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 Lomonosov Gold Medal

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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

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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.


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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

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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.

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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

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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).


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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.


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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

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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.


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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.


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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.

 

Pauling’s OSAC Honorary Doctorate

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Linus Pauling at Oregon State Agricultural College in June 1933. The 1933 commencement program stated that Pauling was “now acclaimed among the distinguished scientists of our time.” Included in the photograph (left to right) are Dr. Marvin Gordon Neale, Commencement speaker; David C. Henny, honorary degree recipient; Pauling; Dr. William J. Kerr, Chancellor of the Oregon State System of Higher Education and OSAC president from 1907-1932; and Charles A. Howard, honorary degree recipient.

[Ed Note: This weekend is commencement weekend at Oregon State University, and to mark the occasion we thought we would look back at Graduation Day 1933 at Oregon State Agricultural College, a commencement exercise distinguished by Linus Pauling’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from his undergraduate alma mater.]

The early years of Linus Pauling’s academic career were marked by a dizzying array of accomplishments. Offered an assistant professorship by Caltech at the conclusion of his graduate studies in 1927, he was promoted to full professor just four years later. And by 1933, he oversaw twice as many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows as any other professor at the Institute.

His Caltech salary also increased substantially during this time, the result of his having received numerous offers from other institutions trying to pry him away from Pasadena. Since he was usually asked to teach only one seminar per term, he was also left with plenty of time to conduct research, often as a visiting professor at nearby universities.

Perhaps most notably, he had also won the first ever Langmuir Award, granted in 1931 for his research in structural chemistry. A.C. Langmuir, the brother of Nobel chemist Irving Langmuir, established the award for “outstanding chemical research,” defined to be work of unique merit conducted by an individual in the beginning stages of their career. In granting the award to Pauling, A.C. Langmuir recognized Pauling to be a rising star and predicted that he would one day win the Nobel Prize. In many respects, the award launched Pauling into the public eye.

Around this time, Pauling gave a seminar at Caltech on the quantum mechanics of the chemical bond that famously baffled Albert Einstein, who was in attendance. Not long after, Pauling became the youngest individual ever invited to join the National Academy of Sciences. It is no wonder then that Caltech’s chemistry chief A.A. Noyes remarked that Pauling was “the most promising young man with whom I have had contact in my many years of teaching.”


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Pasadena Post, September 27, 1933

Where Pauling’s talent was coming to the attention of the broader scientific community in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Oregon State Agricultural College had recognized Pauling’s potential much earlier, during his years as an undergraduate. In May 1933, perhaps seeking to strike while the iron was hot, OSAC sent Pauling a telegram offering him an honorary doctorate of science, which would be his first. Despite the short notice, Pauling promptly and eagerly agreed to be present for the commencement ceremony, which would take place on June 5, 1933. Not long after, he hopped in his car and drove from Pasadena to Corvallis to partake in alumni events scheduled for the preceding weekend.

Recent changes at Pauling’s alma mater made this honorary degree all the more impressive. In 1932, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education established what was then called the Oregon State System of Higher Education to manage the affairs of colleges and universities in Oregon, an arrangement that remained in place for more than eighty years. Oregon State president William Jasper Kerr subsequently became the first chancellor of the system.

Over time, Oregon State University has both decentralized and simplified the process by which it decides to award honorary doctorates. In contrast, the decision to award Pauling his doctorate required the agreement of numerous individuals from the top of the system on down. Specifically, Pauling was recommended by the state system’s administrative council, approved by Chancellor Kerr, and endorsed by the board of higher education.


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Pauling was one of three alumni to receive an honorary degree from Oregon State Agricultural College that year. The others were David C. Henry, a consulting engineer in Portland who received his honorary doctorate of Engineering, and Charles Howard, the state superintendent of public institutions in Oregon, who received an honorary Doctorate of Education. Dr. Marvin Gorden Neale, president of the University of Idaho, gave the commencement address that afternoon. In his speech, delivered in the early years of the Depression, Neale spoke of the need to fight against critics of the education system and to work to insure that support for land grant colleges and universities didn’t slip away.

When the moment came to introduce Linus Pauling, William Jasper Kerr listed off a string of accomplishments amassed since Pauling’s 1922 graduation from Oregon Agricultural College. In addition to the Languir Prize and the National Academy of Sciences admission, Kerr also emphasized Pauling’s achievements during his two years as a Guggenheim fellow, his authorship of over fifty scientific articles, and his appointment as a full-time professor at Caltech.


The evening report published in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper leaned heavily on Pauling’s local roots and agreed with others’ assessment that Pauling’s future was bright. The paper also reported that 486 degrees were conferred at the 1933 commencement: 418 bachelor’s degrees, 52 graduate degrees, and 13 pharmaceutical chemistry diplomas.

OSAC Executive Secretary W. A. Jensen wrote to Pauling following the ceremony to confide that his award had been one of the most heartily endorsed doctorates he could remember. He also conveyed the encouragement and approval of Pauling’s burgeoning career that had been relayed by many on campus. Jensen concluded his memo with an increasingly common idea: “The Nobel Prize is just ahead!”

When Science published news of Pauling’s accomplishment, Fred Allen, another Oregon State alumnus, wrote Pauling to congratulate him. In his letter, Allen joked

I am proud that our alma mater could break away from the precedent which has stumbling over one’s beard a prerequisite to an honorary degree.

Indeed, Pauling was only 32 when awarded his first honorary doctorate, just eleven years removed from his undergraduate program. The two other recipients of honorary degrees at the 1933 graduation ceremony were decades older than Pauling.

Pauling would ultimately accumulate 47 honorary degrees over the course of his lifetime. For a man of such decoration, it would seem fitting that his first honorary degree came from his alma mater, a school that encouraged his passion for science well before he became nationally recognized. The honor captured an important moment in Pauling’s career and provided a glimpse of what was to come.

The Pauling Medal Awardees

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Lucile Jenkins (Pauling’s sister), Linus Pauling and Ava Helen Pauling at the Pauling Medal ceremony, 1967.

[Part 2 of 2]

Ten years into the history of the Linus Pauling Medal, the two American Chemical Society sections that sponsored the award – the Puget Sound section and the Oregon section – decided to edit and modernize their nominating process for the 1976 presentation. Essentially, the sections sought to streamline their process and improve ease of comparison by requiring that nomination packets for each nominee be submitted in the same format, and that specific types of information be included for every individual under consideration.

The 1976 nomination round also included a ramped up discussion of including more women among the pool of nominees, though in fifty years still only one female has received the medal. Caltech’s Jacqueline K. Barton, the Pauling Medal awardee for 2007, is likewise the first female recipient of a number of other prestigious decorations in chemistry, including the National Medal of Science and the Priestley Medal. Barton is also married to a fellow Pauling Medal winner, Peter Dervan, who received the prize eight years before his wife.

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Pauling, Edward Barnes, Henry Eyring, and two unidentified individuals at the ceremony honoring Eyring as Pauling Medalist for 1969.

At a meeting held in June 1977, the two sponsoring sections discussed a further major change: adding the support of the Portland ACS section to the nominating and awarding committees. Though the benefits of including a third organizational body to absorb the logistical work and the costs of the event were evident to all involved, it was agreed that the three sections would need to wait six more years before Portland could be included, specifically because six medals had already been cast bearing the joint sponsorship of the Puget Sound and Oregon sections. Another six years would also give the three committees plenty of time to work out any kinks that might arise through the addition of another section to the nominating and awarding process.

As it happened, it actually took longer than six years to jointly award the medal across all three sections. The Portland group finally came aboard as a formal awarding body in 1987, at which point the medal was presented in the Rose City every third year, beginning in 1989.


 

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Dudley Herschbach, Seymour Rabinovitch, Rudolph Marcus, Ahmed Zewail and William H. Miller at the Pauling Medal ceremonies honoring Marcus in 1992. Herschbach, Marcus and Zewail are all Nobel Chemistry laureates.

Over the course of its fifty years, the Linus Pauling Medal has been bestowed upon an accomplished group of scientists, most of whom have received other top awards in the field of chemistry broadly as well as a variety of decorations in their areas of specialization.  Over a third of the Pauling recipients have also won the Priestley Medal, which is the highest honor given by the American Chemical Society and typically recognizes a lifetime of achievement. Likewise, over half of the Pauling Medal roster has received the National Medal of Science – the highest award that a scientist can receive from the United States government – and more than a quarter are Nobel laureates.

Unsurprisingly, the Pauling Medal list includes a great number of chemists who were close colleagues of and, in some cases, collaborators with the award’s namesake. Several of Pauling’s former graduate students and post-docs are also sprinkled throughout.

Here are the fifty recipients of the Linus Pauling Medal:

  • 1966: Linus Pauling, Staff Member, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions
  • 1967: Manfred Eigen, Director, Max Planck –Institute for Physical Chemistry, Gottingen, Germany
  • 1968: Herbert C. Brown, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Purdue University
  • 1969: Henry Eyring, Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Chemistry, University of Utah
  • 1970: Harold C. Urey, Professor at Large, University of California at San Diego
  • 1971: Gerhard Herzberg, Division of Pure Physics, National Research Council of Canada
  • 1972: E. Bright Wilson, Professor of Chemistry, Harvard University
  • 1973: E. J. Corey, Professor of Organic Chemistry, Harvard University
  • 1974: Roald Hoffman, Professor of Chemistry, Cornell University
  • 1975: Paul Bartlett, Professor of Chemistry, Texas Christian University
  • 1976: F. Albert Cotton, Professor of Chemistry, Texas A & M University
  • 1977: John A. Pople, Professor of Chemical Physics, Carnegie-Mellon University
  • 1978: Dudley Herschbach, Professor of Chemistry, Harvard University
  • 1979: Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., Professor of Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley
  • 1980: John D. Roberts, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 1981: Henry Taube, Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University
  • 1982: George C. Pimental, Professor of Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley
  • 1983: Gilbert Stork, Professor of Chemistry, Columbia University
  • 1984: John S. Waugh, Professor of Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 1985: Harold A. Scheraga, Professor of Chemistry, Cornell University
  • 1986: Harry B. Gray, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 1987: Harden M. McConnell, Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University
  • 1988: Keith Ingold, Associate Director of the Division of Chemistry, National Research Council of Canada
  • 1989: Neil Bartlett, Professor of Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley
  • 1990: James P. Collman, Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University
  • 1991: Rudolph A. Marcus, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 1992: Kenneth Wiberg, Professor of Chemistry, Yale University
  • 1993: Richard Zare, Professor of Chemistry and Physics, Stanford University
  • 1994: James Ibers, Professor of Chemistry, Northwestern University
  • 1995: Alexander Rich, Professor of Biophysics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 1996: Kyriacos C. Nicolaou, Professor of Chemical Biology, Scripps Research Institute
  • 1997: Ahmed H. Zewail, Professor of Chemistry and Physics, California Institute of Technology
  • 1998: Allen J. Bard, Professor of Chemistry, University of Texas at Austin
  • 1999: Peter B. Dervan, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 2000: Gabor A. Somorjai, Professor of Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley
  • 2001: Tobin J. Marks, Professor of Catalytic Chemistry, Northwestern University
  • 2002: John I. Brauman, Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University
  • 2003: Robert H. Grubbs, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 2004: Martin Karplus, Professor of Chemistry, Harvard University
  • 2005: George Whitesides, University Professor, Harvard University
  • 2006: Peter J. Stang, Professor of Chemistry, University of Utah
  • 2007: Jacqueline K. Barton, Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology
  • 2008: Thomas C. Bruice, Research Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California at Santa Barbara
  • 2009: Stephen J. Lippard, Professor of Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 2010: Armand Paul Alivisatos, Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, and Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, University of California at Berkeley
  • 2011: Larry R. Dalton, Professor of Chemistry and Electrical Engineering, University of Washington
  • 2012: Robert Cava, Professor of Chemistry, Princeton University
  • 2013: Chad Mirkin, Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Medicine, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly, Northwestern University
  • 2014: Stephen Buchwald, Professor of Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 2015: Barry M. Trost, Professor of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

Fifty Years of the Linus Pauling Medal

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[Ed Note: With the awarding of the ninth Linus Pauling Legacy Award to Dr. Jane Lubchenco scheduled for next Tuesday, we thought this an appropriate time to take a look at the first award to have been named for Linus Pauling; one that turns fifty years old in 2016. This is part 1 of 2.]

Though Linus Pauling was a much celebrated and well-respected scientist across the globe, he traced his roots to the Pacific Northwest and always felt a special connection to the region. It would seem fitting then that the first award to bear his name would come from the area.

In a letter dated December 9, 1965, Pauling first learned that two regional sections of the American Chemical Society – the Puget Sound Section and the Oregon Section – were collaborating on a new award that would bear his name. The Linus Pauling Medal would be granted each year, beginning in 1966. Quite appropriately, the two sections asked that Pauling be the first recipient of the honor.

The Pauling Medal would replace the former Puget Sound Award (given, as one might assume, by the Puget Sound Section) and would “recognize distinguished achievement in chemistry.”  Furthermore, though the interests of Pacific Northwest scientists would play a role in deciding who received the decoration, the nomination criteria made it clear that this was not specifically a regional award:

A nominee shall have made outstanding contributions to chemistry of a character that have merited national and international recognition and that are of particular interest to chemists of this geographical area.

Indeed, though two ACS sections sponsored the award, its nomination guidelines specified that recipients need not reside within the geographical regions represented by the two sponsors. And though the medal was named for him, Pauling did not think it proper for him to be involved with deliberations concerning recipients, and he accordingly refused to nominate anyone or offer a letter of endorsement for those nominated by others.

The award itself consists of a gold medal engraved with Pauling’s profile, crowned with the text “Linus Pauling Medal,” and also including the names of the (now three – the Portland ACS section joined the award in the 1980s) sponsoring ACS sections. The awardee’s name and the date that it is bestowed are engraved on the back of the medal, accompanied by the text “for outstanding achievement in chemistry.” The medal is accompanied by a scroll.

In its early years, the Pauling Medal was granted at a ceremony hosted alternately by the two sponsoring sections, with the Oregon section usually rotating its turns between venues at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon.  The ceremony itself generally consisted of a meeting featuring a keynote address by the recipient and ancillary lectures as delivered by other distinguished chemists. The event concluded with a celebratory banquet. The ongoing costs of the award, including travel and meeting expenses, were split between the two sections.


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By design, the nomination process established for the Pauling Medal had the potential to be long and complicated, involving several rounds of voting until a consensus was reached on one awardee.  And from the beginning, the goal for each year has been to generate a minimum of ten nominations to be considered by the award committee, with a preferred pool of twenty possibilities.

Compiling this pool required the cooperation of both a canvasing committee and an award selection committee.  The canvassing committee’s job was to solicit nominations, meet at the Northwest Regional meeting to review the names that had been received, organize them for evaluation by the award selection committee, and recommend any changes to procedure that might help out in the future. The call for nominations went out early in the calendar year, so as to allow for enough time to vet potential awardees and to find a ceremony date that was mutually agreeable.

At first, the canvassing committee expressed a preference for older candidates who, like Pauling, had remained creative and continued to make important advancements in their specific field.  As the award developed and its standards became more concrete, the goal shifted to presenting the award to a chemist whose career would clearly benefit from the decoration, which usually meant concentrating on younger nominees (as was Pauling’s wish).

Once the canvassing group had done its job, the final selection was made by an award committee comprised of five members: two from each sponsoring section and a chair selected from alternating sections. In addition to the pool developed by the canvassing committee, the awarding group could add names of their own.

The criteria for selection were very flexible, with only two strict conditions placed: 1) no member of the canvassing or awarding committees could be considered and 2) a candidate could not be awarded the Pauling Medal for the same achievements that had led to their receipt of a Nobel Prize. Rather, consideration for the Pauling Medal would be based entirely on new and innovative work.


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Linus Pauling received the first Linus Pauling Medal on December 3, 1966 at a celebration held in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. His acceptance talk was titled “Science as a Way of Life,” and made mention of the insect collections that he compiled as a boy, a few scientific mishaps that he encountered during his career and, in particular, his struggles in determining the molecular structure of sodium dicadmide. He also included the now famous story of how he determined the alpha-helical structure of proteins while folding paper as he was sitting sick in bed.

In addition to Pauling’s lecture, the first Pauling Medal event included talks by Neil Bartlett, Martin Karplus, and Joseph Kraut. Bartlett would later receive the Pauling Medal himself in 1989 and Karplus – the 2013 Nobel Chemistry laureate – was likewise honored in 2004.

Having traveled to Oregon for the event, Linus and Ava Helen took advantage of their visit to drive down to Corvallis to meet with chemistry students and to speak as part of a convocation at Oregon State University. Following their time in Portland, they headed north to Spokane, Washington, where Linus gave a talk at Gonzaga University. From there they went to Seattle where they saw one of Ava Helen’s brothers and gave yet another lecture, this time at the University of Washington.

In the years that followed, the Paulings attended the Pauling Medal ceremonies as often as they could, participating more frequently as time went on. When Pauling was able to make it, he was recognized as a guest of honor of the sponsoring sections and would typically say a few words in praise of the awardee. In years when he was unable to attend the ceremony, Pauling would usually send a letter of congratulations to the awardee.  He continued to attend the event long after Ava Helen’s death in 1981, making an appearance virtually every year until his own health started to decline in the early 1990s.

 

 

Pauling’s Nobel Nominators: Peace

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The Pauling family assembled prior to Linus Pauling’s Nobel Peace lecture, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1963.

[Part 6 of 6]

As we conclude our series on Pauling’s Nobel awards, we examine those who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1963. Nominator data has been supplied by the Nobel Foundation through an online database.

Interestingly enough, while Pauling was nominated at least seventy times for the Nobel Prize, only four of those were in support of his peace efforts.  Details of the three men who put his name forward are included below.

Peace

1961:

  • Helge Seip: Norwegian Member of Parliament representing the Liberal Party and later the Liberal People’s Party.  At a young age he became involved in the Young Liberals, the youth wing of the Liberal Party.  In 1948 he became a deputy member of the Liberal Party national board, advancing to regular board member in 1952, and he continued in this position until becoming national party leader in 1970.  He was elected to the Parliament of Norway in Oslo in 1953 and as a MP could submit nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Kenneth M. Stampp: Professor of American history at the University of California, Berkeley, a professional standing which allowed him to nominate for Peace Prize.  From the very beginning of his employment at Berkeley, he immersed himself in the political life of Berkeley.  In his research, Stampp presented the views of slaves themselves alongside the conventional historical perspective of slave owners, which yielded a new and more complex picture of the institution of slavery than that which had previously been crafted by historians.  He also argued against the notion that the decade after the Civil War was disastrous for the South – a time of vengefulness visited upon it by the North, and of rampant corruption and vindictive political maneuvering.

 

1962:

  • Gunnar Garbo: Norwegian journalist, politician, ambassador, and member of Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament.  He wrote several books and numerous articles on political issues, in particular focusing on international politics and themes such as disarmament and the United Nations.  From 1962 to 1973 he was a member of the Government’s Advisory Committee on Disarmament, the last three years of which he served as chairman.  Throughout his political career he focused on foreign policy issues rather than domestic concerns, and in this he attempted to build bridges between eastern and western nations, advocating for mutual disarmament. When he left parliament in 1973, Garbo worked for the Institute of Peace Research and continued as chairman of the government’’s disarmament committee.
    • Motivation for nomination: Pauling was nominated for his lectures and for initiating debates concerning the importance of eliminating or restricting weapons of mass destruction.

 

1963:

  • Garbo (see above)