A Visit to Abergwenlais Mill

[Ed Note: We recently learned about a film, The Golden Molecule, that was produced in 2002 and includes unique footage of Peter Pauling at his home in Wales. In today’s post, the maker of this film, Taslima Khan, shares her memories of Peter, his wife Alicia, and the home that they shared.]

Click here to view The Golden Molecule (2002) on Vimeo.

In 2001/02, I embarked on a Master’s course in Science Media Production in London. Part of that course involved making a science-related graduation film or radio programme. I chose to make a film. Since it was 2002, a year before the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I thought a re-examination of that discovery would be interesting film to attempt to make. The first step was to identify some interviewees.

Back in 2002 the internet was around but it wasn’t as vast as it is now, and the information resources we have today did not exist. Pages on the discovery of the structure of DNA, etc. were few and far between, so the only way to seek any interviewees was to open James Watson’s book, The Double Helix, and page by page note the name of every person mentioned in it. A long list in hand, I returned to the internet and searched for them. Jim Watson, and the late Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, were alive, but my £50.00 budget wouldn’t stretch to a visit to the USA in the unlikely event Watson or Crick entertained the idea of an interview with me. So, I approached King’s College London several times to see if I could meet Professor Wilkins – it was a “no” when they eventually replied. I continued down the list without much luck: fifty years is a long time to try and relocate people. Eventually, Peter’s name was next on my list.

I found a reference to Peter working at University College London, and a photograph of a laboratory dustbin that had apparently been in Peter’s lab in the Department of Chemistry. And that was it. There was no more information.

Like previous efforts, I felt there was no great hope of success, but I emailed the Chemistry Department at UCL requesting contact information for Peter, or details of anyone who knew him. Amazingly, a few days later, I received a reply. I was so happy. And relieved. An Emeritus Professor from Peter’s old department emailed me Peter’s telephone number. I telephoned the number and Peter answered…

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The road to Abergwenlais Mill.

Peter and Alicia lived in a rural part of Wales, the kind of place where you go down long and narrow winding country roads with severe corners. If another car is coming the other way, you clench everything hoping the car would miraculously shrink in size too. It is also a Welsh speaking part of the country where they can spot a stranger a mile away, so locals, though friendly, could be a little intimidating.

I have to admit I was nervous as we approached Peter’s home and my mind was focused on getting a good interview. Consequently, I didn’t really notice the Mill itself where Peter and Alicia lived, except that it looked like a large, white, old, rural farmhouse, beautifully nestling in the Welsh countryside. Inside, Peter sat next to a large inglenook fireplace containing a huge wood burner and many logs. I seem to remember too, a spiral staircase that Peter went up to get some photographic plates of his research to show me.

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The mill where Peter and Alicia Pauling built their home.

From our first meeting, I found Peter to be a gregarious, funny, serious, smart, and pleasant man. He had a lot of conversation and was quite mischievous. There was a definite twinkle in his eye highly suggestive, to me, of an exuberant past. Unfortunately he didn’t, or wouldn’t, elaborate. I did ask. To give you an idea, I noted this down:

Peter Pauling: “I think I’ve said but never printed, that Cambridge was full of English men and consequently there was a shortage of males! But it certainly was full of au pair girls.”

There was also mention of him enjoying Peterhouse College life in Cambridge:

Peter Pauling: “My academic career, scientific research career, was almost terminated in 1953 because Bragg was unhappy with me. The undergraduates at Peterhouse, it was their fault, because instead of being in the lab doing something, I was out rowing the bow in the gentlemen’s eight. The Peterhouse fifth boat!”

He chained smoked pretty much throughout our interview. He mentioned cancer and hospital visits and his lungs, and maybe even chemotherapy, but that was in passing. It wasn’t the main topic but it was something that was there. He didn’t complain but only mentioned tiredness. He was certainly a character.

Alicia was quieter. A very able lady, she demonstrably kept her eye on Peter as she looked after him and attended his needs. Sometimes she sat in on the interview or stayed mainly in the kitchen. She appeared used to Peter getting visitors from here, there and everywhere and took it in her stride; such as Jim Watson and his wife, who visited them every summer. They seemed a very content partnership.

Peter had kindly arranged overnight accommodation for me and my colleague at a local Inn, and it was there we had dinner together before a big interview session the next day. As we walked in, the locals raised their heads to see who was arriving. Established members of their community, there was a murmur of recognition for Peter and Alicia, and some customers raised their glasses in greeting. My colleague and I as strangers, I felt, aroused general interest, but as we were with Peter and Alicia, our presence didn’t seem an uncommon occurrence. Our meals were huge and both Alicia and Peter ate, and drank, and conversed, joyfully. All in all, they were entertaining and welcoming company.

Looking back, I am conflicted in a way. It remains of great regret that when I met Peter I knew so little about him outside of the DNA story. Having read more about his research and life since on the Pauling Blog, it would have been interesting ask him about those memories. Conversely, I interviewed the man I met and not the man I’ve since read about, and that is possibly a good thing too. Although our meetings were brief, Peter was an entertaining, joyful and erudite interviewee who liked a drink, to smoke, and to recall stories from the science world he inhabited, and perhaps (he’d admit) somewhat luckily, been a part of.

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Peter Pauling: Exploring the Structure of Psychotropic Drugs, Searching for Comfort in the Country, 1970-2003

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The Pauling family at Deer Flat Ranch, 1973. Peter stands at left.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 8 of 9]

It was the 1970s, and Peter Pauling was studying the molecular arrangement and physiological effects of hallucinogens. The field of psychopharmacology, crucial to psychiatric treatments of mental disorders, was at the time almost brand new. Only in the 1960s did most physicians begin to consider the potential of psychoactive pharmacological treatments in treating mood disorders and neurologically based physical ailments. The role that different substances played in the alteration of brain chemistry, their influence on synaptic changes, and the modifications in nervous response that they could bring about were all still poorly understood.

Peter’s work modelling the structure of different neurotransmitters and psychotropic drugs was part of a larger effort in the late twentieth century that sought to address this gap in scientific knowledge. Many doctors of the era were studying drugs like mescaline, psilocybin, and lysergic acid (LSD). Often, these researchers self-administered as part of the experimental endeavor.

Peter Pauling was no exception. His first experiences with LSD came in 1962, when he began receiving small doses regularly as a treatment for his manic depressive symptoms. And while he generally found the results to be agreeable, his brother Linus Jr. was suspicious. A psychiatrist and graduate of Harvard Medical School himself, Linus Jr. advised that the treatment was not in favor in the United States, arguing that it was often prescribed by “unprincipled” doctors. Linus Jr. would later reflect that lithium as a treatment should have been offered to Peter at much earlier point, and that it might have more seriously and effectively addressed his condition.


This compelling new research topic in hand, Peter dove into biophysics and psychopharmacology, attending conferences in Moscow and Vienna that inspired him to study drugs and molecules active in the cholinergic nervous system. His electronics work from the 1960s also continued to expand in tandem with his new scholarly focus. The grant that he had received to build his own computer and diffractometer served as the kernel for a grander plan to develop his own data collection facility to research the nature of acetylcholine and other substances.

Indeed, Peter’s stated aim was nothing less than to become “the world’s expert on the structure of drugs,” a goal he pursued with vigor throughout the 1970s. From 1966 – when the Medical Research Council began a systematic investigation and correlation of nervous system pharmacology – through 1979, Peter published no fewer than forty-eight papers in the field. His major works came to print in 1970 with “The Conformation of Molecules Affecting Cholinergic Nervous Systems”; in 1972 with “The Molecular Structure of LSD”; and in 1973 with two articles, “Neuromuscular Blocking Agents” and “The Conformations of Neurotransmitter Substances.”

During this fertile period, Peter was supported by grants averaging about $100,000 dollars a year, including funding to purchase a computer graphic display and to employ a programmer to assist in the development of an interactive graphics system for the study of molecular structures. He described the function of the new technology to his father with awe:

One just pulls up a picture of the molecule and wiggles it around until one gets a pretty view, and punches a button which sets up a file which consists of the entire job input file for another computer to draw the picture. One then rings up the other computer on the telephone and sends the file down to it!

To date, no serious consideration appears to have been given to the impact that Peter Pauling may have had on the young field of psychopharmacology during his short but prolific research career at University College, London. He himself saw his work as influential, claiming in 1993 that his goal had been to discover details overlooked by other researchers and lamenting that, in his view, scientists in his own field had, in fact, overlooked these discoveries for years.


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Peter Pauling, with his mother, nephew and sister, at Deer Flat Ranch. Ca. late 1970s.

Peter’s personal life seemed to be improving at this point as well. Having moved out of the slum and into a new flat on Hornton Street, everything looked to be coming together.

Early in the decade, Peter began dating a book publishing agent by the name of Bud. The two had originally met at a party in Cambridge years earlier, and before long, Bud and Peter were married, with Peter’s daughter Sarah giving her father away at the ceremony. The couple subsequently moved in together and spent Christmas week in 1971 with some friends in a cottage in North Wales. Peter was enchanted by the place, noting that its Roman tracks and bridges inspired him to imagine someday owning a cottage of his own nearby.

But in stark contrast to pastoral dreams of retiring to the Welsh countryside, Peter Pauling’s life had become a blur of work and travel. He flew to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, and Sweden for conference after conference between 1970 and 1978. He also spoke, in 1974, at Peter Waser’s Cholinergic Nervous System conference in Zurich. (Waser had first outlined the role of cholinergic receptors in 1960, and is an early and influential figure in psychopharmacology)  Peter even received an honorary MD from the Karolinska Institute at Stockholm in 1972.

By now, Peter was also priding himself on his ability to keep what he called the “demon rum” securely in the bottle, though he likewise admitted that his was an ongoing struggle. By 1978, he had been hospitalized about five times – sometimes having himself committed – where he received psychiatric treatment for his depression as well as aversion therapy for his alcohol dependence. He took nicotinic acid and Antabuse to treat his symptoms, and adhered to a steady regimen of small doses of lysergic acid as well. When he was feeling well, Peter rewarded himself for all of his hard work with a new classic car; this time a 1938 Rolls Royce Phantom III with a 7 liter, V-12 engine.


Meanwhile, by 1972, Peter’s ex-wife Julia had finished both a teacher’s training degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in Education. The children also seemed to be flourishing: Thomas had joined his school’s rowing team, finishing in the top eight and winning a pewter cup in one race, and Sarah was beginning secondary school. The next year, Peter spent Christmas with Sarah and Thomas for the first time since 1966, after which his visits to both of them became more frequent, especially with Thomas. In 1979, Thomas joined his father for a trip to California to see his grandparents, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. Sarah accompanied Peter and Bud on a separate holiday that Peter admitted was an “eye opener,” showing him that he and his daughter could connect on a level that he hadn’t been sure was possible.

Before long, Sarah was heading off to the University of Bristol, and Thomas was coming up on his final exams at Sussex. Much like his father, Thomas possessed a mind that was mechanically focused, delighting in daydreams of designing bicycles or of someday becoming an electrical engineer.  In 1980, Thomas took a position at an engineering firm working in “forecasting expenditure,” and living in the same Hornton Street building as his father. Sarah would later complete a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s in Forensic Science, ultimately forging a career in pathology at the UK Home Office.


By the early 1980s, Peter had entered into a romantic relationship with another woman, Alicia, a librarian and classics instructor who lived in the same apartment building as he. Bud had moved out, and though she wished to maintain contact after their separation, Peter was less open to the idea. He preferred to continue to see Alicia, their “on again, off again” relationship percolating for many years before the two finally married. And though they took their time before sealing their vows, Alicia pretty quickly became a crucial fixture in Peter’s life, providing much needed support when tragedy repeatedly struck.

In 1981, Ava Helen Pauling, in failing health and suffering a recurrence of stomach cancer, decided against chemotherapy. She passed away on December 7th at the age of 77. Not long after, Peter lost his son Thomas, who, in 1983, died tragically at the young age of 26. The next year, Peter was admitted to the Queen Mary’s Hospital burn ward in Roehampton, where he received surgery to aid in his recovery after unintentionally setting his mattress on fire in the middle of the night.


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The final Pauling family portrait, taken on occasion of Linus Pauling’s 85th birthday. Pasadena, 1986. Peter stands at far left.

In 1986, Peter accepted an offer to take an early retirement from his job at the University of London. His academic career now concluded, Peter channeled his energies into fulfilling the vision that had first occurred to him in 1971: a small home in Wales. After many trips spent looking at properties, Peter and Alicia eventually came across a house that was adjacent to an isolated and run down mill out in the countryside of Dyfed.

For Peter, the mill itself was the real attraction. It was called Abergwenlais, and it was 250 years old. It’s specs included two big rooms, five bedrooms, two wood stoves, and a leaky roof in need of repair. Parts of the facility still retained the original equipment, though the mill wheel itself, which likely had been twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, was missing. Linus Pauling Jr. later described the property:

Through the ground ran a stream, part of which was diverted into a sluiceway to   motivate the wheel. Inside the mill was still the mechanism for transferring energy from horizontal to vertical grindstones, which had big doors on each side so wagons could go in underneath and get loaded up and then on out the other side. Only a small portion had been made barely habitable, with running water and a bathroom, and what passed for a kitchen. The Welsh countryside was beautiful. The place suited Peter.


Peter and Alicia married in 1991, taking a trip around the world as their honeymoon, and paying visits to Linus and Linus Jr. along the way. The next year, Alicia retired from her university job and sold her London flat, moving full-time into the house by the mill in Wales. But she continued to travel back and forth and remained academically active in her spare time. She also brought to the mill a number of cats that Peter considered “bloody awful things” on the grounds that they preyed on the local birds.

It is clear, however, that Alicia’s presence was supremely positive for Peter, both physically and psychologically. In a 1992 letter to his father, Peter admitted that, after years of struggle, he had finally found someone who would look after him. “I try not to complain, but just let things slide by,” he said of pastoral life with Alica, confiding that “it works quite well. She says she will be here more or less permanently by the end of September, but this may be a bit optimistic. It always has been.”

It was optimistic; but only just. Alicia returned permanently to the mill a month later than planned, and the pair lived out their lives there together among the old Roman roads, the green hills, the grey skies, and the deep winter snows.

Peter Pauling died on April 22, 2003. He was 72 years old.