to the generally conservative political viewpoint espoused by of the ACS Board of Directors.

For many years prior to his receipt of the award, Pauling had played an active role in the Priestley Medal selection process. Notably, in 1949 he nominated the eventual recipient, Arthur B. Lamb, as an acknowledgement of Lamb’s work as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society as well as his contributions to inorganic chemistry and the structure of complex ions. By then, Lamb and Pauling had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence as the former would often send manuscripts to Pauling to edit and evaluate for inclusion in JACS.

The following year Pauling nominated W.F. Giauque, a Canadian chemist who focused on chemical thermodynamics. While Giauque was of four finalists, the 1950 Priestley Medal instead went to Charles A. Kraus. Pauling was among the pool of thirty-three individuals nominated for that year, but did not make the cut to the final four.

“The Dickinson College Award, In Memory of Joseph Priestley,” presented to Pauling in 1969

In 1969, Pauling won a different award named after Joseph Priestley: the Priestley Memorial Award from Dickinson College, home to the largest Priestley collection in the world. Pauling was selected for this honor because of his “significant contributions to the welfare of mankind through his research in physical chemistry.”

As a component of his trip to accept the award, Pauling spent two days on campus interacting with students and faculty, and discussing what was then his primary concern: the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs. Pauling considered the mere idea of ABMs to be “silly” and more of a threat to the nation than a tool to provide security. Pauling further believed that governments, especially the U.S. government, should instead be focusing on the “lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth,” which he regarded to be “a chief problem.”

Pauling receiving the Priestley Medal from an unidentified ACS representative.

The symposium to recognize the awardee, titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley,” was held in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1984, and honored not only Pauling but also another thirty additional recipients of ACS awards. Derek Davenport, a chemist and historian then serving as chair for the ACS Division of Chemical Education, proposed and helped organize the symposium, advocating for Pauling as the awardee from the very beginning. Since Ava Helen Pauling’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling had drastically scaled back his travel schedule, but he was glad to make a trip to receive this special award, named for a historical figure whom he greatly admired.

At the symposium, Pauling received a gold medal bearing the likeness of Joseph Priestley, as well as a bronze replica. In addition to his acceptance address, to be delivered during the symposium’s opening ceremony, Pauling was obliged to participate in several interviews with the Society’s radio program, “Dimensions in Science,” as well as a meeting with local school teachers, another radio program called “At Your Service,” and an appearance on a local television program called “Newsmakers.”

Pauling’s acceptance address proved controversial. Titled “Chemistry and the World of Tomorrow,” the lecture was penned as a sequel of sorts to “Chemistry and the World of Today,” Pauling’s ACS presidential address from 1949.

Thirty-five years before, Pauling had discussed how the entire world was affected by chemistry, stressing the imperative that the ACS take a political turn to address society’s needs in the wake of World War II. Pauling’s 1984 talk was much more in line with his recent anti-war rhetoric and included criticisms of industrial chemists who had contributed to the advancement of the nuclear arms race. In particular, Pauling felt that chemists had been ignoring their obligations as global citizens for far too long while they focused on the science of war, and he made it known that this shirking of responsibility had angered him to no end. Suffice it to say, this component of the address was not received warmly by many of the chemists in the audience.

Pauling also made a point to refer to George Kistiakowsky, who had passed away less than a year earlier. Kistiakowsky was a physical chemist who had advised President Eisenhower from 1959 through 1961, and who had warned about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Pauling embraced his words and carried their sentiment throughout his speech, quoting Kistiakowsky as follows:

…and so here we are, possessors of some 50,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to produce a holocaust that will not only destroy industrial civilization but is likely to spread over the earth environmental effects from which recovery is by no means certain…there is simply not enough time before the world explodes…the threat of annihilation is unprecedented.

For many, Pauling’s rhetoric sent a chill through the room. Once he had completed his remarks, all of the other award recipients being honored were presented, and one-by-one Pauling sought to shake their hands in congratulation. One man refused to engage in this way, leaving Pauling shocked and upset. Derek Davenport, the event organizer, later reflected that

We were treated to an uncharacteristically graceless litany of evils of the military industrial complex and the necessity for eternal vigilance on the part of the concerned scientist. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm of the industrial chemists was distinctly muted and it was a rather glum Linus Pauling who assumed his seat in the center of the platform.

In the days following Pauling’s poorly received address, the ACS Board of Directors contacted previous recipients of the Priestley Medal to solicit their opinion on changing the address format during the opening ceremony. In this solicitation, the head of the Board Committee on Grants and Awards, Joseph Rogers, recommended shifting the acceptance address to a later date in the symposium and devoting only 10-15 minutes to an introduction of the awardee on the first day. In support of this change, Rogers cited the growing length of the opening ceremony as well as the presence of an audience that was mostly not of a scientific background.

Pauling responded to this proposal with disapproval, noting that the medal is “described as the greatest honor that the American Chemical Society can bestow.” Recipients then should logically have the opportunity to address the public at the initial gathering and to share their point of view in the spirit of the medal’s namesake.

Pauling and Priestley

Joseph Priestley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lenin Peace Prize: Aftermath

Wire article published in the New York Daily News, April 17, 1970

[Part 2 of 2]

In June 1970, Linus Pauling accepted the International Lenin Peace Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, an award bestowed by the Soviet Union in the spirit of forging unity with the United States. An acknowledgement of Pauling’s efforts to work towards world peace, the prize also served as a symbolic gesture for many people who were active in the global peace community.

Despite the high profile and prestige of the prize, only a small number of people were invited to attend the ceremony itself, which was held at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. But that did not mean that the prize went unnoticed, and Pauling received a great many letters of congratulation once word of his accomplishment began to receive media attention.

One such correspondent was Romesh Chandra, Secretary General of the World Peace Council, who, on April 17, sent a telegram expressing “hearty congratulations” and specifically recognizing Pauling’s “pioneering work and continued ceaseless action against United States aggression in Vietnam.” A day later, Nikolai Tikhonov, the chairman of the Soviet Peace Commission, wrote a similar telegram in which he commended Pauling for his “indefatigable activities for peace,” and his “courageous denouncements of militarism, especially […] against [the] shameful war in Vietnam.”

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling with Boris Davydov of the Second Department of the Soviet Embasy. Lenin Peace Prize ceremony event, June 15, 1970

That same day, Pauling received another telegram from the president of the Peace Council of the German Democratic Republic, Dr. Guenter Drefahl, congratulating Pauling for his “outstanding struggle for disarmament and peace.” And as the week moved forward the commendations continued to pour in. On April 20, a telegram from the Bulgarian Peace Committee offering their “warmest congratulations”; on April 21 a message from the Hungarian Peace Fighters sending their “appreciation” for Pauling’s work.

Gen. Hugh Hester

The majority of these letters received a warm, if somewhat standard reply. One exception was that of Pauling’s correspondence with a decorated U.S. Army Brigadier General, Hugh Hester. Perhaps because Hester was an outspoken critic of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, or maybe due to the high Army rank that Hester had attained before he retiring some twenty years prior, Pauling’s reply deviated from the standard acknowledgments that he afforded most others. Notably, Pauling took pains to express his feeling that “this is a terrible time for the world,” and his hope “that Nixon has finally gone too far, and that the Congress will succeed in stopping him.”

The rush of global praise brought about by Pauling’s receipt of the prize did not negate the complications of a somewhat curious incident that preceded the award ceremony. In addition to an engraved medal bearing the image of Vladimir Lenin in profile, the prize came with a 25,000 ruble honorarium. Because rubles were valueless outside of the Soviet Union at the time, an interesting investigation into how the monetary award could be converted into usable currency ensued.

The situation was eventually sorted out when Linda Kamb, Pauling’s daughter, visited the Soviet Embassy shortly before the award ceremony was to take place. Upon arriving, Linda spoke with Henry Kissinger, who was serving as the US National Security Advisor at the time, and who also happened to also be at the embassy that day. Linda met as well with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States.

In these conversations, Pauling’s daughter asked the two men about her father’s unusual problem of not being able to spend or use rubles, a circumstance that effectively rendered the cash prize as useless for non-Soviets. The two men subsequently conferred and decided that the prize money could be converted into US dollars at a rate of one ruble to $1.10, with the exchange happening within the embassy. This quote was apparently satisfactory, and a delve into Pauling’s financial documents for the year 1970 indicates that he did in fact utilize the currency conversion option that his daughter had investigated and communicated to him.

Pauling’s Receipt of the Lenin Peace Prize

Dmitry Skobeltsyn, Linus Pauling, Marilla [?] and Ava Helen Pauling, Lenin Prize ceremonies, June 15, 1970

[Part 1 of 2]

“Now is the time for us to change from our immoral course, from our dedication to the archaic institution of war, to a policy of peace and rationality and morality. I am confident that the Soviet Union would follow our lead, that the conduct of international affairs could be made to find the just solution of international problems, that we can achieve the goal of a world of justice and morality, a world in which the wealth of the world is used for the benefit of human beings, a world of freedom and dignity, a world of which our idealistic young people will be glad to be a part.”

–Concluding remarks of the first draft of Linus Pauling’s acceptance speech, written on the occasion of his receipt of the International Lenin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, June 1970

On June 15, 1970, at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., Linus Pauling gave an acceptance address acknowledging his receipt of the 1968-69 International Lenin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples. Created in 1949, this award was originally named the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples in honor of then Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, the prize was renamed by his successor as premier, Nikita Khrushchev. For most of its history, the prize was awarded annually to non-Soviet citizens who upheld the foundations of world peace. The award was discontinued following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

For Pauling, receiving the Lenin Prize represented, among other things, an opportunity to leverage attention toward his peace-oriented goals. Perhaps most notably, Pauling’s private correspondence reveals that when he heard that he was to receive the prize, his initial response was that he wanted the ceremony to be held at the United Nations building in New York. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Pauling wrote that he felt that the UN headquarters would be appropriate, “especially at this time, when the world is torn by wars and oppressed by militarism[.] [T]he symbolic significance of the presentation of this Peace Prize in the United Nations Headquarters could be very important.”

In addition to being appropriate on its own merits, Pauling also cited precedent in support of his suggestion. The opening ceremony of the 1965 International Convocation on the Requirements of Peace, he noted, was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and held at the UN Headquarters. Mostly for these reasons, Pauling was convinced that the UN Secretary General, U Thant, would approve of his idea.

It is unclear why the ceremony was not held at the UN headquarters, and instead at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., but what is clear is that the ceremony was celebrated with much fanfare and adulation for Pauling and his accomplishments towards peace.

At the embassy, the Prize was given to Pauling by Soviet physicist and academician Dmitry V. Skobeltsyn, who addressed all in attendance with a warmhearted, “Comrade Ambassador, Dear Mr. and Mrs. Pauling, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends.” He then detailed the history of the prize, suggesting that it was established to support some of Lenin’s ideals, including his fight for “true brotherhood, equality, and freedom of peoples.” For Skobeltsyn, Pauling was the true embodiment of these ideals as well as an “ardent fighter for peace.”

Skobeltsyn continued that Pauling was receiving the award for his “personal merits in the struggle for peace and the contribution which is being made to the cause of defending peace by the wide movement of the progressive international community, and among them, by progressive circles in the United States.” He then pointed out that “Pauling is widely known in the world…as the name of an outstanding public figure who is ceaselessly struggling to ensure that the achievement of science serve the cause of peace and that the danger of [nuclear weapons’] use in a new destructive world war, which would threaten mankind with incalculable sufferings, be eliminated.”

From there, Skobeltsyn enumerated several of Pauling’s major peace-related accomplishments, including his 1957 petition to the United Nations “calling for an immediate conclusion of an international agreement banning the tests of nuclear bombs,” and his 1961 establishment (with the help of Ava Helen Pauling) of a conference against the spread of nuclear weapons. He concluded his remarks by expressing his hope that “friendly relations between Soviet and American peoples grow stronger and develop in the interest of peace.”

For his part, Pauling regarded the prize to be fitting and even serendipitous, noting that the day he had become aware of the honor in April 1970 was also the same day that the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and Soviet Union had begun. Pauling then traced his work in attempting to end the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and stressed that the beginnings of the SALT talks had marked a turning point in the trajectory of this work. For Pauling, it was a moment of optimism; the talks a source of “more hope on cutting down the armament burden than we have had for a long time.”

The reverse of the Pauling’s Lenin medal. The text reads: “For the Strengthening of Peace Among Peoples.”

The Roebling Medal

The Washington A. Roebling Medal, presented to Linus Pauling in 1967

“I remember that when my wife and I visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Lambarene a number of years ago, I suggested to him that his principle of reverence for life ought to be extended to include minerals, and perhaps could be named the principle of reverence for the world.”

-Linus Pauling, 1967

In November 1967, Linus Pauling traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to attend the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. The society was composed of six sections including the Mineralogical Society of America, which had invited Pauling to receive its most prestigious award: the Washington A. Roebling Medal.

Born in 1837, Washington Roebling was a civil engineer who worked primarily on suspension bridges and who, most famously, oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. His father John A. Roebling, also a renowned civil engineer, had initially designed the Brooklyn Bridge but died of tetanus before construction began. It was at that point that Washington Roebling assumed leadership of the project as well as the family business, John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. He continued in this capacity until his passing in 1926.

Washington Roebling. Credit: Rutgers University Library, Special Collections and Archives

In addition to his achievements as an engineer, Roebling was also an avid mineral collector who scouted out and saved more than 16,000 specimens during his lifetime. After his death the collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, at which point it was noted that, of the 1,500 mineral species then known, only fifteen were not represented in Roebling’s assemblage. As a natural outgrowth of his hobby, Roebling was also an active member of the Mineralogical Society of America, assuming the position of vice president late in life.

In 1937 the Mineralogical Society of America created the Roebling Medal to honor the memory of one their highest profile members. The award was meant to be the most prestigious decoration offered by the society, as granted to an individual who had made “scientific publications of outstanding original research in mineralogy.” Nominations could be put forth for any qualified individual, whether or not they were strictly a mineralogist. For several years prior to issuing the award for the first time, the society earmarked a small percentage of their members’ annual dues to fund the medal, which was cast from 14 karat gold and bore an image of its namesake.

At the 1967 ceremony in New Orleans, Pauling was introduced by Jose D. H. Donnay, a mineralogy professor at Johns Hopkins University. A charming speaker, Donnay reflected on Pauling’s humble origins, his academic and professional accolades, his extensive and varied research interests, and the achievements that had resulted in this honor. As Donnay noted in his enthusiastic remarks

Let me, at least, remind you of the fields of endeavor in which [Pauling] himself admits taking an interest: crystal structures, molecular structures, line spectra, quantum chemistry, molecular rotation in crystals, ionic radii, theory of stability of complex crystals, proteins and helices, in short the vast subject of the chemical bond; turning toward biology and medicine: the relation between disease and molecular abnormality, immunochemistry, sickle-cell anemia; in other fields, structural problems of metals and alloys, ferromagnetism. Some people have asked me, ‘Why give Pauling one more medal? Will not our modest homage look like an anti-climax?’ [To which I would answer]…there is not a single mineralogical medal in his present-day medalary…our own profession, which owes him so much, cannot tarry, cannot be ungrateful any longer: it is high time we jumped on the band wagon!

Donnay drafted his speech months before the Louisiana meeting and had asked Pauling to proofread it. The only edits that he suggested be made were mention of his newly published book, The Chemical Bond, as well as his receipt of an overseas addition to the medalary: the Correspondant por a Mineralogie award, granted by the French Academy of Science in 1948.

In his acceptance address, Pauling reflected several personal and professional outcomes of his life-long love affair with mineralogy. He recalled in particular that his interest in the study of rocks and minerals had reached an early crescendo some fifty years earlier when, as a young college student, he initiated a systematic, year-long effort to collect specimens native to the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Unfortunately for him, Pauling was not well-equipped to pursue this task as he was limited by his only mode of transportation: a bicycle.

While this initial quest proved unsuccessful, Pauling’s enthusiasm did not wane but rather took on a more academic form, including mining geology courses at Oregon Agricultural College, complete with lab work on blowpipe analysis and fire assay.        

Linus Pauling, 1947

Pauling next noted that it was a Caltech scientist, C. Lalor Burdick, who was the first to correctly determine the molecular structure of a mineral, chalcopyrite. Completed while Pauling himself was still in his first year at OAC, this discovery and others like it inspired Pauling to begin his own research on the structure of molybdenite once he had arrived at Caltech to begin graduate studies. Co-published with his mentor, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson, the molybdenite project was just the beginning of a remarkable phase of productivity and insight. Within the next thirteen years, Pauling investigated sixty-three other minerals using x-ray diffraction techniques, publishing structures for over half of them.

Later on, Pauling encouraged a student to dig back into the past and review Burdick’s original work, an examination that yielded fruit. As he noted in his talk,

I suggested to one of my graduate students, L. O. Brockway, that he carry out a reinvestigation of chalcopyrite in order to determine the parameter with greater accuracy. He found Burdick had made an error, and had reported a wrong distribution of copper and iron atoms over the zinc positions in sphelerite. The correct structure was reported by Brockway and me in 1933.

Pauling likewise made mention of a collection of specimens that Robert Oppenheimer gave to him after a meeting in 1927. Though offered mostly as a gesture of friendship, the collection also proved useful to Pauling’s research, and he continued to study the specimens until the late 1930s, when his interest shifted towards the interactions between hemoglobin and oxygen. Though biological topics would dominate much of his work going forward, Pauling stressed that “I continue to find pleasure in looking at minerals, and thinking about their structures.”

Two years after receiving the Roebling Medal, Pauling was invited back by the society to give a speech titled “Crystallography and Chemical Bonding of Sulfides,” which was published in the Fiftieth Anniversary Symposium volume of the Mineralogical Society of America Journal. Pauling remained a society fellow for life and received a certificate recognizing his contributions to the group in 1994, not long before he passed away.


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.

Pauling’s Induction into the Soviet Academy of Sciences


On June 20, 1958, in the midst of the Cold War and almost exactly 25 years after being inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, Linus Pauling was unanimously approved for inclusion in the Akademia Nauk (Academy of Sciences) of the USSR. Founded in 1724 during the reign of Peter the Great and charged with conducting national research and overseeing scientific publications, the Academy had attained a position of major importance in Soviet society and its domestic members were among the highest paid individuals in the communist country.

Though often critical of Soviet leaders, Pauling never had any qualms about engaging in scientific exchanges with Russian scientists, even during the frostiest years of U.S-Soviet tensions. In one particular instance, a year prior to being honored by the Soviet Academy, Pauling had extended invitations to two of its members to visit Caltech and deliver lectures on their current research. At the time however, the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas had both been closed “to anybody holding a Russian passport,” and the scientific invitees were unable to accept Pauling’s offer.

In response, Pauling made a point of criticizing the U.S. Department of State, claiming that its policies ran counter to a recent commitment by the federal government to increase “freer exchange of information and ideas,” to push that “all censorship [be] progressively eliminated” and to “further exchanges of persons in the professional, cultural, scientific and technical fields.”

Pauling’s award notification from the Academy expressed “the hope that your election as a foreign member will promote further strengthening of the bonds between scientists of the USA and the Soviet Union.” And while Pauling accepted the offer warmly, others cast a very skeptical eye toward his embrace of this particular decoration.

While the responsibilities of his membership were purely honorary and the Academy insisted that he was being recognized for his scientific accomplishments, many media outlets, including the New York Times, suspected that the decision had been politically motivated. In his response, Pauling noted that the Soviets “have been strongly critical of my work in the past,” pointing out in particular that, in 1951, the Academy had deemed his theory of resonance to be “reactionary” and “bourgeois.” In the years since, Pauling supposed that the Soviets had “learned that you can’t mix politics up with science.”

Pauling was well-aware that his acceptance of the Academy’s nomination would garner criticism, but for him it was worth it to take a stand in favor of academic freedom. In a statement to the Associated Press, Pauling affirmed his strong belief “in the importance of improving international relations in every way” and expressed enthusiasm at the idea of “becoming better acquainted with the scientists in the USSR.” The letters of congratulation that he received from his colleagues indicate that this point of view was shared by many.

Pauling did not travel to the Soviet Union to accept his award, but he did address the topic of his membership in several lectures that he delivered during the summer of 1958. One talk, delivered at Antioch College on the day of his nomination, used the honor as a rhetorical starting point for a deeper discussion of a path toward reducing the risk of nuclear was. In this, Pauling emphasized that the United Nations must be strengthened, that nuclear weapons tests must cease, and that the world choose to recognize the communist government in China.

The president of Antioch College sent Pauling a follow-up letter indicating that the local media had mostly accepted Pauling’s ideas on merit, though the Dayton Daily had refused to report on the event at all due to Pauling’s membership in the Soviet Academy.


In addition to Pauling, one other American was added to the Soviet Academy in 1958. Detlev Bronk, a well-known and accomplished scientist, had also served as president of Johns Hopkins University from 1948-1953. During this time he created the Hopkins Plan, a successful approach to student advancement that emphasized allowing undergraduates to choose their own rate of progression through their course of study.

Bronk and Pauling were also friends who corresponded with one another about issues both personal and professional well before their induction into the Academy. Their bond had been formed by shared scientific interests, but also by a similar worldview. Notably, Bronk had shown himself to be a defender of academic liberty by speaking out in favor of a professor who had been accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of communist involvement in the early 1950s.

Another relevant and significant name from this time period was Bruno Pontecorvo, who was  inducted into the Academy alongside Pauling in 1958. Pontecorvo, a highly regarded Italian-born physicist, was living in the US and working on atomic research when he disappeared in 1950. Considered missing for several years, Pontecorvo eventually appeared on Soviet television, at which point it was understood that he had defected. Moreover, it later became clear that the scientist had risen to a position of authority within the Soviet nuclear development program.

Confirmation of Pontecorvo’s defection came as a shock, and some feared that Pauling would follow in his footsteps. Needless to say, this did not come to pass. Pontecorvo, on the other hand, remained in the USSR and worked under the Russian flag until his death in 1993.


Pauling’s Induction into the National Academy of Sciences


Since its formation in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has been a home of sorts for the country’s (and a few of the world’s) most distinguished scientists, and on April 26, 1933, at the age of 32 years and 2 months, Linus Pauling became the youngest current member of the group. Pauling was accepted into this distinguished body for his contributions to many scientific fields, but most significantly chemistry. And though he was still early in his career, his induction served as validation of his scientific excellence while also reflecting the growing global influence of his research and writing.

The NAS was established by an act of Congress during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and was charged with playing a central role in advancing the nation’s scientific research agenda and in communicating with policymakers about applying scientific breakthroughs to improve the lives of Americans. Induction into the Academy was, and remains, out of reach for all but the most accomplished of researchers. Membership has also always come with responsibilities: at the time of his induction, Pauling was made to understand that he was obligated to respond to every Academy summons and to “serve the government without expectation of compensation.”

At the time that Pauling joined, there were 265 NAS members (as of 2018 there are nearly 500), only two of whom were women. Forty-four members hailed from other countries including Canada and several European nations. Within the U.S., the NAS made it a priority to pull members from every region of the country, and also urged states that had not been home to any members – states including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Washington, and Nevada among others – to produce more prominent scientists. By 1933, Pauling’s birth state, Oregon, had only produced one member (Pauling) whereas the state in which he lived, California, was home to forty-five residing members.

In addition to diversifying the geographic reach of its membership, the Academy also sought to bring in more younger faces. It had several reasons for doing so. For one, younger members were more likely to spark a connection with high school and college-age students across the country who might eventually grow into the scientific leaders of tomorrow. Of equal or greater importance was the fact that, amidst the ravages of the Depression, the Academy required energy, enthusiasm and creativity to keep itself moving forward, and younger scientists were seen as more likely to bring that about.


Pasadena Post, September 27, 1933

Of the 265 Academy members in Pauling’s cohort, 159 were older than 60, and 58 had reached the age of 70 or more. The average age of new inductees was 49 (45 for chemists) and the typical age of an NAS member was 62. While the youngest inductee ever, Edward C. Pickering (1846-1919), was about six years younger than Pauling when he was elected in 1873, he had long since passed away by the date of Pauling’s inclusion. Indeed, by 1933, only three members of the NAS were under 40 years of age, so Pauling certainly stuck out.

Though Pauling ticked the boxes of a younger member who represented, if obliquely, a new part of the country, his selection was clearly predicated on merit. Pauling’s research program at the time included work that would soon become legendary. By using x-ray diffraction techniques to determine the structure of crystals, he had made great headway toward unraveling the mysteries of molecular structure, and in 1933 he published his fifth, sixth, and seventh papers in his epic series on the nature of the chemical bond. The import of these publications was quickly recognized by his peers, and when Pauling was added to the Academy he was the only selection made for the Chemistry section.

Along with much of the rest of the country, the academy that Pauling joined was struggling mightily during terrible economic times. Wrestling with an onslaught of major problems, many cash-strapped legislators were, in the words of NAS President W.W. Campbell, “unsympathetic and severely hostile” to the idea of maintaining federal funding for scientific research. Campbell argued forcefully on behalf of maintaining the support for the NAS, suggesting that

…the products of research and invention in the domain of the physical and biological sciences have been more potent in advancing the state of civilization on the earth from its low level of the fifteenth century to its high level in the twentieth century than have all other forces combined.

Fortunately for the Academy, fears that cuts in funding would relegate American universities to the status of “higher high schools” prevailed, and the NAS was allocated $250,000 to distribute to researchers during the 1933 fiscal year.

As time moved forward, the country stabilized and so did the Academy. And for a period after the war, the NAS also nearly played a very influential role in Pauling’s life. In 1947 he was nominated to serve as president of the group and fully intended to pursue this opportunity, but was compelled to remove his name from consideration when he was named Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford University for that same year. A year later, Pauling ran successfully for the presidency of the American Chemical Society and occupied that office in the NAS’s stead.

The Gibbs Medal


On June 14, 1946, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling traveled to Chicago to attend a dinner recognizing Linus Pauling as the thirty-fifth recipient of the Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal, an award given annually to the most prominent chemists and chemical engineers in the world. The Gibbs Medal was the second major prize bestowed upon Pauling by the American Chemical Society, coming some fifteen years after his receipt of the Irving Langmuir Prize in 1931.

By 1946 Pauling was widely considered to be among the world’s leading theoretical chemists. At just forty-five years old, he had already published more than 150 papers as well as three books. His connection to the American Chemical Society was strong as well. A member since 1920 – he joined before completing his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Oregon Agricultural College – Pauling was also a regular contributor to the Journal of the American Chemical Society. So it came as little surprise that the Chicago section chose to honor Pauling with the Gibbs Medal. And in receiving the award, Pauling entered into truly elite company, joining other greats including his Caltech mentor A. A. Noyes (1915), as well as Madame Marie Curie (1921), current ACS President Moses Gomberg (1925), and the namesake of his previous ACS prize, Irving Langmuir (1930).


J. Willard Gibbs

The Gibbs Medal was established in 1910 by William A. Converse, a former chair of the Chicago section of the American Chemical Society. Converse greatly admired Josiah Willard Gibbs and considered him to be “an outstanding example of creativity in the field of scientific investigation.”

Gibbs (1839-1903) was an American mathematical physicist based at Yale University who made important theoretical contributions to multiple scientific disciplines and who helped to form the idea of intersectional science through his studies in physical chemistry. However, many of his contributions were not fully appreciated during his lifetime, and it wasn’t until later that his impact became more broadly recognized. Gibbs is now considered to be the “father of vector analysis” and his most significant work, On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, is well-known in the scientific world.

Though he won the medal in 1946, Pauling had actually been nominated several times before. On three occasions (1941, 1942 and 1946), these nominations precluded Pauling from carrying out a duty for which he had been selected: serving as a jury committee member for the Gibbs Award.

Nominations for the award were solicited by the jury committee each September. Once a pool had been compiled, the group would then proceed through several rounds of voting until just one nominee remained. This individual would receive the award from the Chicago section in the following spring. The jury was composed of twelve eminent chemists and chemical engineers enlisted from various regional groups of the American Chemical Society. In the year that Pauling was elected, the chairman of the committee was Dr. Henry R. Spruth.

Interestingly, Pauling’s role in the process of nominating and electing new recipients of the Gibbs Medal did not end after he won. The by-laws governing the selection of recipients state that, in cases where at least eight of the twelve members of the jury cannot arrive at a consensus, “the Chairman shall secure the vote of the past Medalists residing in North America on the two or more remaining candidates” in order to decide on a single recipient. Up until his death in 1994, Pauling was regularly asked to contribute a vote to resolve situations of this type.


At the Chicago dinner, Pauling was presented the Gibbs Medal by W. Albert Noyes, Jr. A photochemist at the University of Rochester, Noyes was also president-elect of the ACS for 1946. In his introduction of Pauling, Noyes recited the long list of accomplishments that had led up to this moment:

…for eminent work and original contributions in chemistry and related scientific fields through the determination of many molecular structures, inter-atomic distances, bond angles and covalent radii of atoms; for quantitation of the classical theory of electronegativity; for extension and application of the resonance principle to chemistry; and for formulation of a framework theory of antibody formation. We honor Linus Pauling!

Pauling then delivered his acceptance address. Having penned multiple drafts in anticipation of the event, Pauling ultimately decided that, since he was being given the award primarily for his contributions to structural chemistry, he would focus mostly on this topic. He began his address by providing a survey of advancements in the field, beginning with Lucretius who, about 2,000 years before, had written that

wine flows easily because its particles are smooth and round and roll easily over one another, whereas the sluggish olive oil hangs back because it is composed of particles more hooked and entangled one with another.

From there, Pauling moved forward through a series of discoveries made by more contemporary scientists, each one building upon the next.

He then arrived at his own work which, by then, had touched on components of physics, mineralogy, chemistry, and biology, but had always followed one common ambition: the desire to truly understand the structure of the molecule. In particular, Pauling had made great use of x-ray diffraction and absorption spectroscopy techniques to advance his studies. He concluded his speech with a call to scientists everywhere that they apply the the theoretical breakthroughs that structural chemists had made in the first half of the twentieth century to the search for solutions to “such great practical problems as those presented by cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

Pauling was a popular pick for the Gibbs Award. Not long after delivering his banquet address, he received a letter from a colleague, Emory University professor William H. Jones, in which he added “my congratulations to the mound of fan mail” and asked “How does it feel to be a Cover Boy for the New Edition?”

Jones wasn’t wrong about the mountain of mail — Pauling received scores of congratulatory letters from colleagues, friends, former students and professors, and random strangers alike. The sentiment expressed by nearly all of these well-wishers was aptly summarized by fellow Gibbs laureate Moses Gomberg, who had presented Pauling with the Langmuir Prize in 1931. “He has grown by leaps and bounds – and is still young!,” he wrote. “My congratulations and wishes to him!”

[Ed Note: This is the 700th post published by the Pauling Blog.]

The Langmuir Award


In 1931 Linus Pauling was early on in his career as a professor at the California Institute of Technology, and was deep into a program of research on structural chemistry that would prove revolutionary. Pauling was one of the brightest young minds that Caltech had seen to date, and the announcement that Pauling was to receive the inaugural Irving Langmuir Prize from the American Chemical Society served as further evidence of his extraordinary abilities. The first major award received by Pauling as an academic, the Langmuir Prize would be followed by countless additional decorations honoring a long and storied career.

The Irving Langmuir Prize, also known as the Pure Chemistry of the American Chemical Society Prize, was created by A.C. Langmuir, an industrial engineer who manufactured shellac and glycerine. First announced in early 1931, the $1,000 award was meant to serve as a form of encouragement and support for young chemists in the United States. The decision to honor Linus Pauling as the initial recipient of the award was made by a select committee of American Chemical Society members.


Irving Langmuir

A.C. Langmuir named the prize after his brother, Irving, a renowned scientist who would receive the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1932 for his work in surface chemistry. In addition to his status as a Nobel laureate, Langmuir is today remembered by many for developing light bulbs that were more efficient and longer lasting than the Nernst Lamp model that had previously dominated the marketplace.

While Pauling no doubt appreciated Irving Langmuir’s practical work, his theoretical contributions made a far more profound impact on the budding young scientist, who began reading Langmuir’s papers while still an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College. As he noted in 1946,

I became deeply interested in molecular structure and the nature of the chemical bond in 1919, when I first read [G.N.] Lewis’ 1916 paper and Irving Langmuir’s papers on this subject.

One 1919 paper proved especially important. In it, Langmuir discussed his application of G.N. Lewis’ insights into chemical bonding and his observation that pairs of electrons can be shared by atoms in many substances. Importantly, Langmuir also used the article to put forth the idea that a full understanding of the chemical bond could not be arrived at through the simple application of a chemist’s or physicist’s training. Rather, the problem required a marriage of the two disciplines.

Titled “The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules” and published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Langmuir’s paper served as an inspiration to Pauling, who did indeed marry aspects of chemistry and physics in elucidating a new theoretical understanding of the chemical bond.

Twelve years later, Pauling was hard at work on several research projects that were driven by this stroke of inspiration. Most notably, Pauling had recently authored his landmark article “The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Application of Results Obtained from the Quantum Mechanics and from the Theory of Paramagnetic Susceptibility to the Structure on Molecules,” the first in a series of significant papers on the structure of the molecules. By the time that Pauling received his ACS award in September, he had already released the third installment in the series. Taking note of this dizzying array of productivity, Scientific American dubbed Pauling the “explorer of electrons” in a 1931 article.


Humorous editorial cartoon published in the “Double Bond Jr.,” a publication circulated at the Buffalo ACS meeting in September 1931.

Pauling was nominated for the Langmuir Prize by his Caltech mentor, A.A. Noyes. The director of the Gates Chemical Laboratory and a respected member of the American Chemical Society, Noyes’ views carried significant weight with his peers, and in his nomination letter of June 8, 1931, Noyes described Pauling as “the most promising young man with whom I have ever come in contact in my many years of teaching.” This hearty endorsement, combined with Pauling’s vita – which already listed more than fifty published papers – made the decision an easy one for the award committee.

Pauling, with his wife Ava Helen, received the prize on September 2, 1931 in Buffalo, New York. At the ceremony, A.C. Langmuir praised the body of work that Pauling had already compiled and accurately predicted that he would one day be a Nobel Prize winner. The Langmuir decoration proved to be a source of significant attention for Pauling. In one of a bevy of congratulatory letters that followed, former classmate W.E. Ramsey noted that “I knew you were a genius because you could solve my calculus problems which were always a mystery to me.” Likewise, University of Chicago chemist Thorfin Hogness recounted that he expected Pauling would win the award as soon as it was introduced.

In addition to raising Pauling’s profile, the financial support provided by the Langmuir Prize was especially significant as the United States was entering into the worst years of the Great Depression. Indeed, the $1,000 award that came with the prize was equivalent to a quarter of Pauling’s annual salary. Today, in recognition of its namesake’s interdisciplinary focus, the Irving Langmuir Prize is granted alternately by the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society. Recipients now receive a cash award of $10,000.

As time moved forward, Pauling remained very active within the American Chemical Society, serving as president of the organization in 1949. He would also win several additional major awards offered by the ACS, including the Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal in 1946. So too did Pauling receive a great many decorations from regional chapters of the organization. In 1966, he was the recipient of perhaps the most noteworthy of these awards when the Oregon and Puget Sound sections presented him with the first Linus Pauling Medal for outstanding achievement in chemistry.