Asima Chatterjee


[Ed note: A Google Doodle published in September 2017 featured a name familiar to us — the groundbreaking Indian scientist Asima Chatterjee — and prompted us to investigate her story a bit more. Today’s post is the first of two reflecting on Chatterjee’s work and her long friendship with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling.]

It is easy to lapse into cliche when discussing female scientists of the 20th century. On the one hand, it is certainly true that women of that era, by obtaining their Ph.Ds. and rising through the ranks of academia, paved new paths for those to come by pushing through environments that were often hostile to their presence. Beyond this however, it is also crucial to acknowledge the multifaceted contributions that these women made to their scientific disciplines and to celebrate the ways in which their work made a profound impact outside of the context of gender relations.

Asima Chatterjee, born in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) in 1917, is a terrific example of a pioneering woman scientist whose impact has been felt in many ways and on many levels. Chatterjee, a brilliant and passionate scholar, was the first woman to obtain a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university; just one in a succession of accomplishments. In so doing, she both smashed cultural expectations and demonstrated the ways in which sexism is detrimental to society as a whole.

The importance of a woman’s perspective – in particular, the capacity for empathy so often engendered by the roles, expectations and cultural norms traditionally assigned to women – is a quality that Linus Pauling revered. The strongest piece of evidence that one might put forth in support of this argument was the genuine respect and affection that characterized his long relationship with his wife, Ava Helen Pauling. By her husband’s own admission, Ava Helen was crucial in building and maintaining the compassion, selflessness, concern and, indeed, courage that were fundamental to Linus Pauling’s peace work, which was honored by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 1963.

It is unsurprising then, that the friendship which flourished between Asima Chatterjee and the Paulings was steeped not only in mutual scientific interests, but also in a shared concern for social welfare. In fact, the two were not discrete nodes of their relationship: the desire for a more equitable and peaceful world was tethered to their mutual passion for science and, ultimately, became a central reference point in the constellation of their friendship.


The Paulings’ relationship with Asima Chatterjee likely found its start during Chatterjee’s stint as a fellow at the California Institute of Technology, though not in a typical way. In the years following the completion of her doctorate in 1944, Chatterjee and her one-year-old daughter, Julie, traveled abroad for a series of fixed-term research appointments, including a position at Caltech. While in Pasadena, Chatterjee studied carotenoids under Laszlo Zechmeister, a Hungarian scientist who had been hired by Pauling. Presumably because of his connection to Zechmeister, it seems clear that Pauling knew of Chatterjee’s visit, even though he was in England at the time, serving a year-long term at Oxford as Eastman Professor.

What is certain is that the Paulings’ and Chatterjee’s friendship was almost entirely facilitated through letters, dozens of them, penned over the course of nearly two decades. In their lengthy correspondence, Chatterjee and the Paulings touched upon a wide variety of topics ranging from professional favors to the shifting fortunes of India to the various exploits and undertakings of their children. Not until 1967, in Calcutta, did the correspondents finally meet face-to-face.

Chatterjee’s research focused primarily on natural products and phytochemistry, and placed prominent emphasis on the potential medicinal properties of the substances under study. Fascinated with botany early in childhood and, as a professional, inclined towards investigations in organic chemistry – the subject in which she received her doctorate – Chatterjee’s passions aligned in such a way as to enable in-depth studies of the structures and properties of plants native to India. One of Chatterjee’s especially prominent achievements emerged from her research on vinca alkaloids, used today for chemotherapeutic treatments. Chatterjee’s program of work made similarly important contributions to the attack on malaria and epilepsy.

However, despite her obvious promise as a scientist, Chatterjee’s research program was regularly hamstrung by funding problems. India achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 (around the time of Chatterjee’s U.S. fellowship tour) and, as a recently sovereign nation, had a great deal to figure out both politically and economically. Working within this climate, Chatterjee routinely experienced difficulty in acquiring the basic resources and supplies necessary to conduct her research. This reality made her international connections, at Caltech in particular, a lifeline for the progress of her work.

One example of this somewhat unorthodox international collaboration was documented in a March 1953 letter. In it, Chatterjee asked Pauling to provide a degree of technical support with an alkaloid, Rauwolscine, that she would later become well-known for studying. In particular, Chatterjee needed Pauling’s assistance with a form of x-ray analysis that was not beyond her level of expertise, but instead was inaccessible to her for lack of technical infrastructure. While in this insistence Pauling decided against heeding Chatterjee’s request – citing various stipulations of institutional policy – other letters provide numerous examples where he and his colleagues were able to aid in her work.

Asima Chatterjee’s tenacious nature and focused dedication to her field were formally recognized by her peers in 1961, when she became the first woman to be awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize. (An extremely prestigious honor for Indian scientists, this award has, to date, been bestowed to sixteen female recipients in total.) In next week’s post, we will examine the ways in which Chatterjee’s work, as well as her relationship with the Paulings, continued to flourish throughout the 1960s and beyond.



The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries: Now Accepting Applications

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

Now in its eleventh year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in SCARC. 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, 2018.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest (including hops and brewing), 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):

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.

Saving General Chemistry


Front cover of the Dover reprint edition of General Chemistry, 1988.

[Our seventh and final post examining the history of Linus Pauling’s textbook, General Chemistry, first published in 1947. This is also our last post for 2017. Many thanks to you, our readers, for another great year! Look for us again in early January.]

In 1979, Linus Pauling contacted his publisher, W.H. Freeman & Co., with the intent to order more copies of the third edition of his General Chemistry text, only to learn that it had gone out of print. Freeman’s new president, Richard Warrington, apologized to Pauling for the lapse in communication, and then noted that the firm had stopped printing the book the previous summer. Warrington explained that sales for 1978 were not sufficient to justify further printing runs of the book: just 387 copies had been sold that year, as compared to 13,469 copies purchased when the third edition went live in 1970. With the book now officially out of print, all rights to General Chemistry reverted back to Pauling and it was up to him to figure out what to do with the content, if anything at all.

Not long after, in 1980, Freeman & Co. came under new management, which promptly ushered in a series of sweeping changes. Now led by Neil Patterson, the firm chose to cease all promotion of back-listed books and allowed dozens of titles to go out of print. Freeman & Co. had merged with Scientific American in 1962 and now shared a CEO with their corporate partner. Because of these connections, Patterson also chose to move the company from San Francisco – the only home that it had ever known – to New York. This relocation led to the diminishment or outright severing of ties with several authors based on the west coast.

Pauling expressed regret that the company had chosen to move across the country, but it was his recent experience with Freeman & Co. – specifically their neglect in communicating to him that one of his signature titles was no longer being produced – that led him to cut ties with the company.

In the midst of all this, Freeman continued to navigate seas of change. Linda Chaput took over as president and executive editor shortly following the move to New York, but the company continued to flail financially. It eventually became an imprint of MacMillan – ironically, the firm at which founder William H. Freeman got his start – but was allowed to keep its name and to market the story of its propitious beginning.


Cover of the Dover reprint of Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, 1985.

Meanwhile, time moved forward and General Chemistry remained out of print, a fact that gnawed on its author. In 1984, Pauling approached New York-based Dover Publications, Inc. to see if they might be interested in resuscitating the third edition. Pauling had reason to believe that this entreaty might be looked upon favorably, as the company had already agreed to release a reprint version of Pauling’s influential Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry, originally co-authored with E. Bright Wilson in 1938.

The Dover edition of Introduction to Quantum Mechanics appeared in 1985 and, as it turned out, sales were promising enough that the firm quickly agreed to sponsor the General Chemistry reprint, offering Pauling a flat sum of $2,000 in place of any royalties. This reproduction made it to market in 1988 and is still available for purchase today.


Pauling’s notes for his talk, “Improving Science Education: Changes That Make it Possible,” January 30, 1984. In particular, Pauling emphasizes the sheer physical size of modern science textbooks, a consistent pet peeve of his.

While the paperback Dover reprint keeps General Chemistry alive today, it is the Freeman editions that stand as true classics. General Chemistry was sold by the firm for thirty-one years, an extraordinarily long life for a college science textbook. And for the bulk of those three decades, the title served as the flagship for Freeman & Co.’s chemistry series, while also providing inspiration, if not a template, for similar series written for other scientific disciplines. Feedback to the book also inspired Pauling to write College Chemistry, a slightly more traditional text which likewise went through three editions and remained very popular with chemistry teachers at the high school and college levels for decades.

General Chemistry and later College Chemistry reflected a change of style in textbook writing that sought to thread a small needle. Essentially, Pauling took it upon himself to challenge engaged students while also making scientific concepts more accessible. He did so by organizing and reimagining content in radically different ways. Pauling was, for example, the first author of a chemistry textbook to use chemical bonding and molecular structure as guiding pedagogical principles. His was also the first textbook to explain elements, isotopes, and compounds in terms of electron shells and atomic weight, an approach that has since become the norm.

General Chemistry was hugely important in at least one other way. Though Pauling had set out to write a textbook oriented primarily toward students of chemistry, the book initiated and propelled a much larger conversation among his colleagues, particularly those seeking to author their own volumes. Within a decade of Pauling publishing General Chemistry, introductory chemistry texts around the world had begun following the contours of Pauling’s model, emphasizing physical and descriptive chemistry as well as real-world applications of chemistry and the scientific method.

And even after he had moved on from devoting significant time or attention to the textbook game, Pauling strove to ensure that his revolutionary work would continue. At a 1984 meeting of the Oregon Consortium for Quality Science Education, for example, he urged textbook authors to work harder to make their material more engaging and accessible to students. Worried that many high school textbook writers suffered from a superficial knowledge of their subjects, Pauling warned that these authors risked discouraging otherwise successful students from becoming scientists by leading them to believe that they could not grasp fundamental topics. In issuing this warning, Pauling was also distilling a core belief of his own: a well-written textbook can influence student success at least as much as the initiative put forth by a teacher in the classroom.

General Chemistry – The Third and Final Edition

[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 6 of 7.]

By the time that Linus Pauling was preparing to revise and publish a third edition of General Chemistry, the cast with which he had been working since the 1940s had shifted considerably. For one, publisher William H. Freeman had left Freeman & Co. in 1962, following the company’s merger with Scientific American. His secretary, Margaret Cooper, left the company with him, and the couple subsequently married that same year.

In 1964, the newlyweds started a new publishing house, Freeman, Cooper & Co., where a primary focus on science textbooks expanded to eventually include philosophy texts as well. At the time that he was creating this new company, Freeman, in a letter to illustrator and long-time collaborator Roger Hayward, outlined his sense of the continuing need for independent publishing houses as well as his own continuing interest in being involved with independent ventures of this sort.

Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the idea of associating with a corporation as massive as Scientific American had prompted Freeman to reevaluate his involvement with Freeman & Co. in much the same way that he had reevaluated his career at MacMillan almost twenty years before. Pauling, on the other hand, did not harbor similar misgivings – comfortable in his relationship with Freeman & Co., he opted to continue publishing with the firm even after the departure of his long-time editor and the company’s namesake.

Illustration proposed by Evan Gillespie for use in the third edition of General Chemistry.

Bill Freeman was not the only familiar face to be absented from the third edition; Pauling also chose to shift gears with his visuals. By the end of the 1960s, Roger Hayward’s illustrations no longer seemed satisfactory to Pauling, who wanted to experiment with stereoscopic drawings rather than sticking with Hayward’s more traditional style. Hayward had made an attempt at creating the kinds of three-dimensional images that Pauling was seeking but, by the time of the third edition, his struggles with chronic asthma and declining vision were both restricting his availability for projects and compromising his ability to create superior work.

In the end, Pauling decided to begin a new collaboration with Evan Gillespie, the director of the art department at Freeman & Co. Hayward, by now formally retired, continued to find commission work for the remainder of his life. He passed away in 1979 at the age of 80.

With Freeman and Hayward no longer in the picture, the core of Pauling’s new team consisted of illustrator Gillespie and editor Stanley Schaefer, who was also chairman of the Freeman & Co. board. Family played a significant role in the third edition as well, with Peter Pauling and Barclay Kamb – Pauling’s son-in-law – contributing intermittently throughout the project

Released in 1970, the third edition of Pauling’s General Chemistry focused more on physical and theoretical principles while – in response to a trend in comments expressed about the second edition – largely avoiding abstract mathematics. (Instead, he included more statistical mechanics.) Pauling also pruned what had been a longer section on descriptive chemistry and shortened his chapter on organic chemistry.

The question of how best to treat organic chemistry had presented a particularly vexing conundrum during the revision process. Pauling’s first edition had been criticized for providing only a surface treatment of the subject, but his expansion on the topic as presented in the second edition was met with even more criticism. For the third edition, Pauling worked to strike a balance on the subject, though some reviewers protested that he had failed to update his ideas sufficiently, rendering his new textbook at least partially out of date.

Generally speaking however, the third edition received a warm response. Most reviewers applauded Pauling’s switch to S.I. units, and the typically rigorous nature of the book – perhaps, by now, less of a shock within the academic community – elicited more positive praise than had been the case in the past. One reviewer specifically pushed back against complaints that the textbook was too difficult by noting that it was a professor’s responsibility to present Pauling’s subject matter with clarity and assistance when introducing it in the classroom. In other published reviews, Pauling’s clarity, unification of scientific principles, and modernity were emphasized.

Nonetheless, as time moved forward it became clear that more and more people were using General Chemistry as a reference book rather than a textbook. Pauling’s approach, revolutionary in 1947, had, by the early 1970s, become classic. As a new generation of chemists, many of them trained using General Chemistry, moved through the ranks of their profession, Pauling’s textbook assumed more of an artifactual positioning: solid in its place in history but increasingly less vital for students.

Importantly, Pauling had likewise moved on to a new phase of his career: in the same year that the third edition was released, so too was Vitamin C and the Common Cold. This book’s runaway success and the maelstrom of work and controversy that followed would consume much of Pauling’s attention for the remainder of his life.

General Chemistry Goes Abroad


[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 5 of 7.]

General Chemistry has been translated into twelve languages, and most of the foreign editions of the text were published in the interim between the release of the U.S. second and third editions, 1953-1970. As Linus Pauling’s book gained increasing recognition stateside, more and more translation requests began to pour in. Pauling himself bore only limited responsibility for responding to these requests; this was publisher William Freeman’s area of expertise, and he had developed strict guidelines which translators were obligated to follow.

In order for a foreign translation to be formally recognized by Freeman and Co., a translator had to submit a proposal to a publisher in their own country, who then contacted Freeman and Co. for approval. Once William Freeman had obtained Pauling’s permission to go ahead, he made an offer to the overseas publisher, negotiating royalty rates, the price of the book, and any considerations necessitated by differences in copyright law from country to country. Once Freeman and the overseas publisher agreed to terms, the two parties drew up a contract. Only then was the translator free to begin with their work.

Once they moved out of Freeman’s purview, these editions took on lives of their own, and results certainly varied. Many U.S. reviewers, for instance, were dismayed to learn that General Chemistry served as a high school text in several European countries, as well as in Japan. Additionally, German institutions tended not to use their translation as a textbook, except in rare cases. In providing an explanation for this phenomenon, the German translator, Friedrich Helfferich, explained that Chemie: eine Einführung

owes its success to its appeal to the general interested public, e.g., the engineer, physician, psychologist, etc., wanting to obtain a modern concept of chemistry; to the boy in his last year of high school who plays with the idea of taking up chemistry; even to the philosopher.

Pauling and Freeman, while disgruntled by the evident differences between American and European education standards, were nonetheless proud of the book’s wide adoption.


The Spanish edition, which was the easiest translation to complete, was also the first foreign version of General Chemistry to appear, hitting the market in 1949, just two years after the U.S. first edition’s introduction to stateside readers. Fernandez Alonso, a professor from Universidad de Valencia in Spain, completed the work in only six months. Pauling was so pleased with this edition that he offered Alonso the job of translating his other text, College Chemistry, as well as subsequent editions of General Chemistry.

On the other hand, the German translation presented significant challenges. For one, Freeman and Co. encountered initial difficulties in determining whether there was even a market for the book, given the tenuous post-war relationship between the U.S. and a divided Germany. Further, when Chemie Verlag, a German publishing house focused on science, approached Freeman and Pauling for the rights to translate and produce a German edition, Freeman was already deep into negotiations with a different German option.

Pauling felt so strongly about Chemie Verlag, however, that he wrote to their director to make his preferences clear, encouraging him to match the offer being made by their competitor. Two months later, Freeman accepted Chemie Verlag’s offer and Friederich Helfferich began translating. While the work moved smoothly from there, all of the uncertainties that had preceded it meant that the German edition was not completed until 1958 and was based on the second U.S. edition.

The German translation was also the one in which Pauling became the most involved. Proficient in German from his upbringing, his university studies and his travels abroad, Pauling edited almost all of the proofs and often expressed his opinions about which German words would more appropriately address the concepts presented in his book. When he at last received the completed German translation, Pauling immediately wrote back to express his satisfaction with it and his gratitude to Helfferich.

In the years following, Helfferich took it upon himself to continue to update the material such that, just prior to the release of the third U.S. edition, Chemie Verlag had already published four editions of Chemie: eine Einführung. Part of this productivity was surely due to Helfferich’s self-directed industry, but perhaps more important was the lack of distinction made by the German publishers between a reprint (correcting technical errors) and a revision (a new edition). As it turned out, Helferrich had done some of both without a great deal of guidance from Pauling.

Thinking about how best to approach a translation of Pauling’s third edition, which was still in the works, Helfferich suggested two options. Option 1 was to discard all changes that he had made on his own to “update” the German editions to reflect recent scientific advances. Option 2 was to use the new edition as an opportunity to unify the changes that he had made with those that Pauling was considering for the U.S. edition.

Helfferich argued that, on the plus side, the latter option would produce a German edition that was even further customized to the German readership and, as a result, likely to sell very well. This option, however, would also require significant collaboration between author and translator, a commitment that turned out to be a deal-breaker for Pauling.

Ultimately, Pauling requested that Helfferich limit his own contributions to a two-chapter minimum. He also asked that Helfferich remove his name from the title page, so as to make it abundantly clear that Pauling was the sole author of the book. Helfferich subsequently decided to postpone a German 5th edition until Pauling had released the U.S. third edition, which he then translated in a more orthodox fashion.


The international reach of General Chemistry was truly impressive. The first edition was translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, and Swedish. The second edition was translated, once more, into these five languages as well as German, Polish, Gujarati, and Portuguese. Russian, Romanian and Hebrew editions also eventually came to pass.

As the international profile of the book grew and grew, Freeman and Co. ran into a few problems with freelance translators. The most pressing issue that the publishing house faced however, were differences in royalty laws from country to country. Even in the U.K., where Pauling’s book didn’t require linguistic translation, it was nearly impossible to find a publishing company that could offer Pauling a royalty rate comparable to Freeman’s.

Perhaps most notably, for the Japanese edition, Pauling was compelled to collect his royalties in Japanese currency and then bring the yen back to the United States for exchange into U.S. dollars. It was in Japan, however, that the book was most successful internationally – sales were still increasing more than ten years after its release – a fact which no doubt contributed to Pauling’s close relationship with that country, including eight visits during his lifetime.

General Chemistry, Second Edition

[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 4 of 7.]

Linus Pauling and his publisher, William H. Freeman, were in the planning stages for a second edition of General Chemistry before the first edition had even hit the bookstores in 1947. Nonetheless, the second edition didn’t appear until 1953. Because so many reviewers had taken issue with the advanced nature of General Chemistry, Pauling made the decision to author an entirely different textbook, College Chemistry, which would be written for and marketed to introductory college classes and advanced high school students. Published in 1950, College Chemistry proved to be less controversial with its reviewers than was the first edition of General Chemistry, as it more closely followed the standard conventions that one might expect of an introductory textbook.

This favorable response pleased Pauling, Freeman, and Roger Hayward, who had provided the illustrations again, but it also drew significant time and attention away from progress on the second edition of General Chemistry. The trio had originally planned to have their revision out by spring 1950, but the deadline was continually pushed back as Pauling grew increasingly busy with travel and work on College Chemistry. With the initial goal of spring 1950 turning into winter of 1951 and then spring of 1952, a final hard deadline of January 1953 was ultimately issued by Bill Freeman. At long last, the second edition that the three men had been dreaming about since 1948 finally entered the world’s classrooms in September 1953.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling’s passport photo. 1953.

While College Chemistry may have been the main culprit behind the delays that hampered the second edition, it wasn’t the only factor. More than anything, Linus Pauling was just busy, and in new ways. Most notably, in addition to his teaching, his research, and his work on two textbooks, the pace of Pauling’s political work had picked up significantly.

A forceful and sometimes isolated voice during the era of the Red Scare, Pauling was castigated for his beliefs by the mainstream media and persecuted by his government as well. In 1952, Pauling was famously denied passport clearance to leave the country, casting him and Ava Helen into a world of sudden uncertainty. Although he was eventually granted the right to travel in time to leave for a planned trip to Oxford, the experience caused a great deal of stress and distraction to say the least. In fact, Pauling made note of editing galley proofs of the second edition at JFK airport just before he and Ava Helen departed. And while there was some concern that Pauling’s beliefs might affect his sales, any dip of this sort does not appear to have come about. One reviewer went so far as to write Pauling directly to commend his political activism.

Between 1947 and 1953, with the second edition delayed again and again, the Freeman company released several revised printings of the first edition that corrected minor typographical and numerical errors, but did not change the content itself. In this, both author and publisher were signaling their intent to seriously consider reviewer comments and to continually improve the book. Ava Helen Pauling helped immensely in this regard, handling many of the error corrections from home so that her husband could focus on other projects.

That said, this revision process was not without its issues. Most notably, at one point Bill Freeman was compelled to inform his author that the projected cost for plate changes that Pauling had ordered was going to approximate the total profits that had, so far, been accrued by both General Chemistry and College Chemistry combined. Noting this, he urged Pauling to go back through his manuscript and revoke any changes that were not strictly typographical or related to errors in fact. Pauling quickly agreed, admitting that he had requested edits in any instance where felt that the style of his book could be improved, as well as the technical content.

Once it became available, reviewers of the second edition of General Chemistry noticed right away that it differed from the first edition significantly. Responding to some of the more consistent concerns expressed about the first edition, Pauling expanded his chapters on gas law, organic chemistry, and atomic physics, as well as his treatment of metals. He also added two chapters, “The Electron and the Nucleus” and “Quantum Theory and Molecular Structure.” Roger Hayward was once again enlisted to improve old illustrations and to add several new ones.

Reviewer Stanley Bruce was among those who were struck by Pauling’s fine-tuning.

I was particularly interested to note the order of presentation of topic, the deletion of much of the less important factual material on organic chemistry, the inclusion of certain topics in physical chemistry…the refined discussion of some topics…and the important emphasis on structural chemistry.

Indeed, commenters typically appreciated that Pauling had included more discussion to support his claims and had incorporated deeper analyses of modern theories. The second edition also contained a great many clarifications of terms that users of the first edition had found confusing.

On the downside, Pauling’s attempts to improve the accessibility of his text for a more introductory audience seems to have created problems with consistency. One reviewer commented that “Pauling seems to vacillate between highly technical language (which is above our students’ heads) and simplified language which seems to me inaccurate.” Another accused Pauling of mixing high school-level concepts with Ph.D.-level treatments.

In the main however, feedback for the second edition was overwhelmingly positive. Generally speaking, the novel treatment of subjects that had proven so enticing in the first edition once again won out over complaints about the organization or rigor of the book. One reviewer gushed that Pauling’s “Words flow like water down the Madison – sure, forceful, and effortless.” Though a few colleagues continued to grumble over Pauling’s selection of theories, the consensus was that the second edition marked “the end of purely descriptive chemistry.”

Meanwhile, thanks largely to the success of General Chemistry, Freeman and Co. was doing well. Buoyed by his early successes, Bill Freeman expanded his staff, hiring Theodore McClintock and Stanley Schaefer to serve as the firm’s primary editors. Schaefer in particular proved to be a crucial hire. Eventually he became president of the company and he later served as chairman of the board of directors following Freeman & Co.’s corporate merge with Scientific American in 1964.

General Chemistry: Reactions to the First Edition


[An examination of General Chemistry, published by Linus Pauling seventy years ago. This is part 3 of 7.]

The first edition of Linus Pauling’s General Chemistry textbook was published by W.H. Freeman and Co. in August 1947, and almost immediately the comment cards poured in. The majority of the book’s readers praised Pauling’s refreshingly modern approach to the principles of chemistry. They considered his focus on modern chemical principles, with only brief and necessary digressions into historical background, a welcome innovation in textbook design.

Many also were also impressed by Pauling’s clear and direct approach to his subject matter, with one reviewer commenting that

[Pauling’s book] is written in a way which should appeal to the imaginations of those who happen to possess them, which is perhaps as important as anything that can be done.

Reviewers were likewise nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for Roger Hayward’s skillful illustrations, pointing out the degree to which his depictions were a truly extraordinary asset, especially for concepts known to be sources of difficulty for students.


That is not to suggest, however, that the first edition was uniformly accepted as flawless. Indeed, over half of Pauling’s reviewers declared the book to be too advanced for it’s announced audience: first year students. Moreover, many also noted that the book actually discouraged all but their most determined introductory pupils from moving forward because of the difficulties that they encountered with some of the fundamental principles that Pauling laid out.

Many of the professors who found the text to be too challenging believed that Pauling had mistakenly used Caltech as the standard by which to measure all incoming college freshman. But while their opinion that Pauling had miscalculated in this regard was fairly consistent, the collective did not provide a consensus on who might be an appropriate target audience for the book; reviewers’ suggestions ranged from advanced freshmen to pre-professional students.

In fact, Pauling did have Caltech freshmen in mind when he wrote the book, and very intentionally so. When he embarked upon the project, he made clear that his primary ambition was to develop a text that would prove useful to students who shared his own early enthusiasm for chemistry and who were prepared to devote their academic careers – and, ideally, their professional careers – to the study of chemistry. In the eyes of many though, this approach was not appropriate to other institutions of higher learning and the question of ideal audience remained a point of contention for the entire life of the book.


Several professors who argued in support of the text tended to feel that its advanced nature was actually the best possible asset that could be provided to specific cohorts of students: in particular, students blessed with sufficient high school experience and/or interest, as well as students who made up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm and perseverance. A few years after Pauling first published his book, a California professor commented that, in his higher-level class, students using General Chemistry applied essential material more effectively and achieved higher rates of success in upper-division chemistry courses overall.

Other positive reviewers focused more intently on Pauling’s technique and powers of description. Scripps professor Norris Rakestraw called Pauling’s review of molecular structure “one of the best approaches to an understanding of general chemistry” and also agreed with others who claimed that the book had the potential to propel students to a more rigorous level. If perhaps not ideally suited for freshmen, Rakestraw believed that General Chemistry was certainly perfect for a refresher course.

Several others followed suit. A.L. Rathmer suggested that Pauling’s “unorthodox and unconventional” treatment was valuable to teachers and other researchers in the field. A reviewer from Northwestern University phrased a similar sentiment in a decidedly different way:

Any instructor who fails to read this text should be fired – and any instructor who tries to use it with freshman should also be fired.

A smaller group of professors offering mixed reviews pointed out that Pauling’s own research interests – particularly his biochemical interests – seemed to dominate the text. A few went so far as to accuse Pauling of using his book as a platform to advance his own scientific theories. Pauling, who was generally open to feedback, did not respond to these comments except to disclaim them in fragmented notes scribbled in the margins of letters and review cards.


One oft-issued request that did receive a response from Pauling was that he release an answer key to the book’s exercises. He worked on this key during the summer of 1947 while he was working as a visiting professor at Oxford University, and he enlisted his son, Peter, to work through the problems alongside him, verifying answers and identifying problematic practice questions.

Reacting to a different set of complaints, Bill Freeman suggested that the publishing house also compile and release a laboratory manual that was specifically designed to accompany the text. Settling on a length of 290 pages with 80 Hayward illustrations, Freeman worked with Pauling to select Harper Frantz, a lecturer at Pasadena City College, and Lloyd Malm, a University of Utah chemistry professor, as co-authors. Frantz and Malm in turn developed experiments that were based on and that further amplified the principles described in General Chemistry.

Pauling was not only unconventional in his approach to subject matter, but also in how he used his terminology. Two prominent examples of this tendency were his representation of Avogadro’s number and his use of the term “molality” in the place of “molarity.”

Avogadro’s number defines the units in one mole of a solution and is typically set at approximately 6.022 x 1023. Pauling, however, chose to write the number as 0.6023 x 1024. Even when several colleagues urged him to stick to generally accepted convention, Pauling insisted on representing the number as 0.6023 x 1024 and continued to do so throughout all three editions of General Chemistry. In defending his point of view, Pauling offered this explanation in a footnote:

There is great convenience in learning Avogadro’s number as 0.6023 x 1024. An important use of this number involves the conversion of the volume of a gram-atom of an element into the volume per atom. The first volume is expressed in cm3, and the second in Å3. The relation between cm3 and Å3 involves the factor of 1024 : 1 cm3 = 1024 Å3. Accordingly, in case that Avogadro’s number has been taken as 0.6023 x 1024, there is no trouble whatever in deciding on the position of the decimal point.

In other words, by simplifying Avogadro’s number in an unorthodox way, Pauling was trying to make the concept easier to learn for students.

He defended his choice to use “molality” in a similar fashion, referencing A.A. Noyes, Ernest Swift, and W.C. Bray as among those who used “molality” to refer to moles per liter of solution. Pauling incorrectly believed that the term would eventually prevail within the discipline and therefore felt that students would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with it. Eventually he conceded that his was not destined to be the conventional wisdom and he changed “molal” to “molar” in the second edition.

Indeed, throughout the lifespan of General Chemistry, Pauling trusted that students using the book would come equipped with a firm grasp on the language of chemistry. He did, however, agree to provide more definitions in the second edition, particularly for less common or more advanced terms.


Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1948.

While there was widespread disagreement about the appropriateness of using Pauling’s book in freshman classes, very few reviewers disputed General Chemistry‘s strength in content. One colleague, J.S. Coles, who later went on to author a textbook of his own, published a review of Pauling’s first edition and followed it up with a letter in which he emphasized that

Even if every suggestion or criticism [contained within the review] were completely ignored, I would continue to believe [General Chemistry] far ahead of any other text in the field and would continue to use it in any of my courses wherein I thought it to be appropriate.

Many professors who did not adopt the text for their courses admitted to keeping a few copies on hand for themselves and, on occasion, for their advanced students. More still reconsidered their initial rejection of the book when the Frantz-Malm laboratory manual came out in 1949. Of the overall response to General Chemistry, Bill Freeman wrote, “Oh we will slip from grace now and then – I hope it will be because we are trying to improve on the conventional.”

What is beyond doubt is that General Chemistry was wildly successful, even if it didn’t always reach its intended audience, and the royalties that Pauling received provided him with a new level of financial comfort. While most of the windfall was used to support Pauling’s ambitious travel schedule, he did choose to invest in at least one comfort item: an outdoor pool at his Pasadena home.

Affectionately dubbed by his children as “the pool that General Chemistry built,” the space quickly became a gathering spot for some of Pauling’s luckier graduate students, and evolved from there into a location where students could engage Pauling in lively conversations and solicit advice. Not unlike Pauling’s book, these conversations, on any number of occasions, led to insights that shifted the entire course of a student’s professional trajectory.