A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects



[Part 5 of 6 in a series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]

Linus Pauling is often remembered for his achievements in chemistry and his active involvement in the peace movement. Much of his work stemmed from an interest in further understanding the natural world and using this knowledge to promote the well-being of others.

It therefore comes as something of a surprise that, during his stint at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), he considered taking time to research unidentified flying objects. The phenomenon would seem like an unusual subject for Pauling to study, especially because he joined the CSDI in hopes of focusing on medical chemistry and socio-economic theory. In July 1966, however, Pauling did indeed write a project proposal outlining a program of research on unidentified flying objects.


Pauling’s UFO project proposal, pg. 1. July 1966.


UFO proposal, pg. 2.


In discussing this moment in Pauling’s career, it is important to point out that Pauling viewed the study as a “possibility,” rather than anything close to an immediate priority. One hastens to add as well that the study was not ever conducted.  The proposal document that he crafted, however, is evidence of the approach that Pauling would have taken to explain the phenomenon, and it is an interesting document to explore.

As a scientist and citizen, Pauling believed that it was his duty to inform the public about advances in scientific understanding, but slowly, by dint of his institutional arrangement, he found himself growing gradually more distant from the scientific community. After publishing a few papers on nuclear physics and medical chemistry, and engaging in much discussion on world peace, Pauling found himself in a difficult situation: just a couple years after leaving Caltech, his home base for forty-one years, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the CSDI.

The center’s lack of capacity to support scientific research, combined with the paucity of conclusions emerging from the center’s peace discussions, gradually increased Pauling’s appetite for new exploration. The scientific research that he could do on his own, without facilities or funding, was very limited. And in terms of politics and peace, the center was mostly engaged in theory; there was no specific cause for which it was fighting. And so it was that Pauling spent some time at his ranch in Big Sur brainstorming ideas on what to do with his time; researching UFOs was perhaps the most unorthodox notion to emerge from this period of reflection.

Linus Pauling, 1966.

Linus Pauling, 1966.

Pauling was quite familiar with reports of unidentified flying objects.  Scattered among the many letters that he received each day were a handful asking questions about strange noises in the night and films of white dust appearing in the hills. He also heard rumors about a UFO landing in Santa Fe. Being a long-running fan of science fiction himself, and feeling a duty to communicate scientific knowledge to the public, it is easy to see how Pauling could find importance in addressing the matter in a formal way.

Pauling’s 1966 research proposal, titled “A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” was divided into twelve main points. In each point, Pauling stated his intent to study everything from the authenticity and potential explanations of various reports, to the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin of human life. The proposal’s twelve points are suggestive of an ambitious project that would have required Pauling to tap into the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology and history, among others. But it is clear that Pauling’s intent for his study of UFOs was not to perform a scientific investigation of the phenomenon, but to discern and provide facts regarding reports of sightings and ideas about extraterrestrial interactions with human beings.

Pauling’s interest in the subject was not limited to the 1966 proposal. As late as 1968, Pauling wrote to Stirling Colgate, a physicist who was then President of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and inquired into an alleged siting of a flying saucer on the school’s campus. The correspondence reveals that the siting was a hoax, perpetrated by a New Mexico Tech student, but Pauling’s interest is indication that UFOs remained on his mind at least a couple of years after he drafted his proposal document.

It can be argued that Pauling’s seemingly abrupt interest in UFOs was an outgrowth of his experience at the CSDI. For much of his time at the center, it is clear that he was engaged in an intellectual quest to discover a way to use his talents for the benefit of the public. To his dissatisfaction, Pauling was unable to find exactly what he was looking for in Santa Barbara, and after three and a half years there, he began actively seeking out a new institutional home.

The time period, however, also stands as evidence of Pauling’s creativity in working in an environment with limited resources.  Though the UFO work never got off the ground, Pauling continued to pick up his pencil and slide rule and to research the natural world to the best of his abilities.  As a result, several publications resulted from this period of quiet investigation spent far afield from the scientific mainstream.

The Triple Revolution

Letter from the Ad Hoc Committee appended to "The Triple Revolution" memorandum, March 22, 1964.

Letter from the Ad Hoc Committee appended to “The Triple Revolution” memorandum, March 22, 1964.

[Part 4 of 6 in a series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]

Linus Pauling’s connection with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) began before he and his wife moved to Santa Barbara. While in Pasadena, Pauling joined a group of social activists that called itself “The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution.” Working under the auspices of the CSDI, the Ad Hoc Committee worked together to draft a memorandum addressed to President Lyndon B. Johnson and titled “The Triple Revolution.”

The memorandum was in turn circulated to select individuals and ultimately signed by thirty-five men, a collection of academics, journalists and left activists.  Noteworthy among these signatories were James Boggs, an auto worker and author of Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook; Todd Gitlin, President of Students for a Democratic Society; retired Brigadier General Hugh B. Hester; Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American; Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League; and socialist leader Norman Thomas.  Also included were Linus Pauling and W.H. “Ping” Ferry, vice-president of the CSDI.

Linus Pauling, 1964.

Linus Pauling, 1964.

Submitted in March 1964, “The Triple Revolution” opens with a letter to the president in which the Ad Hoc Committee states its concern that Americans and their leaders are “unaware of the magnitude and acceleration of the changes going on around them.” The letter was signed by each of the committee members and was later published in pamphlet form alongside the main text of the “The Triple Revolution” memorandum.

“The Triple Revolution” states that three main socio-economic revolutions were occurring during the 1960s: the Weaponry Revolution, the Cybernation Revolution, and a Human Rights Revolution comprising civil rights movements all around the world. The piece also suggests that all three revolutions were the result of technological development and changes in the economy.

The Weaponry Revolution speaks to one of Linus Pauling’s greatest hopes: the end of war as a means of conflict resolution. In proposing that a weaponry revolution was in place, the memorandum elaborates on the topics of nuclear warfare and disarmament. The pamphlet suggests – as Pauling had often done before – that the threat of such weapons should steer nations to end the use of war altogether in order to avoid the destruction of modern civilization. While acknowledging the degree of difficulty of this undertaking, “The Triple Revolution” nevertheless holds on to the idea of a “warless world,” stating that it is a need acknowledged by most people.

The memorandum also suggests that a Cybernation Revolution was underway, meaning that the use of machines was slowly changing the roles assumed by people in the economy and society. The Ad Hoc Committee was concerned that those without the wealth to purchase or develop machines would be left without the opportunity to earn a living, should the economy switch to a purely machine-based means of production.

The members of the committee also believed that the Cybernation Revolution would cause an unequal distribution of wealth which would eventually lead to an unsustainable national economy. And, indeed, one of the proposals put forth in “The Triple Revolution” is an equal distribution of wealth, carried out as a necessary action to prevent future economic instability. The memorandum encourages the development of an economic system that compensates those who do not own machines and do not have access to the means of production; a concept the document refers to as “the right to an income.” The Ad Hoc Committee believed that groups like African Americans in the early 1960s existed in a social and legal situation that prevented them from owning machines, limiting their opportunities for economic development.

Members of the Ad Hoc Committee believed that, by the 1960s, societies around the world needed to recognize the dignity of each individual. The group likewise believed that the civil rights movement in the United States was only a local manifestation of a world-wide trend to reform political systems such that individuals could not be excluded on account of their race. “The Triple Revolution” thus describes the civil rights movement in the United States existing as part of a broader Human Right Revolution in place at the time.

The document suggests that the U.S. government had the power to lead American society through the changes being ushered in by the triple revolution, primarily by decreasing the amount of resources and attention given to military endeavors and increasing the attention given to those who are at a social disadvantage. The pamphlet concludes by stating that failure to seek solutions to the issues that arise when human labor is replaced by machines would exacerbate social inequality and lead to “misery and chaos.” But so too did it remain hopeful that, given proper leadership, societies could overcome the challenges presented by the changes of the 1960s.


Louisville Courier-Journal, March 23, 1964.

In presenting “The Triple Revolution” to the federal government, the Ad Hoc Committee identified itself as a group of concerned citizens. And though the text made sure to include the government in its suggestions for the future, the document was considered by many to be radically anti-government, and by some to be anti-American. In particular, many who opposed the views presented in “The Triple Revolution” worried about its apparent lack of appreciation for the military, as indicated by the pamphlet’s recommendations that resources used for military efforts be limited.  Media pundits were also quick to disparage the idea of a guaranteed income and its implications of creeping socialism.

Two weeks after receiving the document, the White House issued a short response to “The Triple Revolution,” stating that the President had taken measures to address the problems identified in the memorandum. The letter is signed by Assistant Special Counsel to the President Lee C. White, who is remembered for having advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights strategies. For the most part, the response uses general statements and examples as evidence that President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was considering the issues brought up by the memorandum. It is unclear whether Johnson ever read or even received the document personally.

Despite media opposition to the document and its quick dismissal by the government, other peace activists shared many of the views expressed in “The Triple Revolution.” One group, Women Strike for Peace – an organization in which Ava Helen Pauling was especially active – expressed many of the same views on world affairs when it organized a demonstration outside the Peace Palace at The Hague in 1964. Through their activism and intellectual product, the Ad Hoc Committee and Women Strike for Peace alike were issuing a demand that social inequalities be resolved both for the benefit of individual societies and also as a step toward international peace.

Pacem in Terris


[Part 3 of 6 in a series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]

On April 11, 1963, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, Pope John XXIII (now a canonized saint of the Catholic Church) issued a papal encyclical, Pacem in Terris. The statement was an exhortation that the Catholic faithful of the world and “all men of good will” seek peace, a concept which the Pope defined as the divinely ordained order of the world. “The world’s Creator,” Pope John wrote, “has stamped man’s inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience and led the consciousness of all societies to prefer peace over war.”

In February 1965, nearly two years after the encyclical was issued, religious, political and social leaders from the world over were called to New York City by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) for a meeting titled “The Convocation on the Requirements of Peace.” The Center’s main goal for this convocation was to establish a series of concrete steps by which the ideas set forth in Pacem in Terris could be applied to the secular world. The convocation was led by CSDI president Robert Hutchins who established the central question that participants were asked to answer: “If the principles in Pacem in Terris are sound, how can they be carried out in the world as it is?”

At the time of the convocation, Linus Pauling was working with the CSDI and his professional energies were primarily centered on world peace. Not surprisingly, Pauling was sent to the conference as a representative of the CSDI. Pacem in Terris was in many ways a fitting document for Pauling to work with; its peace-seeking ideals and calls for social justice seemed to echo the message that he himself had shared in his 1963 Nobel address. Though not a religious man himself, Pauling had an interest in attempting to make the Pope’s message available to a broader audience, as its ideas so closely reflected many of his own.

Pope John Paul XXIII

Pope John XXIII

The Papal encyclical was based on ideals of human dignity and political justice, both of which John XXIII defined in the document. Human dignity, he stated, is founded on the principle that each individual “is truly a person” with the inalienable rights to intelligence and the exertion of free will, so long as the individual fulfills their duty to respect these same rights in others. In discussing political justice, the Pope suggested that a state must satisfy its needs and the needs of its people while recognizing that doing so should not be pursued in such a way as would hinder the rights of other nations.

Furthermore, John XXIII suggested that international conflicts must “be settled in a truly human way, not by armed force or by deceit or trickery.” He also stated that “there must be a mutual assessment of the arguments and feelings on both sides of an argument, a mature and objective investigation of the situation, and an equitable reconciliation of opposing views” in order to maintain political justice and human dignity in conflict resolution. This call for war-free conflict resolution was what inspired the CSDI to organize the Convocation on the Requirements of Peace.

Some of Pauling's notes from the 1965 convocation.

Some of Pauling’s notes from the 1965 convocation.

Pauling’s fame as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize afforded him a slot among the main speakers at the meeting. And as with the Pope’s message from two years earlier, Pauling’s contributions to the gathering also focused on the ideals of political justice and human dignity. Pauling’s discourse was appropriately titled “Peace on Earth,” and explained his vision of John XXIII’s encyclical as it applied to the secular world. Pauling and the Pope agreed in many ways – each believed in an end to warfare, and that countries should be guaranteed equal rights and advantages during a dispute.

Pauling and John XXIII also believed that conflicts could be ameliorated by the action of an international authority, but the two held radically different views concerning the shape that this authority would assume. Where Pauling proposed that a world government could and should fill this position, John XXIII believed that submission to the authority of God would lead individuals to discover a life in which their more violent or aggressive tendencies would be calmed and controlled. John XXIII’s views on the authority of God were, of course, appropriate for his position as Pope, but were more difficult to accept for a non-Christian mindset. Pauling, an atheist since he was a boy, took the Convocation as an opportunity to place his own views on authority and politics within other propositions for avenues to achieve world peace.

While Pauling’s speech was successful in presenting the Pope’s ideas to broader audiences, it also elaborated on a variety of additional issues, such as the problem of evil. “Peace on Earth” takes time to address the suffering of innocent people and in this it establishes that evil is real for people of all backgrounds and that the experience of evil is, in itself, a reason to fight for peace. Pauling further suggested that, although suffering is an intangible reality, he could show that it exists simply by noting the common expressions that manifest these realities: “when I am pricked I bleed, as do other men; when I am tickled I laugh, when I am poisoned I die.”

Pauling believed that while nature can cause people to suffer, human intelligence can ameliorate the “injustices of nature,” and he extended this thought to a discussion of nuclear warfare. By 1965, Pauling had begun to feel that the specter of nuclear holocaust would not continue to be an issue – the certainty of human extinction had rendered nuclear war an irrational option for the world’s governments. Pauling also believed, rather optimistically, that humankind had reached the point to where it was ready for the development of a rational and moral alternative to war.

Correspondence from numerous observers who wrote in after the meeting had concluded suggests that Pauling and the other conference participants had satisfied Hutchins’ mandate. The conference had developed mechanisms for carrying out the principles of Pacem in Terris in the world of 1965, principles that made sense to a wide variety of interested individuals. The letters further point out that media from around the country had taken note of the discussions held at the convocation and that Pauling’s discourse was particularly impactful. Though only part of a much larger conversation, the Convocation on the Requirements of Peace helped to propel the discussion of what peace actually meant some two decades into the atomic age.

CSDI: A Platform for Action Merging Science and Peace

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

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

[Part 2 of 6 in a series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]

Linus Pauling spent forty-two years of his career at the California Institute of Technology.  His tenure at Caltech was the stuff of legend, a time period during which he inspired students and colleagues alike as he carried out a significant portion of the work that made him famous and led to his receipt of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Pauling’s decision to leave Caltech and continue his work at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) in Santa Barbara, California meant not only a change in the location of his research but also in its entire dynamic. For the most part, the CSDI was a think tank of sorts, focused primarily on the intellectual study of political and social issues. Pauling joined the center buoyed by the hope that he might continue his scientific studies and experimentation as an adjunct at nearby universities. On the same token, his new home base at the CSDI would provide the opportunity for Pauling to contribute to discussions on world affairs, democracy and world peace in an atmosphere free from the suspicion and hostility that continued to define Cold War America.

Pauling was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, the year that he decided to join the CSDI. His passion for peace work and the support extended to him by the center’s president, Robert Hutchins, had attracted Pauling to the center.  His first objective as a newcomer was to continue exploring and pursuing the goals and ideals expressed in his Nobel lecture, “Science and Peace,” delivered in Oslo on December 10th.

In that lecture, Pauling expressed his feeling that scientists, through their technical contributions, were in part responsible for the horrors of nuclear warfare. But he also strongly affirmed his long-standing notion that the scientific community and its product should act as a forceful leader in bringing the world to a period of peace; a period “where no greater nor more destructive weapons can be discovered, leading countries to realize that matters should not be solved by war or force but by a world law.”

“Science and Peace” notes that even before the first nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a committee of atomic scientists had been urging the U.S. Secretary of War to refrain from using atomic bombs in surprise attacks. Actions of this sort were in line with what Pauling envisioned the completed work of a scientist to be.  Pauling felt that the scientist was not only meant to play a role in scientific development but was also to serve as a public citizen.  In other words, scientists bore an obligation to used their informed voices as a tool to help educated and guide others in the real world application of scientific developments, particularly including technologies of warfare.

The social and political activism that helped to define Pauling’s career from the mid-1940s on is clear evidence of his striving to live by this ideal. While the CSDI would require him to leave his nicely appointed laboratory in Pasadena, it would give him the chance to further his work as a “complete scientist” enabled to inform the public about science’s role in social issues.

Pauling's Nobel lecture, as published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Pauling’s Nobel lecture, as published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

As he spent more time thinking and researching, Pauling developed many ideas concerning the achievement of world peace. Seemingly among his more radical positions – though one shared by many others of his era – was the notion that peace could be achieved by implementation of a world democratic law. By “world law,” Pauling and other proponents meant an institution and legal system empowered with the authority to moderate between countries during times of conflict.

An arrangement of this sort was seen as one that would maintain the sovereignty of all nations while providing a higher authority with the tool kit to prevent war. A world law would thus be comprised of a set of international agreements enforced by an international institution. These agreements, Pauling believed, should further be set up to provide separate voices for national governments and their people.  Doing so would allow for peaceful resolution of disputes both within and between nations.

Pauling’s Nobel lecture likewise suggests that a world government, formed by representatives of both governments and their people, could even put an end to dictatorships through its specific representation of the world’s governments and the world’s populations. Pauling believed that it was essential to simultaneously ensure the rights of independent governments and to protect the voices of the people.  Failure to do so would inevitably lead to human suffering, be it through violent revolution or iron-fisted dictatorship.

In effect, what Pauling was proposing was that the United Nations, or an entity like it, become a far more powerful institution. That it become a democratic institution for the world, working to guarantee the citizens of all nations a voice in important affairs while maintaining the sovereignty of individual governments. In “Science and Peace” Pauling recognized that his knowledge of the current law was far from complete. But he did not cease to develop and promote the idea of a democratic world law, a vision also supported at CSDI by Robert Hutchins.

Pauling was one of the most notable advocates for the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and saw its signing in 1963 as a first step to the creation of a world law.  The treaty, afterall, was an international agreement that protected participating countries from the dangers of radioactive waste by banning nuclear testing in the Earth’s oceans, land and atmosphere. Pauling’s vision of world government was seconded by peace advocates around the world and formed an important component of his research agenda at the CSDI.

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions

Pauling at his living room press conference, October 1963. Image credit: James McClanahan.

Pauling at his living room press conference, October 1963. Image credit: James McClanahan.

[Ed Note: This is part one of a six-post series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.]

In October 1963, just after it was announced that Linus Pauling would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, a press conference was held in the living room of the Paulings’ home. Pauling naturally spoke of his happiness with the Nobel committee’s announcement but he also caught the media’s attention with some news of his own: he intended to take a leave of absence from the California Institute of Technology in order to resume his work in science, peace and medicine at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) in Santa Barbara, California.

The news came as a shock to most of his colleagues who were unaware of Pauling’s decision to leave after more than four decades of historic achievement at Caltech. By the time of his announcement however, Pauling had already arranged for the research currently under his supervision to continue until completion while he was in absentia.  And though he didn’t come right out and say it, Pauling’s leave of absence effectively marked his resignation from Caltech.

Pauling’s decision was radical not only because he was leaving the institution where he had worked for forty-one years, but also because the CSDI was a completely different institution. Where some, like Pauling’s biographer Thomas Hager, could describe Caltech as “a monastery devoted to science,” the CSDI was, in the words of the center’s director Robert Hutchins, an “educational enterprise established by the Fund for the Republic to promote the principles of individual liberty expressed in the Declaration of independence and the Constitution of the United States.” Indeed, the CSDI was essentially a think tank that sought to study the effects of democracy and constitutional rights on modern institutions such as corporations and labor unions – a far cry from the hard science that Pauling was used to at Caltech.

Pauling hoped that his time at the CSDI it would enable his collaboration with neighboring institutions, such as the University of California schools, to perform scientific research, while simultaneously contributing to the development of ideas on world peace at the center. Pauling joined the center because he believed that science should be used to address social issues and to offer solutions to the problems facing society.

In the letter of resignation that he wrote to the leaders of the California Institute of Technology, he expressed his desire to continue his work at the CSDI because he wished to incorporate world affairs into his study of science and medicine. In this, Pauling was illustrating the degree to which he was prioritizing world affairs at this point in his life. In a letter to James Higgins, however, Ava Helen Pauling expressed concern that her husband would find the CSDI “too superficial,” a statement that would prove prophetic.

"Pauling & Peace: Questions Linger," Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 1963.

Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 1963.

In his fight against the use and propagation of nuclear weapons, Pauling became one of the world’s most prominent advocates for the test ban treaty that was ultimately signed by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in 1963. The treaty limited its scope to banning nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space and under water, but nonetheless marked a major turning point in the short history of the nuclear age.

Pauling was roundly criticized for his activism against nuclear testing.  Many saw his efforts as hindering the strength and effectiveness of the U.S. military. In a 1960 article published by the Arcadia (California) Tribune, Pauling was introduced as a professor at Caltech and then accused of being an un-American communist. This example was only one of many instances in which Pauling’s professional life and the institution for which he worked for were placed in an unflattering light due to resistance to his personal views on world affairs.  Trustees at Caltech took note, and as Pauling’s prominence grew, his relationship with the Caltech power structure steadily eroded.

Though Pauling obviously enjoyed a wide range of supporters as well – including the Nobel committee -media criticism, especially in the U.S., continued to intensify with the increased attention brought about by his award.

On December 17, 1963, just days after Pauling was awarded the Nobel medal, The Wall Street Journal questioned the committee’s understanding of Pauling’s views in an article titled “Pauling and Peace: Questions Linger.” The opinion piece suggested that the Nobel selectors had overlooked the significance and need for the threat of war in stopping “the cold blooded calculations of dictators like Khrushchev and Mao Tse-Tung” and that this was reason enough for “the vast majority of the American people” not to hail their compatriot for having been awarded a second Nobel Prize.

Robert Hutchins.

Robert Hutchins

At the time that Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize, the most welcoming and supporting environment for his work seemed to be the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In a letter to Pauling dated October 17, 1963, Robert Hutchins, the center’s head and a past president of the University of Chicago, gave Pauling his full support and noted how closely aligned their views and goals were, so much so that their most recent publications had similar titles. Hutchins saw in Pauling a potential candidate to take over the center’s program of research in medicine, which was still in its nascent form at the CSDI, to say nothing of the added impact that his mere presence would immediately make upon the center’s profile.

In Pauling’s statement to the press concerning his move to the CSDI, he expressed excitement at the idea of working in an environment where he was already familiar with many of his new colleagues and could more freely choose which areas to focus his studies. Indeed, “increased freedom of action” was one of the main points of emphasis in his statement. It would seem then, that the two main reasons why Pauling was specifically attracted to the CSDI were the freedom to focus on the relationship between peace and science, and the support that he was receiving from his colleagues at the Center. With the CSDI, Pauling hoped to link his ongoing research in science, peace and medicine to the larger issues facing the political systems and social institutions of his time.

Despite the benefits and possibilities that the Center seemed to promise, Pauling knew that his work would, by necessity, become increasingly theoretical rather than experimental. Back at Caltech, Pauling’s many years of research, experimentation and funding had allowed him to amass important, and expensive, apparatus for his laboratory. The CSDI, on the other hand, had hardly even dealt with the sciences and its research in medicine had not yet included any experimental work. While trading Caltech for the CSDI was not the most expedient move for Pauling’s scientific work, it did seem to give him the freedom to focus on the matters that he valued the most during this period of his life. And so it was that, in the 1964, Pauling ventured into uncharted waters.

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.


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