Denham Harman, 1916-2014

Denham Harman

Denham Harman

Today we remember Dr. Denham Harman, a colleague and friend of Linus Pauling who passed away last November at the age of 98.  Harman and Pauling explored the influence of chemistry on the human body at a time when the link between chemistry and medicine was just beginning to be considered scientifically.

Harman and Pauling first met at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1930s, where Harman was conducting his undergraduate work and Pauling was serving as a guest lecturer.  Harman wound up completing a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley in 1943, during which time he was also employed at Shell Oil Company where he conducting chemical research. The Shell years would take on a special importance as, in Harman’s recollection, many of them “were devoted almost entirely to free radical chemistry; largely of oxygen and of compounds of phospherous and sulfur.”

In 1949 Harman left Shell Oil for Stanford University, where he earned an M.D. in 1954.  Following internships and residencies in the Bay Area, Harman accepted a position at the College of Medicine at the University of Nebraska, remaining there for the entirety of his career.

In 1954 Harman published “The Free Radical Theory of Aging,” an article in which he suggested that, over time, the chemical reactions that constantly take place in the human body produce unstable byproducts – free radicals – which in turn interfere with the body’s normative functions and result in aging and age-related conditions, like dementia.  The idea emerged during a spell as research associate at UC-Berkeley’s Donner Laboratory of Medical Physics. As Harman recalled

To me Donner was unique; my time was my own except for Wednesday mornings in the Hematology Clinic.  I took advantage of this free time to pursue a long-time interest in the library; the possibility that aging might have a single basic cause.  My wife first called this subject to my attention.  In December 1945 she showed me an article in the current issue of the Ladies Home Journal entitled, “Tomorrow you may be younger.” This article by William Lawrence, science editor of the New York Times, was concerned with the work of Dr. Alexander Bogomolets of Kiev.  An English translation of Dr. Bogomolet’s book, The Prolongation of Life, was published in 1947. […]

The first four months at Donner was a period of progressively increasing frustration. I began to wonder if I was chasing a will-o-the-wisp; maybe there was no single cause of aging, and if there was, maybe it could not be perceived because of incomplete biological knowledge. The frustration ended one morning during the first part of November. While reading in my office it suddenly occurred to me that free radical reactions, however initiated, were responsible for the progressive deterioration of biological systems with time.

Harman’s theory was based on the potential impact of unstable chemical byproducts, or free radicals, as they built up in the body. In chemistry a compound is considered a free radical if it is formed by the loss of an electron. Previous studies had shown that free radicals stimulate the decomposition of organic matter by reacting with surrounding compounds. It had also been found that different substances called antioxidants act as agents that prevent free radicals from reacting with other compounds, thus slowing the process of decay.

Harman’s work applied this basic knowledge to the human body. His conclusion was that aging could be defined as a deviance from the body’s chemical norm, and he compared aging to a disease. The free radical theory of aging also ramped up attention to the role of antioxidants in the body. Harman’s theory proposed that reactive oxygen species were among the most harmful and that antioxidants could, to a certain extent, ameliorate the aging process, a concept which to this day drives an industry based on antioxidant supplements.

Linus Pauling first heard of Harman’s theory in 1956 and quickly became a supporter. Harman and Pauling’s work had individually led each of them to similar conclusions; namely, that health depends on having a proper chemical balance in the body, a concept that fell under Pauling’s terminology of “orthomolecular medicine.”

In 1979 Pauling entered into the conversation about free radicals in the human body by discussing the implications of the existence of the newly discovered superoxide, a free radical that is formed during metabolism as a byproduct of oxygen reduction. In his paper “The discovery of the superoxide radical,” Pauling noted how the existence of this toxic free radical was predicted by quantum mechanics but had remained undiscovered until 1979. The existence and toxicity of this naturally occurring chemical byproduct was seen by Pauling as being in support of Harman’s theory.

It is now known that reactive-oxidant chemicals, like superoxide, can in fact be harmful to an organism and contribute to aging. But no specific set of chemicals is entirely responsible for the processes that occur when the body begins to age.  Harman’s idea, in effect, was too blunt.

Regardless, Pauling remained impressed by the work.  In a 1989 award nomination letter, he wrote

I became interested in the general question of aging and death about 35 years ago. Before long I learned about Dr. Harman’s free radical theory of aging, and I have continued to be interested in it. As the years have gone by, much information has been gathered about the importance of free-radical mechanisms in biochemistry, including the process of aging and the cross-linking of protein molecules. I consider that Denham Harman made a very important contribution to our understanding of aging, through his formulation of the theory.

Indeed, while Harman’s theory was unable to help “cure” aging, as he had hoped, his research into the role of free radicals in metabolic processes has inspired new ideas on how to deal with other age-related health concerns, such as cancer and age-related memory loss. While current research has suggested that aging is more complex than was proposed by Harman, the free radical theory is to this day taken into consideration by researchers in many fields.

Now Accepting Applications for 2015 Resident Scholars

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its eighth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center. Stipends of $2,500 per month renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500) will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2015.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. Many past Resident Scholars have engaged primarily with the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

A Christmas Memory

Linus Pauling, Jr.'s first Christmas, 1925.

Linus Pauling, Jr.’s first Christmas, 1925.

[Recollections on Christmas in the Pauling household, as compiled from an oral history interview with Linus Pauling, Jr., June 2012.]

[As an undergraduate] at Pomona…I was serving dinners to some of my classmates, these big trays loaded with plates. They were prepared in the kitchen and carried out and distributed around. So I was pretty good at that.

Anyway, in the dining hall – which was the famous Frary Dining Hall at Pomona which has a huge Roscoe painting of Prometheus which is famous in art circles – the dining room brought in a beautiful Christmas tree about twenty feet high with delicate pine cones on the branches.

A few days before Christmas, the college emptied out of course, everybody went home. Since I was a member of the dining room staff, I said ‘what’s going to happen to the tree?’ ‘We’re gonna throw it out into the dumpster.’ So I said, ‘Can I have it?’ ‘Sure.’

So my ’32 Ford Roadster had a windshield that would fold down flat against the hood. I drove up to the dining room, got the tree, laid it out across the car – and you know it was longer than the car was – and beside me in the passenger side with the windshield down, drove back to Pasadena with this tree on my car and set it up in the living room in the Fairpoint Street house.

The living room there had ceilings that were about twelve feet high which was pretty good, but not quite good enough for this tree. I had to chop off some of the top and some of the bottom to get it to fit, but it was probably the most magnificent tree they ever had in there.

The traditional Christmas was that, when I was a kid, the household would go on absolutely normally through Christmas Eve with no sign of any particular holiday spirit. Then somehow, on Christmas morning, I’d wake up and here was the tree fully decorated with the lights and presents and so on. I wondered how this happened. Finally, when I was six or seven, I got old enough to realize that somebody had done all this and then I became party to the adventure.

It turned out that on Christmas Eve, my father would go out late in the evening. By then, all of the itinerant Christmas tree salesmen had left, leaving their leftover trees in the lot to be thrown out. So we’d roam around Pasadena looking at all of these trees in these now-deserted lots and find one we liked, take it, put it on the car, and drive home.

Then there’d be frantic activity through the night to put on the lights and the decorations, the ornaments, and bring out the presents for the younger siblings to wake up and be amazed at. So the same thing, I presume, happened to them to the right level.

All that came to a halt finally, probably with Crellin being old enough. That was really exciting and one of the fun parts of Christmas. I never followed that with my own children. Christmas got going early and they were exposed to it for a longer time.

The tree stayed up until after New Years. It was too nice, too beautiful, to think about taking down right away.

Christmas morning, 1980.

Christmas morning, 1980.

This is our last post for 2014 – see you in January!

Mervyn Stephenson: Builder of Bridges

Mervyn Stephenson, ca. 1920s.

Mervyn Stephenson, ca. 1920s.

[Part 2 of our examination of the life of Mervyn Stephenson, Linus Pauling’s cousin.]

Having completed his schooling in 1919, Mervyn Stephenson was quickly hired by Conde B. McCullough, a former college professor known today as Oregon’s most famous bridge engineer. Excited to begin his career, Stephenson moved to southern Oregon shortly after graduation to work as a civil engineer for the Bridge Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation. The first project that he worked on was in Douglas County, but the project was shut down so he returned to Salem to delve into bridge design. Mervyn worked hard, but he still found time for fun and was especially keen on dancing: he attended dance halls on the weekends and saved several of his dance cards to prove it.

At work, Mervyn wasn’t stuck behind a desk for long. One of his first major projects was the building of a concrete arch bridge over Hog Canyon in 1920. In 1921 he worked on the Crooked River Bridge in Prineville, as well as the dam for the Prineville Reservoir, and the Bear Creek Bridge. A year later he assisted with repairing the John Day Highway. It was here that he helped to rehabilitate a stone building that had been the headquarters of a Chinese doctor, Kam Wah Chung, a structure that was transformed into a museum many years later.

The Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum, Grant County, Oregon.

The Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum, Grant County, Oregon.

As time passed and his skills became more widely known, Mervyn was offered a job in highway construction in Cuba, but he turned it down, preferring to stay close to home. The Federal Bureau of Public Roads also offered him a job in 1933, but he did not accept, choosing to stay with Conde McCullough instead. In the years that followed, he was a member of the teams that designed and built several of the iconic structures now closely associated with McCullough. These included the Coos Bay Bridge, Rogue River Bridge, Siuslaw River Bridge, Yaquina Bay Bridge, John Day Bridge and other coastal bridges.  In an interview published in the January 17, 1934 Marshfield/Coos Bay Times, titled “Bridge Program Hailed as Major Step in Progress,” Stephenson lent insight into what it was like to work for the famed engineer.

We used to have a lot of fun. [McCullough would] come to look at what you were doing. [He’d] look over your desk and see what you were designing and he’d always reach over and get your pencil and start scribbling, stick [the pencil] in his pocket and walk off. So after we got to know him better, as he’d start to move, we’d reach over and grab [the pencil] out of his pocket, never said anything, just reach over and grab it out of his pocket.

Conde McCullough, ca. 1920s.

Conde McCullough, ca. 1920s.


The Second World War was a source of new opportunities for Stephenson. In 1945 the U.S. Army contacted him asking him to do some highly secretive work overseas in support of the war effort. Stephenson traveled to Washington D.C. for a briefing and then was flown to the Hickam Field base near Honolulu. As Stephenson soon learned, the Army had sought out and gathered civilian scientists and engineers to help plan the U.S. invasion of Japan, and Stephenson was one of the experts called in to assist. As such, he was instated as a colonel and assigned a high pay grade because of his specialized skill set.

While at Hickam Field, Mervyn studied maps and aerial photos, analyzing the roads and bridges that might be encountered in the planned invasion. He also helped to estimate the amount of raw material needed to build bridges and highways as U.S. forces moved across Japan. This work never came to fruition, due to the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.

Still of use to the Army, Stephenson was transferred to a unit working on the Philippines Highway Planning Mission and charged with rehabilitating the country’s highway system. For a while he moved with his unit through Japan and the Philippines, inspecting tunnels and bridges. Once this mission was completed, he returned to civilian life as an Assistant Bridge Engineer with the Oregon State Highway Department.


P.M. Stephenson and Linus Pauling at a Darling family reunion, 1983.

P.M. Stephenson and Linus Pauling at a Darling family reunion, 1983.

From 1955 to 1957, Stephenson was the Oregon State Bridge Engineer. Most of the bridge projects that he oversaw, including Winchester Bridge and the Fords Bridge, resided on I-5, the west coast’s main interstate highway. Probably the most important project that Stephenson supervised was the design and construction preparation for significant upgrades to the Columbia River Interstate Bridge, linking Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington.  He retired from employment with the Oregon State Highway Department in 1957, but was soon appointed, by the governor, to the State Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

After his retirement, Stephenson and his wife traveled extensively, their favorite destination being Mexico, which they visited several times during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972 Linus Pauling sent his cousin a letter, asking about the arrowhead collection that Mervyn had inherited from their grandfather Darling. He also took the opportunity to provide Stephenson with an update on his life and burgeoning interest in Vitamin C, and asked that Mervyn and his wife visit him and Ava Helen in California on their next trip to Mexico. This letter is the final record of written contact between Pauling and Stephenson, though we know from photographs that the two saw one another at least one more time, at a Darling family reunion held not long before Mervyn died.

Philip Mervyn Stephenson passed away in Salem, Oregon in 1983. His undated autobiographical manuscript ends with various accounts of his travels in retirement. The piece makes little mention of Linus Pauling, save for the memories that the two shared in their childhood and college years.  Though we can’t know for sure, it is likely that the two young boys who held much in common as they hunted for small critters, searched for arrowheads and caused mischief in their fathers’ stores, gradually grew in separate directions as they pursued their passions and careers with tenacity.

Cousin Merv

Mervyn Stephenson with his three sisters, Condon, Oregon, ca. early 1900s.

Mervyn Stephenson with his three sisters, Condon, Oregon, ca. early 1900s.

[Ed. Note: The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is, of course, home to the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, a collection of some 4,400 linear feet held in 2,230 archival boxes.  Also included among the 1,100 collections held in SCARC is the Mervyn Stephenson Collection, which consists of eight file folders. Stephenson was Linus Pauling’s older cousin and was an important early influence in Pauling’s life. We spend a lot of time sifting through the Pauling Papers as we prepare these posts, but we thought it might be fun to engage with MSS Stephenson for a short while and learn a bit more about a man who, in some respects, served as a kind of surrogate big brother for Linus Pauling.]

Part 1 of 2

If he’s lucky, every young boy has his partner when he plays ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ or when he roams the streets getting into mischief. For Linus Pauling, his cohort in crime was his older cousin, Philip Mervyn Stephenson, also referred to as Merv but who also liked to be called Steve. He was born on March 23, 1898 in Condon, Oregon to a Condon native, Goldie Victoria Darling Stephenson, who married an English immigrant, Philip Herbert Stephenson.

Mervyn was about three years older than Linus, but when they were young school boys, the gap made no difference. The Paulings lived in Condon, off and on, until they moved to Portland for good when Linus was eight years old, and it was in Condon that Pauling and Stephenson spent the most time together. As they wandered the town together and explored its hills and gullies, they hunted rabbits, swam in streams, collected arrowheads and, in the winter, took sleigh rides. In later years, Pauling also recalled watching with his cousin as the area’s wheat was being harvested and bringing water to the farmhands.

Sometimes Mervyn’s father asked him to mind the store that he owned. Stephenson and Pauling looked forward to these occasions because these were times where they could sneak sweet treats and other good things to eat. Being left alone to watch the store also led to a few hilarious run-ins. One day the chewing tobacco was left out. The boys decided to try a small piece, probably swallowed a bit, and both got sick. Needless to say, neither of the boys’ fathers were pleased.

Another time, Pauling was asked by his father to watch the family pharmacy. Stephenson, of course, joined and the two decided to try the port wine—it was used for several prescriptions that Herman Pauling wrote. The boys tried a bit of wine, soon became drowsy, and fell asleep in the back of the store. The two got in trouble, once again, and that was the last of their major stunts. By 1909, after the Paulings moved to Portland, time spent with Mervyn never held the same childhood aura or imagination.


Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

The Stephensons bought a family car in 1912 and, at the age of 14, young Mervyn immediately learned to drive. People in town called him a fast driver, and his father had only to call the local store or neighbor to see where his son had gone, because Stephenson would have most likely zipped by in the new car. Stephenson would also frequently hike down a nearby canyon with other kids from Condon and was a big fan of the regional county fairs. He was an adventurous young man and went on numerous excursions, including following local legends in search of a secret lake in the woods.

As he grew up, Mervyn’s parents thought him to be too thin and “understrength” for his own good. To combat this, they would send him, sometimes for a month at a time, to Charles and Nell Underwood’s house, where they would feed him well and work him hard in hopes that he might gain weight and muscle. It was here that Stephenson collected many arrowheads for his collection.

Mervyn was also becoming an upstanding citizen. He was, for one, the lead organizer of the athletic boys club of Condon until he left for college. More importantly, in 1912, (the same year that the family bought their car) he was marked as a town hero for being the first on the scene of a fire in a hotel. Mervyn had heard the siren in the middle of the night, rushed over to the fire station, and then hurried to the hotel to help. The town awarded him with a prize of one dollar for acting promptly and courageously.

Around the time of Mervyn’s graduation from Condon High School in 1915, Professor Gordon Skelton of Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) came to town to recruit students. He met Stephenson and they talked about what he might want to study should he attend OAC. After their conversation, Skelton had convinced Stephenson to give Corvallis a try and to major to civil engineering. Mervyn visited the Paulings on his way to OAC, and he talked with young Linus, at the time fourteen years old, about his plans to study highway engineering. The two also discussed other programs available at OAC and from this conversation Pauling learned that the college offered chemical engineering, which he believed to be the profession that chemists pursued.


Mervyn Stephenson (far right) with OAC classmates, 1917.

Mervyn Stephenson (far right) with OAC classmates, 1917.

Mervyn worked very hard as a freshman. Room and board ran to about twenty dollars a month, and he found a campus job that paid twenty cents an hour. He made it through his first year working full time with a full class schedule. During summer break, he was hired by the county to work on road construction, and that helped to make ends meet.

Stephenson concentrated on his ROTC training during in his second year at OAC; he moved up as a cadet captain and continued to progress forward. This year was also exceptionally tough because, midway through, his parents were divorced. His sister and mother then moved to Portland. That summer he worked on his first bridge, and as the break came to a close he was offered a job to continue to work on bridges. In order to take the job he would have to take a year off college. He would be paid a fair sum, but following the advice of his father, he decided to finish school and then pursue a career.

The United States was in the middle of World War I through Stephenson’s third year at college. As such, Stephenson transferred from the ROTC to the SATC (Students Army Training Corps) to receive training for combat, if needed. This same year, Linus Pauling, though only sixteen years old, began his studies at OAC. The only reason why Pauling’s mother, Belle, allowed him to go to college at such a young age was because she knew that Mervyn would be there for him.

Little did she know that no college junior wanted to spend his time watching over a sixteen-year-old freshman. According to Pauling’s recollection, soon after Belle left to return to Portland, Stephenson gave Pauling some advice about being in college, and then left him to fend for himself in the boarding house where they were supposed to be living together. Pauling did not stay past the first year in the boarding house, due to the cost of rent, and he did not see much of his cousin while in college.

In Stephenson’s handwritten memoir, titled P.M. Stephenson’s Life Stories, he recalled living with Pauling the entire first year and never mentions leaving Pauling behind. On the contrary, the manuscript focuses mostly on Pauling’s brilliance, describing a young man who would finish assignments quickly and then immediately find something more to teach himself. We learn from the memoir that one of the scholarly hobbies that Pauling picked up as an undergrad was teaching himself Greek. Stephenson was impressed, but being a more veteran college student, he spent ample time studying and his free moments socializing. Perhaps it was these diverging interests that led the two cousins to spend so little time together.


Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

The two young men were very much together in the summer of 1918 when they left for San Francisco for intensive officer training at the Presidio military base. Stephenson recalled Pauling as having been a strong supporter of the war effort while at the camp. With the completion of his officer training, Stephenson was promoted to the rank of cadet major. He was then one of ten men at OAC to receive recommendation for commission as second lieutenant in the Officer’s Reserve Corps. That summer the cousins also worked together when they stayed in Tillamook, on the Oregon coast, with Stephenson’s mother. The two worked in a shipyard for the summer, building wooden-hulled freighters and taking small holidays in their off hours to go with Stephenson’s mother and sister to the resort town of Bayocean.

Stephenson’s senior year looked as if it would begin with a move overseas to serve in the war. Mervyn had received his second lieutenant commission and was notified that he would report to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but his orders were never received because the war ended on November 11 of that year. He finished his senior year in due course, graduating from OAC’s College of Engineering, and was granted membership in the Zeta chapter of the Sigma Tau engineering honorary society. Mervyn and Linus then parted ways as Pauling continued his studies and Stephenson moved forward in his career as a bridge builder all across Oregon.

Post 500

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling.  Angeles National Forest, Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. Angeles National Forest, Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

This is the five-hundredth post that we’ve published on the Pauling Blog, and in this season of thanksgiving we find ourselves in a grateful mood.  Five-hundred posts, surely at least a half-million words and, recently, our 500,000th view.  Great thanks to you, our readers, who continue to seek out and use this resource in steadily increasing measure.

To celebrate this milestone, we are publishing a few excerpts from one of our favorite Pauling manuscripts.  Titled “An Extraordinary Life: An Autobiographical Ramble,” the piece was written by Pauling for presentation to the Institute for the Humanities in Saledo, Texas, April 1989.  The text finds Pauling in an unusually reflective mood, speaking with serenity, at age 88, of a life spent dipping in and out of scientific disciplines in a most remarkable way.


Young Pauling, ca. 1910s.

Young Pauling, ca. 1910s.

[…] I am moderately smart. I estimate that there are 20,000 people in the United States who are smarter than I am, perhaps 15,000 women and 5,000 men. I reached this conclusion because a month after my wife and I got married, we had carried out some intelligence tests, and I discovered she was smarter than I, but we were already married. It was too late for me to do anything about it. Of course, I recognize that there are many physicists who are smarter than I am – theoretical physicists, most of them. There are a lot of smart people who have gone into theoretical physics, so there is a lot of competition there. I console myself with the thought that they may be smarter than I am and deeper thinkers than I am, but I have broader interests than they have. I don’t suppose that there is anybody else in the world who has a good background, knowledge of physics, mathematics, theoretical physics, and who knows a great deal about chemistry – the amount that I know.

When I was eleven years old with no outside inspiration – just library books – I started collecting insects. Not only collecting insects but reading about insects. I was filling my mind with a lot of information about the lepidoptera and diptera and so on. My father, a druggist, died when I was nine. There was another druggist who was a friend of the family to whom I went if I needed some chemicals when I got interested in chemistry, but I wasn’t interested in chemistry yet. I was just interested in insects when I was eleven. I said, “A person who collects insects needs to have a killing bottle.” And I got a Mason jar from my mother. So all I needed now was ten grams of potassium cyanide and perhaps fifty grams of plaster of paris. So Mr. Ziegler, the druggist, gave me ten grams of potassium cyanide and fifty grams of plaster of paris, and I took them home, went out on the back porch, because I knew that potassium cyanide was dangerous, and I dumped the potassium cyanide into the bottle. I mixed the plaster of paris with some water and put it in the bottle on top of it and let it harden. I had my killing bottle. I collected a lot of insects.

Next year I got interested in minerals. I didn’t have very many minerals, at least that I could recognize, only agates. So about all I could do was go around Portland looking for piles of gravel where someone was putting in a house foundation or sidewalk. I’d go through the gravel looking for chunks of agate.

Just think of what the difference is now.  A young fellow gets interested in chemistry and is given a chemical set.   The chemical set doesn’t contain any potassium cyanide. It doesn’t even contain any copper  sulphate  or anything interesting because  they are all  poisonous  substances. Most chemicals are poisonous substances. These young budding chemists don’t have any chance to do anything interesting when they are given a chemical set anymore.   As I look back, I think it is pretty remarkable that Mr. Zieglar, this friend of the family,  would have just turned over one third of an ounce of potassium cyanide to me at age eleven. […]


Linus and Ava Helen, camping near Palm Springs, 1924.

Linus and Ava Helen, camping near Palm Springs, 1924.

[…] I  was   very  fortunate  when   I   came  to  the   California   Institute   of Technology.    There was a new experimental technique that had been discovered only eight years before.    This was the determination of the structure of crystals by the x-ray diffraction method.    Roscoe Dickinson,  a  few  years older than I, had been using this technique for three or four years at the California Institute of Technology.    He was the first man to get a Ph.D.  from the California Institute of Technology. He taught me the technique.    I was very much excited about it.    It took only a couple of months for him to teach me how to determine the structure of a rather simple crystal by taking x-ray diffraction photographs of it and then analyzing those photographs.    Perhaps the greatest thing that he taught me was how to assess the reliability of your own conclusions.   He taught me to ask every time I reached some conclusion:

“Have I made some assumption in reaching this conclusion?    And what is the assumption? And what are the chances that this assumption is wrong? How reliable is the conclusion?” I have remembered this ever since and have continued to feel grateful to him ever since. It is possible to delude yourself if you have an original idea into thinking that there are observations that support this idea. Or it is possible when you think that you have developed some idea on the basis of a rational argument that you have made an assumption somewhere that isn’t justified. So this was very important in my development.

I hear people often describing me as a biochemist or as an organic chemist or something else. In fact, I never did like organic chemistry. I liked biochemistry even less. I didn’t have any courses to speak of in organic chemistry and no course at all in biochemistry. No course in any aspect of biology, nothing in medicine. But I have made contributions in the nutritional field and the biochemical field. If I were to go through my some eight hundred scientific papers, and see what fields of science I have made contributions   to,   I  could  say  I  am a x-ray  crystallographer. I am a mineralogist, because the American Mineralogist Society gave me their Roebling Medal which they give every year to an outstanding mineralogist. I am a physical chemist. That was what I called myself originally and what my Ph.D. diploma says. I am a chemical engineer too with a degree and five years of practical experience. I am an analytical chemist. When I was nineteen years old,   I didn’t have enough money to go back to my junior year at Oregon Agricultural College. As a sophomore I had taken the course in Quantitative Chemical Analysis and they gave me a job full time to teach the sophomore  Chemical Analysis. So I am an analytical chemist too. And I am an organic chemist.   I laid the theoretical  foundation for the tetrahedral carbon atom and developed resonance hybrid concept. I explained a lot of things in organic chemistry. I am a biochemist. I am a molecular biologist and sort of originated this field in a sense. I am a geneticist and have made contributions.   I’m an evolutionary scientist. […]


Pauling in 1989 - an extraordinary life. Photo by Paolo M. Sutter.

Pauling in 1989 – an extraordinary life. Photo by Paolo M. Sutter.

[…] In 1937, I was invited to give the prestigious George Fisher Baker Lectures at Cornell University. I went there for one semester. There had been famous chemists who had held this appointment. One requirement was that you write a book. My lectures were on the nature of the chemical bond, and the book came out in 1939, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. It was a bestseller, published by Cornell University Press. After a year the editor of Cornell University Press wrote to me and said, “Your edition of 10,000 copies is just about sold out. Would you prepare a second edition?” And I said, “Well, it hasn’t been a year yet. Nothing much has happened, but there have been some changes in this field. But why should I prepare a second edition of the book?”   He said, “Well, you don’t get any royalties from the book.   It was a condition of your appointment as George Fisher Baker Lecturer in Chemistry that you should write the book and present the manuscript.   There has never been a George Fisher Baker book that has gone into a second edition, but if you write a second edition, Cornell University Press will give you royalties on it.”

Well, that was a really good incentive.    I got busy and added ten pages perhaps and it came out as the second edition in 1940 and ever since then I have collected royalties.   On thinking back on this man, editor of Cornell University Press, he is really a remarkable man in that he should think that it would be unjust to me not to get royalties on that book that had become a scientific bestseller.    He was Amish from Pennsylvania and perhaps this may have something to do with his ethical standards.    It is a good thing that people have ethical standards.

People keep saying to me, “How does it come about that you shifted your field every five or ten years in a remarkable way?” In fact, all that I did was to expand my field of interest. I started out first determining the structure of minerals, and the second job I did was to determine the structure of an intermetallic compound — the first intermetallic compound to have its structure determined. For about ten years I worked on the structure of silicate minerals and of various other inorganic compounds.

So that was one period, but then I got interested in the structure of organic molecules. And there was another technique. We built the first apparatus in the United States to determine the structure of gas molecules by electron diffraction. A friend of mine, Herman Mark in Germany, was the man who built the very first apparatus of this sort. So I began determining interatomic distances, and applying quantum mechanics which I had learned as one of the first people in the field in 1926 when I was in Germany on a Guggenheim Fellowship.   All of this related to the question of the nature of the chemical bond. In the 1930s I formulated several new ideas about chemical bonds.

In 1935 the Rockefeller Foundation had been supporting my work on the crystal structure of the sulphide minerals, and they said to me, “You know, we’re not really interested in the sulphide minerals.    We’re interested in biological substances.”   They had been giving me five thousand dollars a year.   I thought, “What do I know about biological materials?   Not very much.   Hemoglobin, red cells in the blood, molecular weight about 68,000, that has four iron atoms in it.   Iron compounds often are paramagnetic.    So why don’t I apply to the Rockefeller Foundation  and  suggest  that  I  measure  the  magnetic   susceptibility  of hemoglobin and hemoglobin derivatives?”   So I did. And they gave me fifty thousand dollars.    This shows that these fellows in the big foundations can influence  activities  of  scientists.

So we measured  the magnetic susceptibility of blood. Venus blood turned out to be paramagnetic, and arterial blood was diamagnetic,  meaning repelled by a magnet.    Careful measurements  of this sort gave  astonishing  information  about   the  structure  of  the hemoglobin molecule. So then I thought, “Well, what about the rest of the hemoglobin molecule?    There are four iron atoms and 9,996 other atoms.   What are they doing?    So I had better work on the structure of proteins.”  I was giving a talk in 1936 at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research about the magnetic properties of hemoglobin.    A man named Karl Landsteiner sent word to me, asking me to come to his laboratory to talk to him.   I did.   He said he was making immunological studies — antibodies, antitoxins.   He wanted to know if I could explain some of his observations.    So I thought about them for four years and finally wrote a paper, and when the second edition of his book came out there was a chapter by me on the molecular structure of antibodies.    I hadn’t changed my course.    I’d just gone on roads that have diverged a  little from the ones I’d been  going  on.

An Interview with Balz Frei, Director of the Linus Pauling Institute

Balz Frei

Balz Frei

Oregon State University is turning 150 years old in 2018, and already several projects are being developed to mark the occasion.  One of them is a major oral history initiative that is capturing the stories of a wide array of alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and friends of OSU.

Several months ago, the project conducted an interview with Dr. Balz Frei, who has led OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute since 1997.  A Swiss native, Frei worked under Bruce Ames at UC-Berkeley before moving on to Harvard, the Boston University School of Medicine and, ultimately, Oregon State.

Frei’s research has always focused on the processes fundamental to human health. During his time in Berkeley, Frei became interested in vitamin C and met Linus Pauling. His later work has focused on oxidative stress and the role that it plays in atherosclerosis. He has also investigated arterial function and potential dietary compounds – including vitamin C – that might help prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

Under Frei’s leadership, the Linus Pauling Institute has stabilized its funding base, hired several principal investigators and made substantial contributions to the published literature on subjects relating to nutrition and optimal human health.

In 2011 the Institute celebrated a major milestone with the completion of the Linus Pauling Science Center. This 105,000 square foot facility, built for $62.5 million, is the largest academic facility project in OSU history. Now housed in this new space, LPI continues to conduct research on cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, healthy aging, and cancer chemoprotection, and engages in public outreach through its Micronutrient Information Center and Healthy Youth Program.

Excerpts from Frei’s oral history interview, including his memories of meeting Pauling, his sense of Pauling’s vitamin C work, and his vision for the future of LPI, are included below the cut.

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