Two Years on the Pauling Beat

Today marks the second anniversary of the launching of the Pauling Blog.  In two years we have generated 214 posts, garnered over 63,000 views (not counting those accruing from syndication, which WordPress doesn’t include in its total statistics) and been graced with nearly 7,400 spam comments, most of which, thankfully, have been kept at bay by the good folks at Akismet.

We’re a bit less philosophical today than was the case one year ago, but we do want to take this moment to reflect back a bit.  Our readership has grown substantially over the past year and, as we enter our terrible twos, we figure this is a good opportunity to take another quick look at some writing that many of our readers may have never seen.  Here then, are ten worthwhile posts from the early days of the blog.

  1. Visiting Albert Schweitzer:  a review of the Paulings’ trip to Schweitzer’s medical compound in central Africa – in Linus Pauling’s estimation, “one of the most inaccessible areas of the world.”
  2. Pauling and the Presidents: the first in a series of three posts on Pauling’s relationship with this nation’s Commanders in Chief and with the office of the Presidency itself.  The other two posts focus on Pauling’s complicated interactions with John F. Kennedy, and with his own brief flirtation with the idea of running for the office himself.
  3. Pauling’s Rules: among Pauling’s major early contributions to science was his formation of a set of rules used to guide one’s analysis of x-ray diffraction data in the determination of crystal structures.
  4. The Guggenheim Trip: a three-part series detailing Linus and Ava Helen’s adventures as they toured through Europe for a year, meeting major scientific figures and absorbing the fledgling discipline of quantum mechanics.
  5. The Darlings: Maternal Ancestors of Linus Pauling:  an entertaining look at the colorful characters residing further down Pauling’s family tree.  We also featured Pauling’s paternal ancestry as well as Ava Helen’s lineage in separate posts.
  6. A Halloween Tale of Ice Cream and Ethanol:  Pauling’s typically detailed and ultra-rational recollection of a hallucination experienced late one November night.
  7. Clarifying Three Widespread Quotes:  three quotes attributed to Linus Pauling are scattered across the Internet.  This post investigates whether or not Pauling actually authored them.
  8. Pauling in the ROTC:  often accused of anti-Americanism due to his pacifist beliefs, few people know that Pauling actually served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, ultimately rising to the rank of Major.  This post was among the first in our lengthy Oregon 150 series, celebrating Pauling’s relationship with his home state.
  9. Mastering Genetics: Pauling and Eugenics:  a post that delves into what was among the more controversial stances that Pauling ever took.
  10. Linus Pauling Baseball:  we can’t help it – the video is priceless.

As always, thanks for reading!

Linus Pauling and the Mystery of Anesthesia: Part II

Pastel drawing of Xenon Hydrate by Roger Hayward. 1964.

Pastel drawing of Xenon Hydrate by Roger Hayward. 1964.

[Part 4 of 5]

After nearly a decade of puzzling over the mechanisms of anesthesia, Pauling had finally developed a workable theory. By re-imagining molecular interactions, he had been able to produce an entirely new theory that not only explained the effects of general anesthesia but even demonstrated the reversibility of the process. In short, it looked as though he had solved a problem that had baffled scientists for more than a century. But, in order to prove the theory, he needed to begin the experimentation process. For that, he needed a lead researcher.

In the summer of 1959, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling traveled to central Africa and visited Albert Schweitzer’s famous medical compound in Lamberéné. There, they met Frank Catchpool, Schweitzer’s chief medical officer. Pauling found Catchpool to be both intelligent and engaging. The two men spent a great deal of time together, touring the compound and discussing a variety of medical and scientific problems. Thoroughly impressed with the young physician, Pauling suggested that he apply for a position at Caltech.  Shortly thereafter, in 1960, Catchpool became a researcher in the chemistry division under Pauling’s direction.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959.

Upon Catchpool’s arrival in Pasadena, the two men discussed the problem of anesthesia. As they talked, Pauling began to formulate experiments for the new researcher to conduct. Before long, Catchpool and his assistants were hard at work attempting to verify Pauling’s theories. Success was not to be so easy, however – try as he might, Catchpool could not find a definitive link between microcrystals and anesthesia.  In a June 1960 letter to his son, Peter, Linus described the experimental anesthesia work in which he and Catchpool were engaged. He explained,

“Dr. Catchpool is just beginning a series of experiments on the effect anesthetic agents have in changing the brain waves of an artificial brain, made out of gelatin. I don’t know whether anything will come of this or not. I like the whole theory of anesthesia, but it is hard to think of good experiments to carry out in connection with it.”

Despite the obvious difficulties, Pauling was not to be deterred. Instead of trying to demonstrate the anesthetic effects directly, he decided to approach the problem tangentially. Rather than proving that hydrates were responsible for the anesthetic effect, he would prove that lower body temperatures (which would increase hydrate formation) would allow known anesthetics to act more quickly and with a stronger effect. In this way, he would be able to correlate high rates of hydrate formation with an increased anesthetic effect.

Seeking to experimentally verify this tangential approach, Catchpool and his assistants brought dozens of goldfish to the lab, each in its own temperature-regulated bowl. There, they mixed various anesthetic agents into the bowls. They hoped to find that the fish kept in lower temperature water would become more quickly anesthetized than those in warmer water. Unfortunately for the researchers, goldfish proved to be difficult test subjects. Much like Hans Horst Meyer’s tadpoles some sixty years before, the Catchpool group’s fish were almost impossible to observe objectively and the experiment quickly devolved into a guessing game. To make matters worse, Pauling’s colleagues were beginning to take notice of his strange experiments, leading to more than a few raised eyebrows.

Despite a string of failures in the laboratory, Pauling was unwilling to admit defeat. He felt strongly about the merits of his theory and was determined to publish it before another researcher had the chance. After a few preliminary lectures on the subject in early 1960, Pauling felt that he was ready to unveil it to a larger audience – with or without experimental evidence. He spent the spring and summer working on the paper, alternating between his office at Caltech and his home near Big Sur. A year later, in July of 1961, Pauling published “A Molecular Theory of General Anesthesia” [pdf link] in Science magazine. [134 (July 1961): 15-21]

Pauling and his team thought the paper would make a major splash in the medical world. As the first viable theory of anesthesia in decades, they expected chemists, biologists, and medical practitioners to be clamoring for details about his findings. Instead, the response was muted. A few anesthesiologists took note, but the scientific community as a whole remained unaffected. To make matters worse, another paper on anesthesia was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the same month. The competing paper, published by Stanley L. Miller, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, contained a theory similar to Pauling’s. Miller claimed that tiny “icebergs” formed around the gaseous anesthetic agents, preventing normal electrical oscillations and the flow of ions. And because Pauling’s paper was published just before his competitor’s, Miller had a chance to address Pauling’s findings. The following was added to Miller’s draft before publication:

Note added in proof.—Since this article was submitted, a paper by L. Pauling has appeared (Science, 134, 15 (1961)) in which a similar theory is presented. Pauling proposes that microcrystals of hydrate are formed during anesthesia, these crystals being stabilized by side chains of proteins. In spite of any possible stabilization of hydrate crystals by protein side chains, it appears doubtful that crystals could be formed. The gas-filled “icebergs” could be considered equivalent to Pauling’s microcrystals, except that the “icebergs” are much smaller and are not crystals in the usual sense.

Notes re: molecular medicine and anesthesia. November 23, 1964.

Notes re: molecular medicine and anesthesia. November 23, 1964.

Things were looking gloomy for Pauling. Not only had his theory gone almost completely unnoticed, but Miller’s idea was so similar to his own, and published so closely to it, that his work no longer looked entirely original. Over the next eighteen months, Pauling did his best to promote his theory. He gave a few speeches on his work and even tried to draw attention to the similarities between his and Miller’s publications in hopes of gaining credibility. Unfortunately, the scientific community simply wasn’t interested.

It is difficult to conjecture the exact reasons why Pauling’s theory was so effectively ignored. After all, he was a Nobel laureate, a prominent member of the international scientific community, and a well-known public figure. Moreover, he was presenting a novel solution to a problem that had troubled scientists since the mid-1800s. Today only a few individuals even remember that the hydrate microcrystal theory exists, much less that it was born in Pauling’s lab.

While it’s not easy to pinpoint the exact cause of the theory’s public flop, given the time period and events in Pauling’s personal life, it is possible to imagine some of the contributing factors. First, one must consider the impact of his political activities. Not only had Pauling sacrificed huge amounts of his time in the laboratory to lectures and peace demonstrations, he had also attracted the attention of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, a body designed to seek out and interrogate suspected Communist sympathizers. The Senate committee hearings, public appearances, and meetings with lawyers ate up much of his time during the first part of the decade, leaving Pauling with  little room for research or the promotion of his theory.

Moreover, Pauling was at odds with Caltech administrators during the early 1960s. His radical political activities and, to a lesser degree, his unconventional research projects had frayed his relationship with the Institute. Without the support of the university, it was much more difficult for him to access personnel and lab space, conduct research, and publicize his findings. This break between Pauling and the Caltech staff would result in his 1963 resignation from CIT and subsequent transfer to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, was Pauling’s research philosophy. Pauling believed in what is known as the stochastic method. In principle, the stochastic method requires an individual to apply his or her knowledge of a given subject to a particular phenomenon with the intention of developing a hypothesis regarding the phenomenon, absent of any unique laboratory data, which might be generated later. In laymen’s terms, we might refer to the process as making an educated guess and then designing experiments to see if the guess is correct.

However, to suggest that Pauling simply guessed would be both unfair and inaccurate. Instead, he combined the available information about a subject with his considerable skill as a scientist to formulate what he saw as a viable, working theory. Then, he would hand his findings off to other researchers, leaving them to do the experimental work. In most cases, the arrangement worked well. While he was most interested in theoretical work rather than the tedious job of running experiments, most others lacked Pauling’s creative genius, and instead preferred the structured, hands-on time in the laboratory. Normally, this resulted in a sort of symbiotic relationship in the Caltech laboratories. Unfortunately, this also meant that not all of Pauling’s theories received the attention that they deserved. If no one chose to work with Pauling’s theories, or if the research methods proved unsuccessful, the theory was often left to gather dust in one of the Institute’s filing cabinets. It’s likely that the difficulty of conducting appropriate experiments had a hand in silencing Pauling’s hydrate microcrystal theory.

Whatever the reason, Pauling’s theory now stands as little more than a footnote in the history of anesthesiology. After its publication in 1961, it quickly faded out of the picture and the field was, yet again, left without a single agreed-upon theory. Luckily, it wasn’t to remain so forever. In our final post on Linus Pauling and anesthesia, we will explore the advances in anesthetic theory from the 1970s to the present.

Click here to view our previous posts on Linus Pauling and the theory of anesthesia. For more information on Pauling’s life and work, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

Happy (Almost) Birthday Linus Pauling!

Cross-posted at Ether Wave Propaganda

Pauline, Linus and Lucile Pauling, 1908.

Pauline, Linus and Lucile Pauling, 1908.

Linus Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon on February 28, 1901, meaning that this coming Saturday will mark the 108th anniversary of his birth. (He died on August 19, 1994 at the age of 93)

Over the years, one of our annual habits around here has been to reflect back upon Pauling’s life at the time of his birthday anniversary, usually by highlighting his activities 100, 75, 50 and 25 years ago.

Looking back in segments of twenty-five years is admittedly rather an arbitrary observance, but it can oftentimes prove to be very revealing. By choosing to study the effectively-random dates of, in this instance, 1909, 1934, 1959 and 1984, one is compelled to sample a broad period of time in Pauling’s life and, in the process, gain a sense of his remarkably-wide variety of interests. It is our belief that, as much as anything else, these broad horizons define Pauling’s legacy.

1909: Age 8

The Pauling family begins this year in Condon, Oregon, a small and isolated farming community some 150 miles east of Portland. Four years previous, Linus’s father, Herman, had moved the family to the dry side of the state in search of business opportunities. A drug store operator, Herman has been able to make a living meeting the pharmaceutical needs of the region’s farmers, ranchers and cowboys.

Neither Herman nor his wife, Belle, particularly care for the area, and in September, following a fire that guts the Condon store, the family decides to return to Portland. By the time the family settles, Linus has transferred into his third fourth-grade class of the term. A rather withdrawn little boy, by 1909 Linus has already developed keen interests in the scientific world. He is particularly enamored of insects and minerals, and will soon develop and classify collections of both. He is also a voracious reader with a particular taste for ancient history.

1934: Age 33

Dr. Linus Pauling is a full professor at the California Institute of Technology, a recipient of the A.C. Langmuir Prize (awarded by the American Chemical Society to the best young chemist in the nation) and a married father of three. He has already published a set of papers that revolutionized the modern understanding of structural chemistry and is now turning his attentions to biological topics, including the structure of hemoglobin. The hemoglobin work will prove to be of major importance and will eventually receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Jack Sherman and Linus Pauling, 1935.

Jack Sherman and Linus Pauling, 1935.

Pauling has not, however, lost his passion for more traditional structure determinations. In 1934 he and Maurice L. Huggins publish an important paper on the atomic characteristics of crystals containing electron-pair bonds. Pauling also supervises investigations of enargite, binnite and calcium boride. His collaborator in the calcium boride work is a young Ph.D. named Sidney Weinbaum who, sixteen years later, will be imprisoned for having perjured himself during a loyalty hearing.

1959: Age 58

He does not know it yet, but Pauling is nearing the end of his long association with the California Institute of Technology. The recipient of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Pauling has made a decision to devote roughly half of his time to the world peace movement, a trend that proves increasingly troublesome to the Caltech regents.

In 1959 he delivers dozens of speeches on the perils of nuclear testing, the social ramifications of Cold War hysteria and the great immorality of war. He and his wife, Ava Helen, also spend the year traveling widely. They visit Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his medical compound in French Equitorial Africa; they contribute to the Fourth Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs in Baden, Austria; and they help draft the “Hiroshima Appeal,” issued in Japan by the Fifth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling working on the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, 1957.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling working on the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, 1957.

Pauling’s first love is and always shall be science, and amidst his flurry of peace activism he is still able to make time for work in the laboratory. One of his more novel pursuits is a theory of anesthesia, which he begins researching in April 1959. Running a series of experiments that involve goldfish, among other subjects, Pauling theorizes that anesthetic agents form hydrate “cages” with properties similar to ice crystals. Owing to the nature of their molecular structure these “cages” serve to impede electrical impulses in the brain, thus leading to unconsciousness.

1984: Age 83

Pauling’s fascination with vitamin C is in full bloom and by now he has written and lectured on the subject widely — one of his seventeen publications issued in 1984 is a book chapter on the topic of vitamin C and pregnancy.

Two years removed, Pauling likewise continues to struggle with the death of Ava Helen, his wife of fifty-eight years. Increasingly he turns to highly theoretical scientific pursuits as a method for occupying his mind and coping with his grief. In tandem with his orthomolecular work, publication titles the likes of “Evidence from bond lengths and bond angles for enneacovalence of cobalt, rhodium, iridium, iron, ruthenium, and osmium in compounds with elements of medium electronegativity” come to dominate his curriculum vitae.

In 1984 Pauling receives the American Chemical Society’s most prestigious award, the Joseph Priestley Medal. That same year he and three other Nobel laureates (Adolfo Perez Esquivel, George Wald and Betty Williams) sail to Nicaragua to promote peace and democracy in Central America. Never one to mince words, Pauling tells an interviewer aboard the “Peace Ship” that “the people of the United States need to know what great immorality the Reagan government has been committing, through the CIA and by direct subsidy of the forces that are trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua by force and violence.”

Linus Pauling in Nicaragua, 1984.

Linus Pauling in Nicaragua, 1984.

Celebrate Pauling’s 108th birthday by visiting the Linus Pauling Online portal.

The Paulings’ Later Peace Activism: Vietnam and the Gulf War

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

The peace activism of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling reached its crescendo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, beginning with the submission of their Bomb Test Petition to the United Nations in 1958 and ending with Linus Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1963. As the turbulent 1960s moved forward, the weary Paulings reduced, however incrementally, their profiles as peace activists. That is not to say, however, that the duo completely exited the public stage — far from it, in fact. Two important events in U.S. history — one before Ava Helen’s death and one after — prompted first the duo, and later Linus alone, to raise their voices anew in support of their beliefs.


I am ashamed of my country, the United States of America. My country is the richest country in the world. It is the most powerful country in the world. My country now leads the world in militarism, and leads the world in immorality.”

-Linus Pauling, Note to Self, May 2, 1967.

The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the mid-1960s infuriated much of the American public, Linus and Ava Helen included. As a result, the two activists set out on yet another peace campaign, doing their best to gain the attentions of the political world.

As an attempt at mediating the conflict, Linus began to correspond directly with Ho Chi Minh, while simultaneously seeking (with limited success) to involve Lyndon Johnson in the communications. Pauling and seven other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer, also drafted an appeal to the U.S. government, advocating a peaceful resolution of the war in Asia. Linus and Ava Helen attended rallies and gave speeches in support of military de-escalation in Asia and U.S.-Soviet peace talks. Unfortunately, the Paulings’ strategies were largely ignored at the administrative level, leading the couple to seek out alternative methods.

In addition to his speaking campaign, Pauling began to publish anti-war articles. He wrote pieces enumerating the need for peace and the possible long term effects of the Vietnam War. Most astonishingly, in May of 1972, the Paulings went so far as to volunteer to become “peace hostages” as a means of mediating the violent situation, agreeing “to spend at least two weeks in Northern Vietnam until all the bombing of that area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and materiel are removed from Indochina.”

The Paulings’ calls for peaceful negotiation were never embraced by the Johnson administration. At the same time, the increasingly-radical American youth instead garnered the attention of both the media and the Oval Office. The petitions and marches of the 1950s and early 1960s had been overtaken by the activities of college-age protesters, in the process moving the Paulings further and further toward the margins of an international peace movement to which they had once been so important.

The Persian Gulf War

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

In a war you have opposing forces that fight and there are deaths on both sides, and finally one side wins. In the old days perhaps this was a demonstration of the democratic process — the side with the biggest number of fighters won. [The Persian Gulf War] wasn’t a war. This you could call a massacre or a slaughter, perhaps even murder.”

-Linus Pauling, “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War,'” April 6, 1991.

After Ava Helen’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling continued the struggle for international peace, in part as a tribute to the ideals of his late wife. An opponent of President Reagan’s policies, he spoke out against the administration’s increasingly militaristic approach to international politics, campaigning in particular against the implementation of weapons systems like the “Star Wars” program, which Pauling viewed to be an utter waste of resources. It was in this vein that Pauling would continue to act, making hundreds of public appearances in support of numerous peace causes.

However, few events in his later years fully galvanized Pauling on the level of the Persian Gulf War, initiated in August 1990. Horrified by reports of extreme carnage, Pauling, nearing his ninetieth birthday, undertook a vigorous protest of Operation Desert Storm as his final stand as a figure for peace.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

With the directness that had come to typify his peace work, Pauling sent letters to General Colin Powell and to President George H. W. Bush, demanding an end to the fighting. His letter to President Bush declared “TO KILL AND MAIM PEOPLE IS IMMORAL! WAR IS IMMORAL!” While Pauling may have aged and his body weakened since his fight against the Vietnam War, his convictions remained unchanged.

In 1991 Pauling released “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War’,” a brief yet thorough list of concerns and grievances with both world politics and U.S. leadership. The document discussed the tactics and rationale for the war, the specific problems existing within the Persian Gulf region and, of course, the immorality of war as an institution. As unassuming as this small document was, it embodied the passions of a man who had dedicated more than half a century to the achievement of peace.

Read more about the Paulings’ Vietnam and Gulf War peace activism on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”

Visiting Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959

A humanitarian is a man who believes that no human being should be sacrificed to a project — especially to the project of perfecting nuclear weapons to kill hundreds of millions of people.”

-Albert Schweitzer. “A Nobel scientist speaks: Every test kills…” Liberation (New York) 2, no. 11. February 1958.

In 1959 Linus and Ava Helen Pauling embarked on a trip to west central Africa for purposes of visiting Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. Excluding a hiatus during World War I and brief trips to Europe throughout his life, Schweitzer had, since 1913, lived and worked at the Lambaréné compound, offering medical attention to the natives of what was then known as French Equatorial Africa — a region described by Pauling as

“…one of the most inaccessible areas of the world. An area heavily infected with sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, malaria, schistosomiasis, Framboesia, leprosy and many other terrible diseases, a large area without a single doctor.”

Schweitzer, a theologian and practicing Christian, believed his actions in Africa to be of utmost personal importance.

As the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was deeply concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and worked with the likes of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in protesting the atomic bomb. A signer of Pauling’s petition against the testing of nuclear weapons, Schweitzer was a friend and correspondent to the Paulings, and his concept of “reverence for life” became a central tenant of the Paulings own political philosophy.

Over the course of their two-week stay, the Paulings were profoundly impressed by the immensity of the jungle, the nature of the native peoples, and the sheer tenacity of Schweitzer and his colleagues who had built and supported the primitive medical station. Ava Helen’s diary of their trip to the compound is particularly fascinating. In it she records an almost stream-of-consciousness account of the sights and sounds encountered in this most foreign of lands:

“It is beautiful here, and chaotic — goats, chickens, ducks, pigeons everywhere. A beautifully tended garden — eggplant, beans, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, turnips, kohlrabi. Caged pelican, antelope, tame parrots, toucans, wild pigs, sheep looking about like goats except tails hang down, goats’ stick up.”

Elsewhere Ava Helen recounts a number of anecdotes relating to their visits with Schweitzer, including his affectionate relationship with a wild pig:

“The wild pig who slept on his porch, but Schweitzer had to put him to bed — fluffed his cushion and then played Brahms’ lullaby! Schweitzer said pigs very intelligent.”

The Paulings returned to the U.S. with a great respect for both Schweitzer and his work among the disenfranchised. In 1964, Linus Pauling and his colleague Frank Catchpool (who worked with Schweitzer at the Lambaréné hospital) would pay tribute to Schweitzer, noting that

“Of the thousands of millions of human beings who have lived during the first half of the Twentieth Century, we may expect that the memory of only a few will be preserved in history….[Among those is] Albert Schweitzer, who will be remembered as an outstanding musician and musicologist, philosopher and moralist, physician and humanitarian, and leader of and active participant in the effort to save civilization from destruction in a nuclear war.”

Read more about Albert Schweitzer on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.”