A View of Pauling’s Models

In 2010, Oren Eckhaus, a photographer based in New York City, visited our facility to photograph several of the molecular models that remain extant in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. He did so in support of Jane Nisselson’s documentary-in-progress, “Unseen Beauty: The Molecule Imagined,” which she was researching with support from the OSU Libraries Resident Scholar Program.

Now Eckhaus is preparing several of his photographs for display in an upcoming art exhibition, and he was kind enough to share a handful of the images with us. He also provided a short artist’s statement:

The idea of photographing the molecular models came as an add-on visual assistant to a movie (that is still in the making) who’s main subject is to show the representation of pure scientific ideas as real tangible forms.

In my profession, along with being a fine art photographer, I also document objects of art for museums and art collectors. Upon seeing the models, I was struck by their beauty. They are important both as art pieces and early science tools.

Therefore, the approach of photographing the pieces was a mix of an artistic and documentary point of view, showing the original scientific intent, along with their artistic beauty.

A book of 32 molecule images is in the making.

Click on any image to open the gallery and to learn more about the molecular models highlighted within.


Peter Pauling: Epilogue


Peter Pauling with his dad, 1931.

[Part 9 of 9]

Before he passed away in 2003, Peter Pauling saw his daughter Sarah marry, and also witnessed the births of two grandsons, Isaac and Malachi. Over time, he likewise learned to recognize the ebb and flow of his manic and depressive phases, at points struggling to overcome insomnia and drinking too much whiskey or beer, and at others walking the country paths around the mill so giddy with delight, that he felt he could not contain his joy.

In 1992, Jim Watson came to Wales to call on Peter and Alicia. Peter had recently seen a BBC drama depicting the discovery of DNA which, as he explained to his old friend, was not entirely accurate. When Watson asked what they had got wrong, Peter answered firmly that he had appeared only at the very end of the program, and that he showed up on screen driving a white Cadillac convertible. For a car man like Peter, being portrayed in such a vehicle was, apparently, an insult to his sense of personal pride.

Though thousands of miles apart, Peter remained in regular contact with his father. In 1992, Linus called on his son to ask his advice about what he should do with a collection of secret documents stemming from his years of involvement in the American war effort. As he looked through his files, Linus Pauling had been unable to track down an apparently nonexistent Navy patent for a substance, named “Linusite,” that he helped to develop in secrecy in 1945. Similarly, he noted, his invention of the oxygen meter had presumably remained classified, as was a cone shell windmill that he designed in 1952.

Indeed, Linus had a personal safe full of records relating to such top secret projects, and he had no idea which of them had been declassified. Now, at the age of 91, he wanted to unburden himself of these materials, one way or another. Wishing to help his dad out, Peter called a close friend of his from his undergraduate years at Caltech, Robert Madden, who was then working in the National Security Administration. The elder Pauling’s safe was subsequently inspected, and select material duly vanished into the hands of the federal government.


Linus and Peter Pauling in England at a model of Bourton-on-the-water, 1948.

A year later, the conversation had turned toward the introspective. As his cancer spread and his health continued to diminish, Pauling lamented to his son that he had never much been there for him during Peter’s childhood; had never thrown the baseball around the yard. His son responded in stark contrast, stating that he looked back on his childhood at Arden Road and Fairpoint Street with great fondness, adding

Well, you did not play much baseball, but then neither did I. You did, however, lie on the side of my bed and taught me how to count in French. Later, when I was old enough to get out and about, you were often out to rescue me, either because I telephoned or Mamma was worried and sent you out to do a general search of the whole of Pasadena and surrounding environs.

In 1994, Alicia sent a letter to Linus on his birthday, saying that she and Peter were thinking of him, and about to toast him, as dinner time was drawing near. The drinking, she hastened to add, would be kept moderate, but the thinking had no limits. She concluded by writing that “Peter hopes to come over shortly – and so do I.”

Less that six months later, Linus Pauling passed away. Peter’s younger brother Crellin wrote to him after their father’s death, and he was heavy with grief. Peter, though, had been experiencing both the depths of depression and the heights of elation for decades. The lesson in all of this, he confided to Crellin, was that when one’s mania had faded, and the depression has set in, one had only to hold on. Be patient and outlast it, for eventually change will come. In this, an entire lifetime of often difficult experience was summed up by Peter Pauling in three simple words:

“Do not despair.”

Peter Pauling: Exploring the Structure of Psychotropic Drugs, Searching for Comfort in the Country, 1970-2003


The Pauling family at Deer Flat Ranch, 1973. Peter stands at left.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 8 of 9]

It was the 1970s, and Peter Pauling was studying the molecular arrangement and physiological effects of hallucinogens. The field of psychopharmacology, crucial to psychiatric treatments of mental disorders, was at the time almost brand new. Only in the 1960s did most physicians begin to consider the potential of psychoactive pharmacological treatments in treating mood disorders and neurologically based physical ailments. The role that different substances played in the alteration of brain chemistry, their influence on synaptic changes, and the modifications in nervous response that they could bring about were all still poorly understood.

Peter’s work modelling the structure of different neurotransmitters and psychotropic drugs was part of a larger effort in the late twentieth century that sought to address this gap in scientific knowledge. Many doctors of the era were studying drugs like mescaline, psilocybin, and lysergic acid (LSD). Often, these researchers self-administered as part of the experimental endeavor.

Peter Pauling was no exception. His first experiences with LSD came in 1962, when he began receiving small doses regularly as a treatment for his manic depressive symptoms. And while he generally found the results to be agreeable, his brother Linus Jr. was suspicious. A psychiatrist and graduate of Harvard Medical School himself, Linus Jr. advised that the treatment was not in favor in the United States, arguing that it was often prescribed by “unprincipled” doctors. Linus Jr. would later reflect that lithium as a treatment should have been offered to Peter at much earlier point, and that it might have more seriously and effectively addressed his condition.

This compelling new research topic in hand, Peter dove into biophysics and psychopharmacology, attending conferences in Moscow and Vienna that inspired him to study drugs and molecules active in the cholinergic nervous system. His electronics work from the 1960s also continued to expand in tandem with his new scholarly focus. The grant that he had received to build his own computer and diffractometer served as the kernel for a grander plan to develop his own data collection facility to research the nature of acetylcholine and other substances.

Indeed, Peter’s stated aim was nothing less than to become “the world’s expert on the structure of drugs,” a goal he pursued with vigor throughout the 1970s. From 1966 – when the Medical Research Council began a systematic investigation and correlation of nervous system pharmacology – through 1979, Peter published no fewer than forty-eight papers in the field. His major works came to print in 1970 with “The Conformation of Molecules Affecting Cholinergic Nervous Systems”; in 1972 with “The Molecular Structure of LSD”; and in 1973 with two articles, “Neuromuscular Blocking Agents” and “The Conformations of Neurotransmitter Substances.”

During this fertile period, Peter was supported by grants averaging about $100,000 dollars a year, including funding to purchase a computer graphic display and to employ a programmer to assist in the development of an interactive graphics system for the study of molecular structures. He described the function of the new technology to his father with awe:

One just pulls up a picture of the molecule and wiggles it around until one gets a pretty view, and punches a button which sets up a file which consists of the entire job input file for another computer to draw the picture. One then rings up the other computer on the telephone and sends the file down to it!

To date, no serious consideration appears to have been given to the impact that Peter Pauling may have had on the young field of psychopharmacology during his short but prolific research career at University College, London. He himself saw his work as influential, claiming in 1993 that his goal had been to discover details overlooked by other researchers and lamenting that, in his view, scientists in his own field had, in fact, overlooked these discoveries for years.


Peter Pauling, with his mother, nephew and sister, at Deer Flat Ranch. Ca. late 1970s.

Peter’s personal life seemed to be improving at this point as well. Having moved out of the slum and into a new flat on Hornton Street, everything looked to be coming together.

Early in the decade, Peter began dating a book publishing agent by the name of Bud. The two had originally met at a party in Cambridge years earlier, and before long, Bud and Peter were married, with Peter’s daughter Sarah giving her father away at the ceremony. The couple subsequently moved in together and spent Christmas week in 1971 with some friends in a cottage in North Wales. Peter was enchanted by the place, noting that its Roman tracks and bridges inspired him to imagine someday owning a cottage of his own nearby.

But in stark contrast to pastoral dreams of retiring to the Welsh countryside, Peter Pauling’s life had become a blur of work and travel. He flew to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, and Sweden for conference after conference between 1970 and 1978. He also spoke, in 1974, at Peter Waser’s Cholinergic Nervous System conference in Zurich. (Waser had first outlined the role of cholinergic receptors in 1960, and is an early and influential figure in psychopharmacology)  Peter even received an honorary MD from the Karolinska Institute at Stockholm in 1972.

By now, Peter was also priding himself on his ability to keep what he called the “demon rum” securely in the bottle, though he likewise admitted that his was an ongoing struggle. By 1978, he had been hospitalized about five times – sometimes having himself committed – where he received psychiatric treatment for his depression as well as aversion therapy for his alcohol dependence. He took nicotinic acid and Antabuse to treat his symptoms, and adhered to a steady regimen of small doses of lysergic acid as well. When he was feeling well, Peter rewarded himself for all of his hard work with a new classic car; this time a 1938 Rolls Royce Phantom III with a 7 liter, V-12 engine.

Meanwhile, by 1972, Peter’s ex-wife Julia had finished both a teacher’s training degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in Education. The children also seemed to be flourishing: Thomas had joined his school’s rowing team, finishing in the top eight and winning a pewter cup in one race, and Sarah was beginning secondary school. The next year, Peter spent Christmas with Sarah and Thomas for the first time since 1966, after which his visits to both of them became more frequent, especially with Thomas. In 1979, Thomas joined his father for a trip to California to see his grandparents, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. Sarah accompanied Peter and Bud on a separate holiday that Peter admitted was an “eye opener,” showing him that he and his daughter could connect on a level that he hadn’t been sure was possible.

Before long, Sarah was heading off to the University of Bristol, and Thomas was coming up on his final exams at Sussex. Much like his father, Thomas possessed a mind that was mechanically focused, delighting in daydreams of designing bicycles or of someday becoming an electrical engineer.  In 1980, Thomas took a position at an engineering firm working in “forecasting expenditure,” and living in the same Hornton Street building as his father. Sarah would later complete a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s in Forensic Science, ultimately forging a career in pathology at the UK Home Office.

By the early 1980s, Peter had entered into a romantic relationship with another woman, Alicia, a librarian and classics instructor who lived in the same apartment building as he. Bud had moved out, and though she wished to maintain contact after their separation, Peter was less open to the idea. He preferred to continue to see Alicia, their “on again, off again” relationship percolating for many years before the two finally married. And though they took their time before sealing their vows, Alicia pretty quickly became a crucial fixture in Peter’s life, providing much needed support when tragedy repeatedly struck.

In 1981, Ava Helen Pauling, in failing health and suffering a recurrence of stomach cancer, decided against chemotherapy. She passed away on December 7th at the age of 77. Not long after, Peter lost his son Thomas, who, in 1983, died tragically at the young age of 26. The next year, Peter was admitted to the Queen Mary’s Hospital burn ward in Roehampton, where he received surgery to aid in his recovery after unintentionally setting his mattress on fire in the middle of the night.


The final Pauling family portrait, taken on occasion of Linus Pauling’s 85th birthday. Pasadena, 1986. Peter stands at far left.

In 1986, Peter accepted an offer to take an early retirement from his job at the University of London. His academic career now concluded, Peter channeled his energies into fulfilling the vision that had first occurred to him in 1971: a small home in Wales. After many trips spent looking at properties, Peter and Alicia eventually came across a house that was adjacent to an isolated and run down mill out in the countryside of Dyfed.

For Peter, the mill itself was the real attraction. It was called Abergwenlais, and it was 250 years old. It’s specs included two big rooms, five bedrooms, two wood stoves, and a leaky roof in need of repair. Parts of the facility still retained the original equipment, though the mill wheel itself, which likely had been twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, was missing. Linus Pauling Jr. later described the property:

Through the ground ran a stream, part of which was diverted into a sluiceway to   motivate the wheel. Inside the mill was still the mechanism for transferring energy from horizontal to vertical grindstones, which had big doors on each side so wagons could go in underneath and get loaded up and then on out the other side. Only a small portion had been made barely habitable, with running water and a bathroom, and what passed for a kitchen. The Welsh countryside was beautiful. The place suited Peter.

Peter and Alicia married in 1991, taking a trip around the world as their honeymoon, and paying visits to Linus and Linus Jr. along the way. The next year, Alicia retired from her university job and sold her London flat, moving full-time into the house by the mill in Wales. But she continued to travel back and forth and remained academically active in her spare time. She also brought to the mill a number of cats that Peter considered “bloody awful things” on the grounds that they preyed on the local birds.

It is clear, however, that Alicia’s presence was supremely positive for Peter, both physically and psychologically. In a 1992 letter to his father, Peter admitted that, after years of struggle, he had finally found someone who would look after him. “I try not to complain, but just let things slide by,” he said of pastoral life with Alica, confiding that “it works quite well. She says she will be here more or less permanently by the end of September, but this may be a bit optimistic. It always has been.”

It was optimistic; but only just. Alicia returned permanently to the mill a month later than planned, and the pair lived out their lives there together among the old Roman roads, the green hills, the grey skies, and the deep winter snows.

Peter Pauling died on April 22, 2003. He was 72 years old.

Peter Pauling: A New Life in London, 1956-1969


Peter Pauling, speaking at his father’s sixtieth birthday party, Los Angeles, 1961.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 7 of 9]

Journeying on their honeymoon through the caves of northern Spain, Peter Pauling and his wife Julia arrived at a small fishing village and made camp. His beard full and his hair grown to nearly his shoulders, Peter sat on the beach, scouring pots. Meanwhile, Julia watched the water, contented by the meal that she had just prepared for her new husband. She had always loved the sea, saying as much in her letters to Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, her new parents-in-law.

Julia had been a bright student at Cambridge. An avid reader of French and German literature, she was once hailed as the year’s best student at Girton College and had received the highest marks possible in her first year examinations, an achievement that surely would have impressed Linus and Ava Helen. Given the circumstances of their marriage however, Peter and Julia had their work cut out for them in attempting to smoothing things over with both sides of the family. As she attempted to do so in her communications, Julia was especially complimentary of the Paulings’ new property at Big Sur. In particular, she swooned over the “heavenly” view of the Pacific Ocean, as observed from the coastal bluffs of California.

Upon their return to London, the pair moved into their new home in Clapham, which Peter described as “an ugly Victorian suburban house that ought to be quite pleasant.” Many things changed for Peter as he settled into his new life. With the help of his mother and younger brother Crellin, he shipped his Mercedes back to the United States where it would eventually be sold. He had likewise traded in his most recent automotive conquest, a Porsche, upon his and Julia’s return from their honeymoon. The proceeds from these sales and trades were used – with added financial help from Peter’s parents and his older brother Linus Jr. – to purchase a new home for the family at Lansdowne Road.

By July 1956, Peter and Julia were thinking of names for their baby, with Peter being “most uncooperative about this business,” according to his wife. In her letters to Ava Helen, Julia noted that every time she suggested a reasonable name, Peter demurred, offering alternative suggestions like “Gregorio” and “Plug-up,” the latter a character from what Julia considered a “pointless space-fiction strip cartoon.”

When finally the baby came on August 22, the pair had settled their differences. Peter Andrew Thomas Pauling, to be called Thomas, was born that summer, to be followed by a younger sister, born February 5, 1960. Again there seems to have been some measure of disagreement about a name, with Peter first announcing his daughter to his parents as “Esmiralda Ermitrude.”

That name didn’t stick, however, and within a month, Peter was writing to his mother and father that their new granddaughter, Sarah Suzanne, had begun to smile and sleep all night. It was one of many letters in which Peter expressed joy at being a father. Within five years, Peter would excitedly report that Sarah was reading bedtime stories to him, rather than the other way around. By this time, young Thomas was at the top of his class as well.

Peter and Julia enjoyed a great deal of support from friends and family during these early years. Typically, the couple would spend the Christmas holiday season with Julia’s parents in the north of England, while the Pauling family would usually visit at various points throughout the year. Occasionally, Peter’s sister Linda and her husband Barclay would see the young family, bringing their twin boys “Barkie” and “Sasha” in tow. Linus and Ava Helen often came through London while on European trips for conferences, bringing with them comfort items from the States as well as more important cargo, such as the polio vaccine.

Thomas and Dorothy Hodgkin stopped in regularly, as did the Cricks and the Bernals. Joy and J.D. Bernal gave Thomas his first toys and provided the cake for Sarah’s first birthday party. The Hodgkins offered Peter and Julia their old baby bath, and Francis and Odile Crick passed along some hand-me-down clothes. “So far,” Peter joked, “the entire cost of the baby has been one box of chocolates for the nurses.”

Even Jim Watson dropped in, meeting young Thomas, who loved to turn all the knobs on a sprawling electronic gramophone that Peter had pieced together from spare parts. The room was a hopeless mess, Watson noted, and surely the bane of Julia’s existence. On top of that, Thomas’ interventions generally scrambled the music until it was incomprehensible.

Buoyed by a little help from his friends, Peter’s career took a positive turn as well. Lawrence Bragg had agreed to take Peter on at the Royal Institution for three months, in order to allow him to finish his degree. When three months turned out to be not enough time, Bragg and John Kendrew conspired with their colleague Jack Dunitz to obtain for Peter a position as a research student, working under R.S. Nyholm at University College, London. Once there, Peter would be allowed to continue his education while simultaneously collaborating with Dunitz to complete his research.

The arrangement worked. Peter switched the focus of his dissertation from protein crystallography to inorganic molecules, using x-ray diffraction to verify configurations of a halide compound, NiCL4. Peter likewise worked with a number of other transition metals, performing stereochemical experiments to determine their atomic structures.

At the same time, Peter began working with his father to develop a theory of the molecular structure of water, a subject on which he had spoken at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1957. After the two Paulings developed their theory, which postulated a random dodecahedral structure for liquid water, Peter became quite prolific. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, he published just over thirty papers, including fourteen in 1966 alone.

He also became much more active in the field, flying often to the United States for meetings of the Crystallographic Association, as well as other conferences in locations from San Diego to Denver to Pittsburgh. Having completed his PhD in 1959, Peter was immediately offered a lectureship in Chemistry at University College. And though he continued to muse in his letters to Ava Helen that he really didn’t want to do chemistry forever, he quickly accepted the position.


Julia and Peter Pauling at the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

At long last, Peter seemed finally to be stepping out from his father’s shadow. And importantly, one sign of this transformation was his own realization that he was not, and could never be, the chemist that Linus Pauling was.

Instead, Peter began to focus his efforts on computers and other electronic systems valuable to the lines of chemical research that he had been pursuing. Among the rash of papers that he published in 1966 was “A Program for the Use of Large Computers for Crystallographic Problems,” which appeared in the British Journal for Applied Physics. Here, Peter was finally in his element, working at the forefront of a field that was swiftly changing, engineering devices by hand, and building complicated electronics systems such as a “one dimensional diffractometer” for x-ray crystallography – or what Peter called an “automatic gadget” – from plug-in logical blocks.

Peter took the first steps toward an important milestone in this new line of research, when he ordered a computer and electronic parts that he thought would be necessary to produce a copy of the state of the art diffractometer and visualization systems then in use at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the American research center founded in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. Funded by a Public Health Service grant, his system-in-progress deployed an ex-military scope equipped with a preamplifier, a Schmitt trigger, a monostable pulse generator (used to trigger the scope), and a Sherwood FM tuner that he had acquired from Linus Jr. The tuner in hand, Peter spent almost a year tracking down its circuit diagrams, so that he could most effectively cannibalize it in support of his cobbled together atomic measurement machine.

Once completed, not only did Peter’s device work, it worked marvelously. By May 1968, his computer and the program that ran it were making thousands of minute measurements per week. Indeed, the apparatus was used to determine the structure of five compounds in a ten-week period; a volume of calculations, as Peter pointed out, that was visually represented by four miles of punched paper tape that the computer had to read in producing the work. This huge success stood in stark contrast to Peter’s years at Cambridge, where he had struggled mightily to adequately determine the structure of a single compound.

With his machine, Peter Pauling was attempting to make University College technologically competitive with an institution that had received major support from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during the height of the Cold War. Astoundingly, he accomplished this goal using, to a large degree, spare parts. Later, Peter would use the measurements from his device to improve the Caltech method for drafting pseudo-perspective drawings of molecular structures, producing instead Third Angle Projection-style drawings of atoms and their bonds. As his successes mounted, he was promised a lab that would be four times larger, and was elected President of the Chemical and Physical Society of University College, London.

Behind the scenes, however, Peter was struggling to balance his career with his family life, and was plagued by personal demons. Ever since leaving Cambridge a decade earlier, his mother had been worried about his mental health, urging him to see a psychiatrist about his struggle with manic-depression. Over time, this view came to be shared by a growing number of friends and family. But burdened as he was by the competing forces of a new wife and children, the completion of his degree, and the press of research and professional obligations, there never seemed to be a good time.

At one point, Linus Pauling became so concerned for the welfare of his grandson, Thomas, that he offered to arrange for the boy to live in Pasadena for as long as might be necessary for Peter’s domestic situation to stabilize. Peter responded that he was far too busy writing his thesis and preparing lecture courses at University College to fly Thomas to New York. A few months later, he revealed that Julia was pregnant with their second child.

As time passed, the growing strain on Peter and Julia’s marriage became palpable to those who knew and loved them both, and by 1961 Peter had suffered a serious breakdown, confiding to his parents that he was finally and earnestly trying to see a psychiatrist, as his bouts with sadness had become “uncontrollable.” Peter’s lament seemed, at times, to mirror the dark geopolitical climate of the 1960s. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Peter wrote to his mother that he was “stricken” by the President’s death. The optimism of the Kennedy years had led him to think that “ordinary mortals” might “rest a little easier” under the vibrant president’s leadership. “Now,” Peter admitted, “I fear it is back to the struggle.”

But as the decade moved forward, Peter Pauling found that he had other struggles of his own to worry about. By 1967, he and his wife had agreed to a divorce. Peter subsequently moved into a flat in dodgy area of London – St. John’s – where he shared his new space with a painter. The flat was later robbed, and Peter lost most of his clothes and jewelry, as well as his radio, as loss that he lamented. (“I used it all the time,” he wrote, “to fill up the empty holes in my head when I am alone.”) Likewise stolen was a pot that his sister Linda had given him for Christmas. He wrote to her that he missed this item the most, as it meant more to him than anything else that was taken.

Linus Jr. came to London to visit his brother during this time, and ultimately left the scene both worried and relieved. The worry came from the fact that Peter, by his own admission, was drinking and smoking far too much. On the other hand, Linus Jr. felt a measure of relief that his brother had finally done what he thought was right for his children: leaving the family home at Lansdowne Road to Julia, Thomas, and Sarah.

Peter Pauling: Cambridge Struggles, 1954-1956


Julia and Peter Pauling, 1956.

[The life of Peter Pauling, Part 6 of 9]

The year 1954 was a tumultuous one for Peter Pauling. For one, Jim Watson had left for Caltech, and Peter lamented that his absence was felt, as he was “a positive force, albeit a bit conceited” when it came to social dynamics in the lab. At the same time, Peter’s sister Linda was preparing to move to Cambridge, where her father hoped that Peter might help her to find lab work assisting with crystal structure determinations. (Linda was quite interested in mathematics.) His sister’s imminent arrival excited in Peter visions of European exploration, and especially of skiing.

But while Peter dreamed, serious matters were afoot at the Cavendish Laboratory. Its director, Sir Lawrence Bragg, was planning to resign his Cambridge professorship to take a position as head of the Royal Institution in London. Meanwhile, the lab’s incoming director of physics, Nevill Mott, was widely known to be of the opinion that the unit’s increasing focus on biology needed to be redirected. John Kendrew was worried that the MRC unit that he and Max Perutz headed might be kicked out of the lab, or even the department, entirely.

This uncertainty both distracted Kendrew from Peter’s lack of progress on his myoglobin work, and, in retrospect, made Peter’s lack of enthusiasm for his topic all the more glaring. Indeed, while John Kendrew was worried about the future of their research, Peter was writing to his father that he was unconcerned about Mott’s approval. Rather, as was so often the case, Peter’s main preoccupation was his vehicle, this time a 1930 Mercedes Benz open touring car, described as “18 feet long and mostly engine,” that Peter was now cruising in for special occasions like the May Ball at Peterhouse. Peter’s older brother, Linus Jr., had forwarded him money to purchase the car, hoping that it would be affordable to rebuild the engine. When the cost of doing so turned out to double his investment in the vehicle, Linus Jr. thought it more expedient to simply let his younger brother have the car.

Linus Jr. and Peter formed a strong relationship during Peter’s years at Cambridge, a time period where Linus Jr. and his wife Anita made a habit of travelling around Europe during the summers. This closeness marked something of a renewal of the brothers’ relationship since they had seen little of one another during their more formative years, and as children had little in common. Now, cars in particular emerged as an area in which the two could share their exuberance. Linus Jr. reflected later that, on those trips abroad, he and his wife enjoyed Peter tagging along – his vitality, beaming smile, and friendly nature made him the life of any party.

But this was clearly only one side of Peter Pauling. Privately, he admitted to his mother that he often felt unsure of his path in life, and that he felt unable to meet the challenges of his PhD program. He often wondered whether or not he would be better off simply teaching chemistry, or helping to write his father’s textbooks. These bouts with gloom were contrasted by sudden and excited turns to sociability. Linus Jr. would later point out that their paternal grandmother – Linus Pauling’s mother, Belle – was possibly manic depressive, and was reported to have died in a mental hospital. This, he believed, was likely where Peter had inherited his own emotional instability, and it was during his stint in Cambridge that manic depressive symptoms started to manifest most clearly.



The Paulings in Stockholm, December 1954. Credit: Svenskt Pressfoto.

Linus Pauling’s frustration with Peter’s hoax “Francis Crick letter” had faded by the time that the entire family met in Stockholm for the 1954 Nobel Prize ceremonies. It was there that Pauling was to receive his highest honor to date, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, commemorating his work on the nature of the chemical bond. After a frustrating battle to receive government permission to leave the country – by then, Linus’ political activities were causing him problems with the Passport Office – the Pauling family flew to Copenhagen where they met Peter and Linda. By then, Linda had taken up residence in the basement room that her brother had just left at the “Golden Helix,” as the Crick home on Portugal Place was now known. Once arrived, she worked for a time as Francis and Odile Crick’s au pair.

Watson returned to the Cavendish in 1955 to find the MRC unit on the verge of being squeezed out by Nevill Mott. Finally registering this threat, Peter began to panic, writing to implore his father that he vocalize his positive impressions of the unit’s work and that he recommend that the group be allowed to continue their research there. At the same time, Peter applied for a post-doctoral fellowship grant from the National Science Foundation, hoping to solidify the standing of both himself and the group by bringing additional research money into the lab.

As it turned out, Peter’s maneuver worked: he received the grant, and this was no doubt a boon to his position at a crucial time. It did little to help him in his research, however. He continued to struggle with myoglobin and, increasingly, he placed his fading hopes squarely upon the idea that mercuric tetraiodide ion crystals might be a better candidate for the sorts of analysis that Kendrew and Perutz were beginning to doubt he could complete.

As the final year of Peter’s program dawned in fall 1955, the frequency of his drives about the grounds to impress the girls dropped to what Jim Watson considered a startlingly low level. Perhaps realizing the “do or die” position that he was in with respect to his research, Peter seemed to be redoubling his focus on finishing his degree.

During this same period, Peter had begun seeing a young woman by the name of Julia, who was a student at a nearby all-women’s school. Jim Watson, curious about the situation, queried several girls that he knew from the school, but most were silent, and Julia herself became conspicuously absent as the New Year drew closer.

Meanwhile, Peter’s father had been working to prepare his son for life after Cambridge, offering him an appointment in the Caltech Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering as a Research Fellow focusing on the crystalline structure of globular proteins, to be determined through the use of x-ray diffraction. Pauling wrote to his son

We have a real need here for someone who has had the sort of experience in taking x-ray photographs of crystals that you have obtained. I think our effort to determine the complete structure of a crystalline globular protein is going to be successful, and that you might like to be associated with the successful effort.

Peter did not respond immediately, taking about a week to think about the proposal. It may well be that he was simply overwhelmed by both the work to be done and the festivities to be had during his final months at Cambridge. Plus, it seemed that the job his father had offered likely would be waiting for him as soon as he had finished his program in England.

Few had seen much of Peter in the run-up to Jim Watson and Linda Pauling’s practical joke of a dinner party. In response to a rumor that Watson and Linda were seeing one another, the two decided in good fun to host a get-together, thus driving speculation into a frenzy by implying an impending announcement that, in fact, was never to come. Peter was invited and did show up, but much to the surprise of the hosts, he was not his usual grinning, charming self. Instead, he seemed sentimental and full of a solemn interest in the future of his friends at Cambridge. Watson and Linda later realized that, on this particular evening, Peter was wrestling with a weighty issue: he was soon to become a father.


The Pauling family on Christmas Day, 1956. Peter and Julia sit at right.

A letter sent by Peter’s parents in early 1956 concluded with an expression of excitement: Linus and Ava Helen would be visiting soon and would look on with pride as they witnessed their son receiving his Cambridge Ph.D. In his response, Peter explained that this day, sadly, would never come. Though he felt that she was a “clever, delicate, and lovely girl,” Peter had not made Julia an “honest woman,” and for this he would be sent down from Cambridge and not be allowed to take a degree. Accordingly, this also meant that he would not qualify for the position that his father had offered him at Caltech.

When he learned of his situation, John Kendrew suggested that Peter might be able to transfer both the remainder of his fellowship with the National Science Foundation, and also the completion of his doctoral research, to the Royal Institution in London, where Sir Lawrence Bragg – his old program director at the Cavendish – was now director of the Davy-Faraday research lab. By then, however, Peter had decided to marry the mother of his child, and arrangements were quickly made by Linda Pauling for a quiet civil wedding that was out of the spotlight and not attended by Linus or Ava Helen.

Peter and Julia were married on March 13, 1956 at the Cambridge Register Office on Castle Hill. Peter’s bride was given away by her father, and with no family members other than Linda present, Peter’s sister acted as the sole adjudicator of the Pauling family’s approval of the union. Peter’s Cambridge advisor, John Kendrew, stood with him as his best man. Following the wedding, a reception was held at Kendrew’s home at Tennis Court Road, after which Peter put on his trademark grin and, with Julia, vanished in a new Porsche. Before the year was out, Linda Pauling, struggling financially and burdened by an expired work visa, returned to Pasadena.

Between 1957 and 1959, Kendrew and Perutz successfully modelled the molecular structure of myoglobin that Peter had been working on. In this, the Cavendish once more beat Caltech to the punch, as the position that Linus had offered to Peter was meant to contribute to a similar problem. Myoglobin was the first ever protein to have its atomic structure determined, and Kendrew and Perutz shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this achievement in 1962.

Peter Pauling at Cambridge, 1953-1954


Peter Pauling, 1954.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 5 of 9]

In the first months of 1953, with his office mates scrambling to determine the molecular structure of DNA before his own father could beat them to it, Peter Pauling was mostly concerned with the English weather. He had been at Cambridge University since the fall of 1952 when he began his PhD program in physics at the university’s Cavendish Laboratory, and in that time he judged that he had seen a mere two full days of sun and was now officially fed up.

His father, by contrast, was mostly concerned with finishing his most recent edition of The Nature of the Chemical Bond, for which he had often solicited Peter as a source to provide example problems and solutions prior to his departure for England. As he was now beginning his graduate research, however, Peter was too busy to provide much assistance for this edition.

Instead, he was mostly occupying himself with a muscle camera developed by Hugh E. Huxley, a molecular biologist studying the physiology of muscle with Max Perutz’ Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit of Molecular Biology at Cambridge. Taking pictures of fibrous and globular proteins – beginning with insulin and tropomyosin – Peter applied the Cochran-Crick theory, with the goal of determining the helical structure of these protein molecules. This inquiry was, in principle, made possible by Linus Pauling’s work from less than a decade prior.

Since 1947, when the MRC unit was founded by Sir Lawrence Bragg, John Kendrew and Max Perutz had endeavored to use x-ray crystallography to determine the molecular structure of hemoglobin in sheep. By the time that Peter arrived at Cambridge, however, hemoglobin had proven to be an untenable object of study, and Kendrew’s focus had shifted to myoglobin. Whereas hemoglobin is found mostly in the blood, myoglobin is generally found only in muscle tissue. Both are proteins that carry oxygen to cells. Problematically, myoglobin is one fourth the size of hemoglobin, and too small for the era’s techniques of x-ray analysis.

To solve this issue, sperm whale myoglobin was used in hopes that the molecular details of the larger, oxygen-rich proteins of a diving mammal would be more observable with the tools then available. “Stranded whales are the property of the Queen,” Peter explained to his father as he discussed this work, “but we have an agreement with her to get a piece of meat if one comes ashore.” Nonetheless, though availed of samples from beached whales in the United Kingdom and from countries as far afield as Peru, Kendrew could not render the x-ray diffraction patterns with complete certainty.



Sperm whale myoglobin image created by John Kendrew.

In 1953, Perutz realized that by comparing the diffraction patterns of natural whale myoglobin crystals to crystals soaked in heavy metal solutions – a procedure called multiple isomorphous replacement – the positions of the atoms in myoglobin could be more accurately determined. Accordingly, Peter was tasked with making countless measurements in support of this effort.

Peter wrote to his father often over the next two years as he struggled to complete this project, which was the focus of his PhD. In particular, Peter asked for advice on how one might best get heavy metal atoms onto myoglobin, detailing his attempts to use everything from saltwater to telluric acid, which was used to produce salts rich in metallic contents, such as the element Tellurium.

Indeed, Peter’s work proceeded slowly, not least of all because of his knack for keeping things entertaining. Shortly after Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA, for example, he fabricated a letter of invitation from his father, Linus Pauling, to Francis Crick, requesting Crick’s presence at an upcoming conference on proteins at Caltech. “Professor Corey and I want you to speak as much as possible during the meeting,” the impostor Pauling said to Crick in the fake letter, even urging him to consider lecturing at Caltech as a visiting professor. Linus Pauling had appeared to sign the letter himself, his signature skillfully forged. The letter proved so convincing that Crick actually replied, accepting the invitation to speak at the conference.

Before long, it became apparent that the entire communication was, in fact, a practical joke. Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick himself worked, was scheduled to speak at the proteins conference in the same time slot that the fake letter had proposed for Crick. Were it not for this, the deception might have gone even farther, since upon seeing his son’s forgery Linus himself was almost convinced that he had written the letter and had simply forgotten about it amidst the relentless pace of his schedule.

Ever a stickler for the details, however, Pauling noticed a grammatical error in the document that he would never have made. From there, he deduced the letter as having been authored by his mischievous son. For this transgression, Linus subtracted a five-pound fine from the $125.00 check that he sent to Peter each month.

Peter Pauling and the Discovery of the Double Helix, 1952-1953


Peter Pauling, 1954.

[The life of Peter Pauling: Part 4 of 9]

With Winter break coming fast and Linus Pauling having apparently solved the structure of DNA, Jim Watson and Francis Crick extinguished any hope of modeling their own structure. Eager to take advantage of a few days off, their Cavendish office mate, Peter Pauling, headed for the continent in the company of a friend whom he described as “a mad Rhodes scholar” who had “wooed” him with his “insane plan” for exploring Europe.

On this trip, which was indeed ambitious, Peter visited Munich, Vienna, Linz, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Bavaria, hitchhiking his way from location to location. Crossing Germany, Peter saw neighborhoods still littered with the rubble of the Second World War, alongside industrious people struggling to rebuild. His mode of travel, he confessed to his mother in a letter, had seemed a better idea when its low cost was his only consideration. In person, however, spending several hours standing in or walking through the snow had a way of changing one’s priorities.

Nonetheless, the whole escapade proved a romantic adventure for the young Peter Pauling. He spent Christmas Eve in a gas house belonging to the director of an iron company somewhere in Leoben, Austria. Resting there and watching the snow fall, he wrote again to his mother:

I look out the window to the lovely white mountains. It is grand. Considering the possibilities, Christmas and your birthday [Ava Helen was born on December 24, 1903] could hardly have been spent in a nicer place. Considering impossibilities, I can think of places where I would much prefer to be. Sometimes it is sad to grow up.


[Triple Helix animation and narration created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory]

With the arrival of the new year, the Cavendish researchers put their skis away, shook the snow from their coats, and resumed their work.  It wasn’t long into the term before Peter learned, from two letters received in February, that his father was, in fact, having difficulty with some of the van der Waals distances hypothesized to be near the center of his DNA model. In response – and almost as an afterthought – Peter casually asked his father for a manuscript of the DNA proposal, mentioning that his coworkers in Max Perutz’ unit would like to give it a read. Upon receiving the paper, Peter promptly revealed to Watson and Crick that the Pauling-Corey model was a triple helix, a concept similar to one that Watson and Crick had developed themselves – and rejected – back in 1951.

This moment was a major turning point for Watson and Crick, who only then realized that they still had a chance to discover the structure before Linus Pauling. That said, what followed may not have been quite the race as it was made out to be after the fact. At least, Peter Pauling did not see it that way, and the casual manner in which his father interacted with him (and with others at the Cavendish) seems also to belie such a dramatization.


[Jim Watson recalls learning of the Pauling-Corey triple helical model. Video created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.]

Near the end of February 1953, while wishing his father a happy birthday, Peter noted that his office still felt that Linus’ structure required sodium to be located somewhere near the oxygens, whose negative charges would have to cancel out to hold the molecule together. “We agree that everything is a little tight,” he said, referring to the small atomic distances between Pauling’s three polynucleotide chains with phosphate groups in the middle.

As communicated in an earlier letter to his son, Linus Pauling had already identified these structural arrangements as a weakness of the model, and he was in the midst of attempting to correct the issue. Peter confided to his father that, at that time, the Cambridge office had nothing better to offer. He added simply that “We were all excited about the nucleic acid structure,” and concluded with his many thanks for the paper.

In response, Linus Pauling asked for updates on any progress that Watson and Crick were making with their own model, and casually requested that Peter also remind Watson that he should arrive for a scheduled protein conference at Caltech by September 20th. Peter clarified only that the Cavendish group had successfully built the Pauling-Corey model and that Watson and Crick had then discarded it, becoming very involved in their own efforts and “losing objectivity.” It would be up to them, Peter said, to communicate the details of their structure. Shortly thereafter, Watson and Crick sent a letter to Linus Pauling, outlining their structure and including the short article that they had submitted for publication in Nature.


Crystallographic photo of Sodium Thymonucleate, Type B. “Photo 51.” Taken by Rosalind Franklin, May 1952.

It has been well-established that Pauling and Corey made basic errors in their own modeling  of the structure of DNA. But in March 1953, having no knowledge of the x-ray crystallographic photographs of DNA that had been taken by Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, Pauling felt bewildered by the certainty with which Watson and Crick had rejected his triple helical model. Upon learning its details, Pauling agreed that the double helix model was at least as likely, and he considered it to be a beautiful molecular structure, but he could not understand why his own structure was being ruled out entirely.

At the heart of his confusion lay the fact that he did not believe that any x-ray evidence existed that proved that the phosphate groups might somehow be located on the outside, rather than in the core, of the DNA molecule. Pauling did not believe that this evidence existed because he hadn’t seen it yet; crucially, Watson and Crick had. Indeed, from the point of their realization that Pauling had modeled the structure incorrectly, Watson and Crick worked fervently to once again convince Maurice Wilkins to provide them with Rosalind Franklin’s data.

(On one occasion, they met with Wilkins for lunch at the Crick home, where Peter could often be found for brunch on the weekends. On certain of these earlier brunch occasions, while in the home’s basement dining room, Watson and Crick discussed the feasibility of redoubling their efforts to model DNA while Peter, casually eating biscuits and sipping tea at the table, offered that if they didn’t do it soon, his father would take another shot at it. After the embarrassment of a failed attempt, he assured them, Linus Pauling was a strong bet to get it right the second time around.)

Within a month’s time, and with Rosalind Franklin having left his lab, Wilkins finally consented to providing Watson and Crick with all of the relevant data that he had requested. This proved to be the final piece that the duo needed in building their correct structural model of DNA.


Pauling en route to Europe, 1953.

While all of this went on, Linus himself was seemingly unconcerned by any “race” for the structure of DNA. In fact, the only racing on his mind was a jaunt across Western Europe in a new sports car.

While Watson and Crick frantically worked to unravel the secrets of DNA before Linus Pauling beat them to it, Linus Pauling himself was debating the virtues of British, German, and Italian motor vehicles. Preparing for multiple trips overseas and in the market for some new wheels, Pauling’s plan was to select a car while in Europe during the Spring for the Solvay Conference, and then to actually pick it up in August, when he and Ava Helen would return to Europe for the International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry in Stockholm and Uppsala. The couple would then tour the continent in style before returning to the United States on a Scandinavian freighter and driving across the country from either New York or New Orleans to their California home.

While Peter advised his father that a Jaguar Mark VII was absolutely the best buy of the season, Linus expressed a preference for the slightly more modest convertible Sunbeam-Talbot. Peter countered with the possibility of an Austin A-40 Sports 4-Seater, and Linus finally agreed to have Peter look into purchasing the car on his behalf and scheduling a delivery of sorts. Seeing that his father was finally taking the bait, Peter attempted to spring a trap: “Might you be in need of a chauffeur, mechanic, linguist, travelling companion, navigator, break repairer, tire changer, witty conversationalist etc. on your trip next summer?” he wondered. “I know just the fellow. Good friend of mine.”



A segment of the original Watson and Crick DNA model. 1953.

As the end of March rolled around and the Solvay Conference approached, Linus Pauling alerted his son to the fact that he had not made hotel reservations or, really, any plans for his visit to Cambridge. This responsibility he delegated wholly to Peter, who was somewhat distracted at the time, writing to his father about the blue sky and sun that had finally begun to break up the English winter gloom, and announcing with pride that he had gone to two balls in one week, getting along quite well with the Scandinavian girls. “As a sensible young American, I stand out in this town of pansy Englishmen,” he declared with impunity.

When Linus finally arrived at Cambridge in April, however, he found his son’s sensibilities to be somewhat lacking. Peter had in fact not made the requested hotel reservations, and while campus accommodations were fine for the son, they were not so wonderful for the elder Pauling. Watson later joked that, “the presence of foreign girls at breakfast did not compensate for the lack of hot water in his room.”

When the moment of truth finally came, Peter and his father strode into the Cavendish offices to see the model that Watson and Crick had constructed. Upon inspection, Linus reiterated the interpretation that he had given to his son earlier: the structure was certainly possible, but to be certain, Pauling would first need to see the quantitative measurements that Wilkins had provided. By way of response, Watson and Crick produced “Photo 51,” Rosalind Franklin’s now-famous image that enabled crucial measurements concerning the structure of the B-form of DNA.

Presented with this evidence, Linus Pauling quickly conceded that Watson and Crick had solved the problem. Later that night, the Paulings, together with Watson, had dinner with the Cricks at their home at Portugal Place to celebrate. To quote Watson, each “drank their share of burgundy.”


So was it a race? And if so, what was Peter Pauling’s role? Was he a double agent or an informant? Or merely an unwitting accomplice, ignorant of the full implications of his actions?

In trying to answer these questions, it is important to emphasize that, for Peter, the “race for DNA” had never been a race at all. His father, he believed, was only interested in the nucleic acids as an interesting chemical compound. Linus Pauling clearly didn’t attack the structure with the same tenacity as Watson, in particular, who regarded the genetic material as the holy grail of biology, the secret of life. As Peter would write two decades later in New Scientist 

The only person who could conceivably have been racing was Jim Watson. Maurice Wilkins has never raced anyone anywhere. Francis Crick likes to pitch his brains against difficult problems… For Jim, however…the gene was the only thing in life worth bothering about and the structure of DNA was the only real problem worth solving.

In 1966, Jim Watson, then in the process of writing his book on the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix, sent Peter Pauling an early draft. His concern, he explained, was that he accurately portray Peter’s role in the entire affair; that, and he didn’t want Peter to sue him for defamation.

Peter laughed and told his old office mate that he thought it was a very good book; certainly very exciting. However, he pointed out that Watson should ask Linus Pauling for an agreement not to sue him, too. After all, Peter said, “He has more experience than I do.”