Pauling’s Last Year as a Grad Student

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1924.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1924.

[Part 3 of 3]

Pauling’s final year of graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, 1924-1925, was quite busy.  During this last phase of his student experience, Pauling’s primary research interests centered on hematite, corundum, and beta-alumina, though a great deal more professional and personal growth can be traced to this time in the budding young scholar’s life.

In his work on corundum and hematite, Pauling was assisted by Sterling B. Hendricks, a Texan who had received his master’s degree from Kansas State in 1924 was now in Pasadena, working on his PhD.  Hendricks became a close associate and personal friend of Pauling’s and, with their mentor Roscoe Dickinson away on a research trip, Pauling became Hendricks’ unofficial adviser. Such was Pauling’s influence that, later in life, Hendricks would come to consider himself to be “Linus’s first student.”

Together, Pauling and Hendricks worked on a theoretical paper that pieced together much of the work that they had completed over the previous year and a half. The paper was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) in March 1926 (nearly a year after Pauling had completed his PhD) and titled “The Prediction of the Relative Stabilities of Isosteric Isomeric Ions and Molecules.”  The paper was a milestone in that it was Pauling’s first paper devoted solely to the subject of the chemical bond.

It was not, however, the first paper that Hendricks and Pauling had co-authored. In 1925 the duo worked together to publish two sets of crystal structures: “The crystal structures of hematite and corundum” (March 1925) and “The crystal structures of sodium and potassium trinitrides and potassium cyanate, and the nature of the trinitride group” (December 1925).  During his last year of grad school, Pauling also collaborated with his friend and former roommate, Paul Emmett, on an X-ray determination of the crystal structure of barite.  Their article, which was published in JACS in April 1925, is another example of Pauling’s work that corrected previous published structures.

Peter Debye, 1926.

Peter Debye, 1926.

On top of the research that he was doing on crystal structures, Pauling also toyed with an idea in which he applied the Debye-Hückel theory, which was used to determine the energy coefficient of ions in dilute solutions. When he learned of this work, A.A. Noyes invited Peter Debye, who was based in Switzerland, to visit Caltech, in part to have him discuss his theory with Pauling. And although Pauling never published his original idea, in July 1925 Debye and Pauling did co-author a different paper, “The Inter-Ionic Attraction Theory of Ionized Solutes.  IV.  The Influence of Variation of Dielectric Constant on the Limiting Law for Small Concentrations.”  Appearing in JACS, the article was a contribution to a larger series published by the journal on the inter-ionic attraction theory of ionized solutes.


Later on in his life, Pauling developed a reputation for staying on top of the latest findings and issuing an informed opinion on a wide range of scientific topics.  This character trait was likely spurred by an experience that he had as a graduate student.

Early on in his graduate career, one of Pauling’s more influential professors, Richard C. Tolman, posed to him a question about diamagnetism. Pauling responded that diamagnetism was just a general property of matter, a lackluster reply that made clear that Pauling had not stayed current with the literature. Tolman kept questioning Pauling for more specific details until Pauling finally answered, “I don’t know.”  For this he was reprimanded by a Caltech post-doc who told him, “You are a graduate student now, and you’re supposed to know everything.” This was advice that Pauling took to heart and that made a big difference throughout his career in science.


The Paulings, 1925.

The Paulings, 1925.

Nearing the end of his graduate school tenure, Pauling read G.L. Clark’s paper on uranyl nitrate hexahydrate and, as he went, he corrected it.  This was a continuation of the critical reading habits that he had first developed at Oregon Agricultural College and had continued to hone by lantern light while working for the Oregon Highway Department the summer prior to his enrollment at Caltech. It was likewise a practice that he would continue throughout his career: closely reading papers and correcting errors, often by letting the author or publisher know what he had found.

By this time, with Roscoe Dickinson away, Pauling had taken up some of his mentor’s responsibilities in the lab and, as with Sterling Hendricks, was serving as an ad hoc advisor to several students.

Likewise, with Dickinson gone, Pauling began to develop his own techniques to aid in crystal structure determinations. A methodology that was quite different from the formal instruction that he had received, Pauling’s approach used atomic sizes and chemical behaviors to approximate reasonable structures for molecules.  After determining these possible structures, Pauling then used X-ray data to eliminate unlikely possibilities and to isolate the best possible structure for a particular substance.  As it turned out, this approach to scientific inquiry already had a name, the stochastic method, and Pauling ultimately put it to effective use across many different disciplines.


Linus Jr. and Ava Helen, 1925.

Linus Jr. and Ava Helen, 1925.

Pauling’s last year as a grad student also included big changes in his personal life.  After marrying in the summer of 1923, Ava Helen Pauling moved to Pasadena with her husband and kept house while he finished his degree. In the early years of their marriage, these duties also routinely included helping “keep house” in the laboratory, particularly by recording data and taking notes. Pauling’s research notebooks from these years are full of her handwriting, even including one note reminding Linus that she loved him.

In the midst of all his coursework and research, and as Pauling was wrapping up his last Winter term at Caltech, another big change came about when the Paulings’ first child, Linus Jr., was born on March 10, 1925.  By this time, Ava Helen was mostly excused from laboratory duty and focused her energies primarily on raising her children (ultimately there would be four) thus creating an atmosphere at home in which Linus could be as productive as possible.


Graduation day, 1925.

Graduation day, 1925.

Linus Pauling completed his PhD in chemistry in June 1925, tacking on minors in physics and mathematics as well. His dissertation, titled “The Determination with X-rays of the Structure of Crystals,” consisted of a compilation of articles that he had previously published with little more than new pagination connecting them together as a whole.

The summer after graduation, A.A. Noyes helped Pauling to secure a research fellowship that would enable him to stay at CIT and complete a research study on complex fluorides.  Pauling continued in this vein for the next eight months, during which time he began to make plans to leave Caltech to study as a post-doc at Berkeley, where he thought he might pursue a new set of experiments in G.N. Lewis’ lab, using funding from a National Research Fellowship that he had received.

Not wanting to lose Pauling to Berkeley and Lewis, Noyes managed to arrange for Pauling to remain in Pasadena in order to complete additional unfinished work on crystal structures.  Fortunately for Noyes, at the end of 1925, when the Guggenheim Fellowships were announced, Pauling was finally chosen for funding, having at last reached the program’s required minimum age.  At Noyes’s urging, Pauling resigned from his National Research Fellowship once he had received the good news from the Guggenheim Foundation. From there, Linus and Ava Helen took an important trip to Europe and ultimately returned to Caltech, their institutional home for the next thirty-six years.

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Pauling Becomes a Researcher

Roscoe Dickinson, 1923.

Roscoe Dickinson, 1923.

[Part 2 of 3 in a series investigating Linus Pauling’s life as a graduate student]

As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (CIT), Linus Pauling tailored a research program that was focused on the properties of matter, with a particular emphasis placed on molecular structure. This interest and the techniques that he learned would shape Pauling’s scientific thinking for the rest of his life.

Pauling’s focus on the theoretical, and his questioning of why processes move forward as they do or why structures are built as they are, was in keeping with contemporary trends in physical chemistry. Pauling enrolled at Caltech with a strong desire to learn more about the discipline of physical chemistry and his early mentor, Caltech chemistry chair A.A. Noyes, encouraged him to build up his background in x-ray crystallography to further enable this pursuit.

When Pauling began classes in September 1922, he also began his research in x-ray crystallography under the direction of his major professor, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson.  Not much older than Pauling and a recently minted PhD himself, Dickinson would soon become Pauling’s friend. Within weeks, Pauling began receiving invitations for dinners at the Dickinson house and was soon spending the odd weekend on camping trips with Dickinson and his wife.  After Ava Helen and Linus were married, she too joined in these social gatherings.

Dickinson and Pauling worked closely together for most of Pauling’s first year of grad school, but once Pauling had mastered the techniques necessary to prepare his own research, he mostly moved without Dickinson’s direct supervision. In a 1977 interview, Pauling recalled that Dickinson “was remarkably clear-headed, logical, and thorough” while working in the lab.  And as for the research,

Fortunately the field of x-ray diffraction was in an excellent state in that the procedures were rather complicated but they were thoroughly logical, [and] consisted of a series of logical tests.

The rigor and the logic that were fundamental to the field both pleased Pauling immensely.  And before long, the prodigious young student had moved beyond the expertise of his mentor and had begun to conduct original research that was outside of Dickinson’s own capability. In fact, Pauling’s acumen in the lab and facility as an x-ray crystallographer advanced so rapidly that, by his own recollection

…after about three years…I was making structure determinations of crystals that the technique was not powerful enough to handle, by guessing what the structure was and then testing it.


X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling's desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling’s desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

But in his earlier days, Pauling still needed some help. During November and December of his first year as a graduate student, Pauling prepared approximately twelve crystals and attempted to analyze them using x-rays, but none of the crystals yielded images sufficient enough to make a structure determination.

At this point, Dickinson stepped in and directed Pauling to the mineral molybdenite (MoS2), in the process showing him how to take an adequate sample, mount it, and analyze it using x-ray crystallography. This assistance in hand, Pauling was able to determine the structure of the crystal and Dickinson returned to his own work, confident in his feeling that Pauling was capable of doing the crystallography himself.

Soon after completing the experiment, Pauling was confronted by a very different type of confusion. With a successful structure determination in hand, he assumed that the next step would be to publish the work. So too did he assume that Dickinson would provide him with more direction, but he found that none was offered.  As such, Pauling wrote up his findings and presented them for review to his major professor.

Not long after, A.A. Noyes summoned Pauling to his office and carefully explained to the young graduate student that he had written up a paper with only his name on it and in the process had failed to acknowledge the crucial help that Dickinson had provided. Chagrined, Pauling revised the paper and listed himself as a second author, behind Dickinson. The experience proved to be an important one for Pauling, who was reminded early on of how easy it can be to minimize or discount the role that colleagues can play in one’s own research.


Molybdenite model, side view.

Molybdenite model, side view.

By the end of April 1923, Dickinson and Pauling had submitted their paper on the structure of molybdenite to the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS); it was published in June of that same year.  Together they had found the simplest crystal structure of molybdenite – which contains two molecules in a hexagonal unit – based on Laue and spectral photographs, and using the theory of space groups.  Although he published a piece on the manufacture of cement in Oregon while he was in undergrad at Oregon Agricultural College, the molybdenite paper was Pauling’s first true scientific publication.

Later that year, Pauling arrived at another milestone by publishing his first sole-author paper, one in which he described the structure of magnesium stannide (Mg2Sn) as determined, once again, by using x-rays. The paper was a huge accomplishment for another reason as well: the x-ray processes used by Pauling had never been successfully deployed for the study of an intermetallic compound before.  And even though this was his first single author paper, Pauling still made sure to thank Roscoe Dickinson in his conclusion, taking pains to avoid another scholarly faux pas.  He would continue in this practice throughout his graduate career.


Richard Tolman, 1931.

Richard Tolman, 1931.

“The crystal structure of magnesium stannide,” was one of eight articles that Pauling published during his grad school years – he completed an impressive total of six structures before receiving his doctorate. Having authored these articles, Pauling found himself on the forefront of a shift in physical chemistry: as crystallography advanced, it was becoming increasingly clear that the properties of specific compounds were based on their structures, which could now be described with mounting confidence. Indeed, several of Pauling’s articles included reevaluations of existing structures, with revised explanations as to why the structures in question had not complied with the new data that Pauling collected.

One such article was “The Entropy of Supercooled Liquids at the Absolute Zero,” which Pauling wrote with CIT faculty member Richard C. Tolman.  In their paper, the two authors corrected an earlier claim made by Ermon D. Eastman, a professor of physical chemistry at Berkeley, who had stated that complicated crystals (those with large unit cells) have greater entropy at absolute zero than do simple crystals. Using statistical mechanical techniques, Pauling and Tolman were able to show that, at absolute zero, the entropy of all perfect crystals, even those with large unit cells, also has to be zero.


Detail from 'Atombau und Spektrallinien' containing x-ray diffraction images.

Detail from ‘Atombau und Spektrallinien’ containing x-ray diffraction images.

Pauling had become familiar with Tolman through a different means. During his third term at Caltech, Spring of 1923, Pauling took Tolman’s course in advanced thermodynamics, an experience that boosted his subsequent interest in quantum theory. It was also during this period that he read Arnold Sommerfeld’s Atombau und Spektrallinien (Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines) and began to be exposed to cutting edge research in quantum theory through the numerous physics and chemistry research colloquia hosted by Caltech.

Sommerfeld would become a lasting influence on Pauling’s life and Pauling would eventually study with him in Germany while there on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926-27. But well before then, in 1923, Sommerfeld visited CIT to talk about his work with the new quantum theory. As an aid to his lectures, Sommerfeld used crystal models that he brought from Germany, which he hoped would help him to better explain this complicated work. Afterward, Pauling felt emboldened enough to to show Sommerfeld some of the models that he himself had made in the course of his own research; models that turned out to be much better than those constructed by Sommerfeld.

Pauling in Graduate School

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

[Part 1 of 3]

“My ambition to become a factor in the advancement of human knowledge can be realized only if I prepare myself properly for my work.”

-Linus Pauling, letter to A.A. Noyes, January 26, 1922

By all measures a successful chemical engineering undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, and wanting very much to continue his education and earn his PhD in chemistry, Linus Pauling wrote to several graduate programs across the country, inquiring in particular about fellowships. Though he had proven himself to be prodigious talent as a student and, already, as a teacher, Pauling’s location in Corvallis didn’t carry a great deal of cache with the country’s elite institutions. And given his family’s shaky financial health, some measure of institutional funding was going to be required if he were to advance in the academy.

Pauling heard back from Harvard first, but was disappointed by their offer, which was for a half-time instructorship. Harvard also suggested that it would take him an estimated five years to complete his degree.  A more promising option was the University of California, Berkeley, an institution that would continue to tempt Pauling in the years to come. But as soon as he received a favorable reply from the California Institute of Technology (CIT), he rescinded all other pending applications, including Berkeley. Pauling had a good feeling about Caltech, and indeed his choice would pay significant dividends for the next four decades.


noyes-sherril-1

Once frustrated with chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College because he found it too easy, in graduate school Pauling was both presented with more challenging questions and received more considered guidance from some of the best scientists of the day.  One such man was Arthur Amos Noyes, the chair of Caltech’s chemistry department who also served as Pauling’s contact throughout his application process.

In their correspondence, Noyes encouraged Pauling to develop his coursework independently during his final quarters at OAC. Doing so would enable the bright but undertrained Pauling to enter CIT with the strongest background the he could muster in physical chemistry.  Noyes’ suggestions included building up a solid understanding of both French and German, and also working through a more rigorous physical chemistry text than the one that Pauling was currently using in his class.

This more appropriate text, An Advanced Course in Chemical Principles, was co-authored by Noyes himself, along with a Caltech colleague, Miles S. Sherrill.  Noyes implored Pauling to move through the book, methodically solving all of its example problems, the end goal being to provide Pauling with a better understanding of the field, and to prepare him to pursue both advanced coursework at CIT as well as his own unique research agenda.

The text itself was not merely descriptive, but also guided students through the problems that it presented by giving them the information necessary to solve them. This approach was unlike that taken by other popular texts at the time, which focused instead on leading students more directly to a solution. Noyes believed that his and Sherrill’s approach would help students to internalize what they were learning and assist them in understanding the processes required to arrive at the correct answer.

noyes-sherril-2

Noyes’ specific suggestion was that Pauling work through the text in conjunction with the OAC physical chemistry class in which he was currently enrolled, beginning at a point in the book that matched where he was at in class.  Instead, Pauling opted to commence with an independent study of the text during the summer after he graduated from OAC and before he enrolled at CIT.  Doing so, he believed, would allow him to work through the problems systematically and would also help to occupy his time while he was working in the field, assisting with road construction and pavement testing for the Oregon Highway Department. Before he reached the Caltech campus during the third week of September 1922, Pauling had worked through the entirety of book, solving many of its problems by lantern light in his tent.

And just as he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Pauling questioned the accuracy of certain answers posed by the authors of the book.  Upon finally arriving in Pasadena that fall, a first order of business for Pauling was to compare his notes with those of Paul Emmett, his childhood friend and OAC classmate who had likewise entered a course of graduate study in chemistry at CIT.


sci1.001.38-lauephotos-900w

While Pauling was still at OAC, Noyes passed along a few more ideas that might help in preparing for the rigors of Caltech. In addition to his own physical chemistry book, Noyes also suggested that Pauling read X-Rays and Crystal Structure, authored by Sir William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and likewise advised that Pauling take a mineralogy class at OAC that would cover the fundamentals of x-ray crystallography.

It is interesting to note that, while reading X-Rays and Crystal Structure (once again, put off until the summer of 1922), Pauling wrote to Emmett and told him that he was not learning much from it. The Braggs, of course, eventually became chief scientific competitors of Pauling’s, and the techniques that they described in their book proved fundamental to many of Pauling’s own early discoveries.


A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

As he tried to help Pauling secure funding for the coming school year, Noyes found himself questioning whether or not Pauling had the experience necessary to receive a teaching fellowship. Wanting to insure his study at CIT, Noyes encouraged Pauling to send further information that might help with finding a grant to cover tuition or even a graduate assistantship, which would promise a “somewhat larger payment.” Noyes assured Pauling that he assumed Pauling would eventually be qualified for a teaching fellowship the next year.

In applying to graduate programs, Pauling expressed full confidence in his capacity to succeed as a student in physical chemistry, due to his strong grasp of mathematics, his previous experience teaching quantitative analysis and his work as a teaching assistant in general chemistry.  But he also believed that the environment at Caltech was top-notch and would provide him with the training that he needed to carry out research, even though he had no prior experience in this area.

Noyes ultimately was able to offer Pauling a prized graduate assistantship, confident in his interest in pursuing pure science and a career in university teaching. Pauling would foster a close relationship with Noyes over the years, and it was Noyes who worked hardest to keep Pauling at Caltech after he had completed his PhD, warding off the advances of G.N. Lewis at Berkeley in particular.


Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Pauling moved in with Paul Emmett and Paul’s mother in September 1922, and stayed with them for his first school year in Pasadena. During this time, Emmett and Pauling shared the same bed, sleeping in shifts. Pauling’s habits were such that he would stay up late studying while Emmett slept, and around 3:00 AM Emmett would get up to go to the lab, at which time Pauling then went to sleep. During this first year in California, Pauling also took Richard Chace Tolman’s class, Introduction to Mathematical Physics, which helped cement Pauling’s desire to become a theoretical physical chemist.

During his sparse free time, Pauling wrote letter after letter to his girlfriend, Ava Helen Miller, who remained in Corvallis to continue work on her Home Economics degree at OAC. Having expressed a desire to marry at least twice before Linus left for California, only to be rebuffed by their families, the two decided in their letters that they would absolutely be wed once Pauling had finished his first year of classes and just prior to his resumption of more construction work during the summer. Their plan came to fruition in Salem, Oregon on June 17, 1923, and Ava Helen moved to Pasadena that fall to accompany her new husband during his second year as a graduate student.

The Origins of the Crellin Laboratory

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 1 of 3]

By the early 1920s, the California Institute of Technology had become, in the minds of some, “the hub of America’s scientific establishments.” This point of prestige was especially notable because Caltech was so new and very geographically distant from other major scientific research enterprises, which were predominantly located on the east coast or around the Great Lakes region. Part of this success was due to the construction of the Gates Chemistry Laboratories, built in 1917 and expanded in 1927.

The prestige and skill exhibited by Caltech caught the attention of the very influential and wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, which began supporting certain of the Institute’s operations in the early 1930s.  This support was crucial for many reasons, one of them being that, by 1930, the Gates Laboratory had reached capacity. A.A. Noyes, chair of the Chemistry department at the time, commented that there was “literally no space for another research man,” and that greatly expanded facilities were exactly what the department needed to fulfill its vast potential. Linus Pauling, working in the Gates Lab, opined that the Institute was home to “the most forward looking Department of Chemistry with respect to physical chemistry in the world.” This was in no small part due to the superior leadership of Noyes, who had dramatically expanded the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering departments during his legendary tenure.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling's desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling's hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling’s desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling’s hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

The Rockefeller Foundation apparently agreed with Pauling’s assessment of Caltech’s capabilities, and in the early 1930s began to grant substantial funds to the Institute to further its leading positions in the fields of biology and chemistry. Specifically, the Institute held a key position in the development of a new field being pushed by the Foundation – a field described in 1938 as “molecular biology” by Rockefeller staffer Warren Weaver. Considering that the Great Depression was still in full swing, these additional funds were a godsend as research money was understandably difficult to come by.

In 1936, after some debate and controversy, Pauling was appointed the Chairman and Director of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and also the Director of the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, a position he held until 1958. Pauling was pleased with his increased responsibility and control, and decided that he wanted to revamp the department, and the labs in general, to better suit his vision for Caltech.

The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to provide Caltech with more money for purposes of expanding the Chemistry department and the Gates Lab. To this end, the Foundation also courted Edward W. Crellin, a retired steel magnate who lived in Pasadena. Fairly quickly, still in 1936, Crellin agreed to donate $350,000 – about $5.7 million in today’s dollars – in support of the construction of an expansion to the Gates lab, which was to be renamed the Gates and Crellin Chemical Laboratories. A year later, Crellin donated an additional $5,000 to provide floor coverings for the lab.

Edward W. Crellin.

Edward W. Crellin.

Pauling was so pleased by Crellin’s contributions that he named his son, born June 4, 1937, Edward Crellin Pauling. Even though Edward Crellin and Crellin Pauling never got to know each other – Edward Crellin died when Crellin Pauling was only 11 – he was still flattered by Linus Pauling’s gesture, and left $5,000 in his will for Crellin Pauling.

The architects for the building initiative were Francis Mayers, Oscar Murray, and Hardie Phillip, and the project was expensive. In March 1937, Pauling received a memo from the Chemistry department that suggested cuts to the building, in order to reduce costs. The memo listed 29 suggested reductions that would lower the total cost by $47,039. The list also included three suggested additions, which would add $965 to the bill. His eyes firmly set on a world-class facility, Pauling agreed to consider only a few minor possibilities: “omit some ceiling inserts” ($240), “simplify water proofing on vertical walls” ($450), “omit birch strips on exterior walls” ($158), and “use skim coat plaster” ($200).

In addition to the building itself, outfitting costs for the new space were also high. The equipment required for the lab to function ran to $36,000 – $51,000, depending on the contractor. In addition, basic chemicals were an extra $1,200. The Chemistry department rejected Pauling’s request for more specialized analytical machines, as they would tack on an extra $4,500.

The process of bartering for and ultimately purchasing the materials that the new lab would need was slowed down in July 1937 by over three weeks, when Carl Niemann, a colleague that Pauling had entrusted to do much of the purchasing, was hospitalized. Niemann wrote in a letter to Pauling that he had gone to see a doctor because he had a chunk of rust embedded in the cornea of his left eye, “and the first attempt to remove it was not particularly successful.” He was then hospitalized and had to “have the disturbing element removed and the seat of the injury cauterized.” Despite the potential severity of the injury, Niemann made a full recovery, and the quest to secure the necessary chemicals resumed.

Once the needed equipment and chemicals had been secured, more attention was paid to the new laboratory’s décor, and Caltech had a bronze tablet cast. The tablet, which was eventually installed at the entrance of the lab, read simply: “Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry. The Gift of Edward W. and Amy H. Crellin. 1937.”

Pauling110

Linus Pauling. Lecturing at the Concepts of Chemical Bonding Seminar, Oslo University, Oslo, Norway. 1982.

Today marks the 110th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth, which occurred in Portland, Oregon on February 28, 1901. As has become tradition on the Pauling Blog, we are celebrating this occasion by looking back at Pauling’s life in increments of twenty-five years.

1911

At the tender age of ten, young Linus was already at a crossroads in his life. First and foremost, his father Herman had died of a perforated ulcer the previous summer, thus throwing the Pauling family into something akin to chaos. Herman was a pharmacist and businessman of middling success, and his death was a source of major financial concern for his widow Isabelle and their three children, Linus, Pauline (age 9) and Lucile (age 7). From this point on, Linus’s childhood was certainly informed, if not dominated, by the continual need to contribute to the household income. His mother’s only asset of consequence was the family home, which she boarded out on a regular basis in an attempt to make ends meet. But as time passed and Belle’s own health faded, her only son was frequently called upon to assist with the family finances, leading Linus to assume any number of odd jobs, from delivery boy to film projectionist to grocery clerk.

Young Linus, ca. 1910s.

It was at this same time that the boy’s interest in science was beginning to flower. The previous year Herman had written a letter to the Portland Oregonian newspaper indicating that his son was a “great reader” keenly interested in ancient history and the natural sciences. In 1911 Pauling’s scientific impulses continued to flourish in the form of an insect collection that he maintained and classified using books checked out from the Portland library. Not long after, as with many scientists of his generation, Linus would develop an interest in minerals and begin compiling a personal collection of classified stones that he found.

1936

By the age of thirty-five, Pauling had already established himself as among the world’s pre-eminent structural chemists and was well on his way to making a major impact in the biological sciences. In 1936 Pauling met Karl Landsteiner of the Rockefeller Institute, a Nobel laureate researcher best known at the time for having determined the existence of different blood types in human beings. In their initial meeting, Pauling and Landsteiner discussed Landsteiner’s program of research in immunology, a conversation that would lead to a fruitful collaboration between the two scientists. Importantly, his interactions with Landsteiner would lead Pauling to think about and publish important work on the specificity of serological reactions, in particular the relationship between antibodies and antigens in the human body.

Linus Pauling, 1936.

The year also bore witness to a major change at the California Institute of Technology: in June, Arthur Amos Noyes died. Noyes had served as chairman of the Caltech Chemistry Division for some twenty-seven years and was among the best known chemists of his era. His death ushered a power vacuum within the academic administration at Caltech, by then an emerging force in scientific research. Three of Pauling’s colleagues cautiously recommended to Caltech president Robert Millikan that Pauling be installed as interim chair of the department. Millikan agreed and offered the position to Pauling, but was met with refusal. At the time of the proposal,  Pauling was the object of some degree of criticism within the ranks at Caltech – certain of his peers felt him to be overly ambitious and even reckless in his pursuit of scientific advance – and the suggestion that Pauling assume division leadership was hardly unanimous. Millikan’s terms likewise did not meet with Pauling’s approval; in essence he felt that he would be burdened with more responsibility but would not gain in authority. The impasse would not last long however, as Pauling would eventually accept a new offer in April 1937 and begin a twenty-one year tenure as division chief.

1961

A busy year started off with a bang when the sixty-year-old Pauling was chosen alongside a cache of other U.S. scientists as “Men of the Year” by Time magazine. By this period in Pauling’s life his peace activism was a topic of international conversation and early in the year Linus and Ava Helen followed up their famous 1958 United Nations Bomb Test Petition with a second “Appeal to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” issued in the wake of nuclear tests carried out by France. As a follow-up, the Paulings organized and attended a May conference held in Oslo Norway, at which the attendees (35 physical and biological scientists and 25 social scientists from around the world) issued the “Oslo Statement,” decrying nuclear proliferation and the continuation of nuclear tests.

Group photo of participants in the Oslo Conference, 1961.

While Pauling’s attentions during this period were increasingly drawn to his peace work, he did make time for innovative scientific research. Of particular note was his theory of anesthesia, published in July in the journal Science. Pauling’s idea was that anesthetic agents formed hydrate “cages” with properties similar to ice crystals. Owing to the nature of their molecular structure, these cages would impede electrical impulses in the brain, thus leading to unconsciousness. In a review article published one year later, the pharmacologist Chauncey Leake described the theory as “spectacular,” though for reasons that are still unclear it failed to gain traction with the larger scientific community.

1986

By age eighty-five, Pauling’s interests centered largely upon his continuing fascination with vitamin C. Having already published monographs focusing upon ascorbic acid’s capacity to ward of the common cold and the flu, Pauling was ready to put his thinking together into a general audience book that would discuss the path to happier and healthier lives. The result was How to Live Longer and Feel Better, a modest critical and commercial success that helped bolster the reputation and the finances of the struggling Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

Pauling at 85.

Many of the recommendations that Pauling made in How to Live Longer… were fairly typical of most health promotion books: a sensible diet, regular exercise and no smoking. The major exception to this moderate approach was the famed author’s stance on vitamin supplementation. In biographer Thomas Hager‘s words

Pauling was now advising between 6 and 18 grams of vitamin C per day, plus 400-16,000 IU of vitamin E (40-160 times the RDA), 25,000 IU of vitamin A (five times the RDA), and one or two ‘super B’ tablets for the B vitamins, along with a basic mineral supplement.

This staunch belief in the value of megavitamins would stay with Pauling until his death eight years later, in August 1994.

The Paving Inspector Job

Linus Pauling (second from right), part of a work crew stationed in Sutherlin, Oregon.  Summer 1922.

Linus Pauling (second from right) with a highway work crew, Sutherlin, Oregon. Summer 1922.

A unique chapter of Linus Pauling’s life played out over the summers of his undergraduate years at Oregon Agricultural College. A theme that had shadowed much of his young adult life – problems with finances – would continue to follow him into his graduate studies. The absence of a steady source of income, as well as short periods of more intensified financial hardship, significantly shaped the transition years between his start as an undergraduate and the beginning of his rigorous studies at the California Institute of Technology.

Pauling worked odd jobs on campus to make ends meet during the school year, but during most summers he was employed by the Oregon State Highway Commission as a paving plant inspector, living in a tent and charged with monitoring the quality of the bitumen-stone mixes used in the building of roads. His employment at the highway commission would stretch from the end of his sophomore year to the beginning of his doctoral studies. Over this course of time, particularly his final summer, distinguishing themes and aspects of Pauling’s professional life began to blossom.

Though it was not glorified work, and at times very boring, Pauling did enjoy his time working outdoors. He wrote of his love for the sun, and the benefits of spending a substantial portion of the year outside of a laboratory. Though Pauling would go on to work three additional summers for the highway commission, his first year was not without conflict. At this time he worked under the partial jurisdiction of a man named E.W. Lazell, a chemical and efficiency engineer stationed in Portland. A series of letters and reprimands from Mr. Lazell, as well as consultations with third parties, became common toward the end of Pauling’s first summer at the commission. In early September Pauling replied to department official Leland Gregory, apparently in regard to a complaint lodged against his handling of paving material temperatures. The “misinformed informant,” as Pauling referred to the unnamed complainant (Lazell), could apparently have been better informed had he referred to Pauling’s reports.

At the end of his first season with the commission, Pauling’s mother Belle informed him that she had been forced to use the money he had been sending her over the summer. The money had been meant to pay his school expenses for the following year, and with no additional funds at his disposal, Pauling chose to continue working into the fall.

Luckily, in late autumn of the same year, Pauling was offered a job by the chemistry department at O. A. C. Though it entailed a $25 per month pay cut, Pauling returned to the college as a full-time assistant instructor in quantitative analysis. The following summer he began work once again for the highway commission, and saved enough money to continue his studies as an undergraduate.

As has been well-documented, it is during Pauling’s stint as “boy professor” that he met Ava Helen Miller, his future wife, while teaching chemistry to her and twenty-four other home economics students. The two began dating toward the end of the school year, and the exchange of letters between them during Pauling’s last summer as a paving plant inspector gives one of the clearest and most intimate views of the future Nobel Prize winner’s advancing train of thought. All in all Pauling received 94 letters over the summer from Ava Miller, and replied in kind every day, sometimes two or three times.

You are my own darling girl, and your love is my only priceless possession. I shall try to make my life perfect in order that it may be good enough for you. I love your beautiful big blue eyes, your dainty little ears, your adorable own darling self. I love you.

-Linus Pauling to Ava Helen Miller, June 14, 1922.

The elements that generally defined Pauling’s correspondence with his future wife were a) their wish to be engaged, and b) the strong opposition to marriage that the two faced from their respective families. Always the romantic, Pauling was accused by some of Ava’s friends as being consistently “too mushy,” and indeed there is much written between the two about marriage, children and love.

However, over the course of their exchanges, Pauling likewise discussed much of his evolving personal philosophy. Both suggested reading materials to one another, with the bulk of the books suggested by Ava generally being metaphysical or philosophical in nature. As a result, Pauling discussed, in great detail, his perceptions of the soul, his conflicted feelings between animism and materialism, and his predisposition towards pacifism.

Money, a common theme for the duration of his undergraduate experience, also makes its presence felt throughout their correspondence. At times Pauling secretly mailed money to Ava to help finance trips to see him. He also devoted a substantial portion of his energies to trying to acquire the funds that would allow the two to marry after the summer’s end, with or without help from their parents.

Through youthful confessions, bouts of jealousy, and bold declarations, much can be gleaned about the budding relationship between Pauling and his wife-to-be. Other precursors such as Ava’s influence on Pauling’s diet, as well as his developing fascination with fruits, hint at patterns that would come to define important periods of his future life.

Hand-tinted photo of Pauling at the Sutherlin work site, 1922.

Pauling also read from his own selection of books, and took quite a liking to David Copperfield among others. Far and away, however, a major defining characteristic of his summer evenings was the time that he spent working through proof sheets of the first nine chapters of a newly revised chemistry textbook, Chemical Principles, sent to him by Arthur Amos Noyes, the head of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

Worked while stationed near the Pacific Coast at Astoria, Pauling devoured all 500 of the listed problems. After discussing his other interests with Noyes by mail, Pauling also began reading books on x-ray crystallography, a new technique being used to study the structure of crystals.  (One of these texts was X-rays and Crystal Structures by W. H. and W. L. Bragg, the latter of whom would eventually become a chief scientific rival of Pauling’s.)  Having completed his reading, and prompted by some nudging from Noyes, Pauling would begin his career as an x-ray crystallographer under the direction Professor Roscoe Dickinson at Caltech the following year.

It is clear by the end of his final summer with the highway commission that Pauling had grown weary of his summer occupation. (In an August 1922 letter to Ava Helen he writes: “I really hate working in a paving plant.  I do it just because I earn more than I would elsewhere.”) Bored, lonely and finished with the problem sets given to him by Professor Noyes, it appears that Pauling was left in an ideal state of mind to begin his graduate studies, and start what would become a brilliant career as an academic, a scientist and an activist for peace.

For more information on Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Pauling’s Methodology: X-ray Crystallography

X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling's desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling's desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

I was very fortunate in having A.A. Noyes suggest to me, or tell me, that I was to work with Roscoe Dickinson on x-ray crystallography, determination of the structure of crystals by x-ray diffraction. This technique gave for the first time detailed information about how atoms are related to other atoms in a crystal and how far apart they are from the other atoms.
Linus Pauling, 1988.

As a graduate student, well before Pauling began to research hemoglobin in earnest, he spent a great deal of his time using the technique of X-ray crystallography to determine the crystalline structure of a number of inorganic compounds. Pauling recalled that at that time X-ray crystallography “was a new technique, ten years old when I began. Quite a number of structures had been determined but there was a tremendous field open, a tremendous amount of work that could be done.”

Listen: Pauling discusses the importance of X-ray crystallography to his early structural chemistry research

The young Pauling obviously reveled in the excitement of being able to use a new and powerful technology. “We have a pretty extensive collection of apparatus” he once wrote to William Lawrence Bragg, the senior author of a 1922 textbook that started Pauling on X-ray crystallographic research. Any one of Bragg’s student’s, Pauling remarked, “no matter how physical his training,” need not “be frightened at coming to a chemical laboratory” so well-stocked with mechanical apparatus.

Initially Pauling used the technique of X-ray diffraction to determine the structures of fairly simple inorganic compounds, but later, as his own expertise grew and as he discovered new sources of funding, Pauling oriented this new technology toward complex organic compounds, including hemoglobin.

What was ultimately important to Pauling was not what X-ray crystallography could tell him about the size, structure, or relative placement of atoms within a molecule, but rather, what broader theories that information could then be used to support. His growing allegiance to structural chemistry, his developing ideas about the nature of the chemical bond, and his still nascent interest in biochemical interaction were all fed by his experience of rigorously determining molecular structure through new technological methods.

Pauling’s manuscript notes concerning his early experiments with hemochromogen, for instance, indicate the wide spectrum of experimental results he had to assimilate in order to create a coherent picture of the hemoglobin molecule.

The difficulties presented by the need to combine the information he had obtained from x-diffraction with information from other kinds of experimentation, including solubility and more traditional experimental methods, are readily apparent in Pauling’s notes.  Indeed, the impressive new technology of X-ray crystallography is relegated to just one entry in a list of experimental results.

Ultimately it wasn’t the technology at Pauling’s disposal that helped him become such a successful researcher, but rather his attitude in approaching technology and his ability to use the results it gave him to construct more broadly-applicable and intellectually-powerful theories.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s use of x-ray crystallography, see the websites Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History and It’s in the Blood!  A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia.