The Joseph Priestley Medal

On August 30, 1983, almost exactly 250 years after the birth of famous chemist Joseph Priestley, Linus Pauling was offered the most prestigious award granted by the American Chemical Society: the Priestley Gold Medal.

The medal, granted to an individual who has made tremendous and innovative contributions to chemistry, was established in 1922. Initially awarded every three years, the ACS decided in 1944 to make it an annual prize. The Society elected to name the prestigious award after Priestley as his work with gases influenced the field of chemistry as well as general science, and his interests in a whole host of other areas made a significant impact on a number of additional disciplines, including political theory and religious practice.


By the time that Pauling received the Priestley Medal he had been affiliated with the American Chemical Society for over fifty years, and many were shocked to discover he hadn’t already received the award. As an ACS past president as well as the recipient of the Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, and the Willard Gibbs Award, he was certainly a lauded and highly decorated member of the society. For many, the explanation for his omission could be sourced to the generally conservative political viewpoint espoused by of the ACS Board of Directors.

For many years prior to his receipt of the award, Pauling had played an active role in the Priestley Medal selection process. Notably, in 1949 he nominated the eventual recipient, Arthur B. Lamb, as an acknowledgement of Lamb’s work as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society as well as his contributions to inorganic chemistry and the structure of complex ions. By then, Lamb and Pauling had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence as the former would often send manuscripts to Pauling to edit and evaluate for inclusion in JACS.

The following year Pauling nominated W.F. Giauque, a Canadian chemist who focused on chemical thermodynamics. While Giauque was of four finalists, the 1950 Priestley Medal instead went to Charles A. Kraus. Pauling was among the pool of thirty-three individuals nominated for that year, but did not make the cut to the final four.

“The Dickinson College Award, In Memory of Joseph Priestley,” presented to Pauling in 1969

In 1969, Pauling won a different award named after Joseph Priestley: the Priestley Memorial Award from Dickinson College, home to the largest Priestley collection in the world. Pauling was selected for this honor because of his “significant contributions to the welfare of mankind through his research in physical chemistry.”

As a component of his trip to accept the award, Pauling spent two days on campus interacting with students and faculty, and discussing what was then his primary concern: the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs. Pauling considered the mere idea of ABMs to be “silly” and more of a threat to the nation than a tool to provide security. Pauling further believed that governments, especially the U.S. government, should instead be focusing on the “lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth,” which he regarded to be “a chief problem.”


Pauling receiving the Priestley Medal from an unidentified ACS representative.

The symposium to recognize the awardee, titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley,” was held in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1984, and honored not only Pauling but also another thirty additional recipients of ACS awards. Derek Davenport, a chemist and historian then serving as chair for the ACS Division of Chemical Education, proposed and helped organize the symposium, advocating for Pauling as the awardee from the very beginning. Since Ava Helen Pauling’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling had drastically scaled back his travel schedule, but he was glad to make a trip to receive this special award, named for a historical figure whom he greatly admired.

At the symposium, Pauling received a gold medal bearing the likeness of Joseph Priestley, as well as a bronze replica. In addition to his acceptance address, to be delivered during the symposium’s opening ceremony, Pauling was obliged to participate in several interviews with the Society’s radio program, “Dimensions in Science,” as well as a meeting with local school teachers, another radio program called “At Your Service,” and an appearance on a local television program called “Newsmakers.”


Pauling’s acceptance address proved controversial. Titled “Chemistry and the World of Tomorrow,” the lecture was penned as a sequel of sorts to “Chemistry and the World of Today,” Pauling’s ACS presidential address from 1949.

Thirty-five years before, Pauling had discussed how the entire world was affected by chemistry, stressing the imperative that the ACS take a political turn to address society’s needs in the wake of World War II. Pauling’s 1984 talk was much more in line with his recent anti-war rhetoric and included criticisms of industrial chemists who had contributed to the advancement of the nuclear arms race. In particular, Pauling felt that chemists had been ignoring their obligations as global citizens for far too long while they focused on the science of war, and he made it known that this shirking of responsibility had angered him to no end. Suffice it to say, this component of the address was not received warmly by many of the chemists in the audience.

Pauling also made a point to refer to George Kistiakowsky, who had passed away less than a year earlier. Kistiakowsky was a physical chemist who had advised President Eisenhower from 1959 through 1961, and who had warned about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Pauling embraced his words and carried their sentiment throughout his speech, quoting Kistiakowsky as follows:

…and so here we are, possessors of some 50,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to produce a holocaust that will not only destroy industrial civilization but is likely to spread over the earth environmental effects from which recovery is by no means certain…there is simply not enough time before the world explodes…the threat of annihilation is unprecedented.


For many, Pauling’s rhetoric sent a chill through the room. Once he had completed his remarks, all of the other award recipients being honored were presented, and one-by-one Pauling sought to shake their hands in congratulation. One man refused to engage in this way, leaving Pauling shocked and upset. Derek Davenport, the event organizer, later reflected that

We were treated to an uncharacteristically graceless litany of evils of the military industrial complex and the necessity for eternal vigilance on the part of the concerned scientist. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm of the industrial chemists was distinctly muted and it was a rather glum Linus Pauling who assumed his seat in the center of the platform.

In the days following Pauling’s poorly received address, the ACS Board of Directors contacted previous recipients of the Priestley Medal to solicit their opinion on changing the address format during the opening ceremony. In this solicitation, the head of the Board Committee on Grants and Awards, Joseph Rogers, recommended shifting the acceptance address to a later date in the symposium and devoting only 10-15 minutes to an introduction of the awardee on the first day. In support of this change, Rogers cited the growing length of the opening ceremony as well as the presence of an audience that was mostly not of a scientific background.

Pauling responded to this proposal with disapproval, noting that the medal is “described as the greatest honor that the American Chemical Society can bestow.” Recipients then should logically have the opportunity to address the public at the initial gathering and to share their point of view in the spirit of the medal’s namesake.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: A Busy Conclusion

Pauling seated with Wilbur Miller and Gene McGuane for a radio broadcast sponsored by the Western Connecticut section of the American Chemical Society, 1949

[Part 4 of 4]

As Linus Pauling moved into the second half of his year as president of the American Chemical Society, the organization’s financial issues briefly took center stage. In July 1949, a committee tasked with analyzing the society’s expenditures and incomes began working in earnest. In particular, the committee sought to compare the costs associated with producing each of the society’s various publications against the income generated by subscription rates and member dues.

Pauling’s administrative records indicate that financing its publications was one of the ACS’ greatest monetary hurdles. And while the issue was beyond the committee’s ability to resolve, there was talk of increasing membership dues and publication subscription rates, decreasing financial support for certain niche publications in favor of more lucrative ones, and contacting chemistry-dependent industries that frequently took out mass-subscriptions to ask for additional financial support. Ultimately, it was decided that the 1950 membership dues would be increased; an explanation and defense of this move was published in the end-of-year report that was circulated to the full membership.


By late August, Pauling was once again attracting attention from his political critics within the ACS. This time, Pauling’s plans to travel to Mexico City to attend and present at the American Continental Congress for Peace were the source of the controversy. One especially prominent detractor, ACS board member A.C. Elm, wrote a letter to an unspecified recipient requesting that Pauling be dissuaded from attending the conference and, if that failed, that he be asked to resign from his leadership position. In his letter, Elm wrote that many ACS members were “greatly disturbed” to learn that Pauling was a sponsor of the meeting, which was “inspired and dominated by comunists [sic].”

Other members agreed that the act of requesting the president’s resignation over his political activities was unprecedented but necessary in light of the potential smear on the society’s reputation. Subsequent correspondence flew between ACS members, including every board member except for Pauling (Elm specifically stipulated as much in his first communication), trying to rally the organization against Pauling and “…use their influence to prevent Pauling from embarrassing the Society.”

These efforts failed and, in September, Pauling attended the Mexico City meeting. While there, he presented a talk titled “Man – An Irrational Animal,” in which he endorsed the idea of a world government, headed by the United Nations, to which all countries would need to transfer their sovereignty. Pauling believed that such an arrangement would guarantee world peace by uniting the globe under a single umbrella rather than a collection of competing nations.

To this end, Pauling placed the responsibility for seeking and ensuring peace into the hands of citizens instead of governments, since the latter’s historical impulse toward national sovereignty had frequently been antagonistic to the cause of peace. Pauling believed that international problems like hunger would never be solved while war continued to cause divisions between countries and waste resources. Pauling took particular aim at a segment of the scientific population for focusing on weapons development instead of conducting work to better the human condition.  


Just two weeks after the American Continental Congress for Peace, Pauling presided over the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. Held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the meeting was the largest in ACS history, with a record 1,064 papers presented in 151 sessions over five days. Such was the scale of the meeting that, in addition to space reserved at six different hotels, three temporary rooms were constructed at the ACS convention hall to satisfy meeting requirements. Several field trips to glass, wine, and food producers were included on the conference program as well.

Pauling gave his presidential address, titled “Chemistry and the World of Today,” on September 19. He opened,

What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today?’ My answer to this question is that I can say anything, discuss any feature of modern life, because every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is affected by chemistry.

He went on to give examples of scientific achievements that had fundamentally altered western society during the war years, including the invention of nylon and the medical application of penicillin. He then argued that the majority of scientific discoveries that are significant to modern life come about as a result of basic rather than applied research, noting that it is impossible to arrange or design life-changing discoveries. In emphasizing this point, Pauling used the example that “Nobody, not even Einstein himself, could plan to discover the theory of relativity.” [Pauling’s italics]

From there, Pauling complained bitterly about institutional qualms related to the costs of scientific equipment and research funds. In so doing, Pauling quoted the Russian physicist P.L. Kapitza, who, in a 1943 speech before the Soviet Academy of Science, had asked

When you look at a painting of Rembrandt, are you interested in the question of how much Rembrandt paid for his brushes and canvas? Why, when you consider a scientific job, do you want to know the cost of apparatus of the material used on it?

Pauling was unequivocal in his belief that the benefits of scientific achievement far outweighed the costs involved in producing the work, never mind the cost of equipment. As a means of easing the burden on educational institutions, Pauling reiterated his support for the creation of a National Science Foundation and stipulated that funding should be made available to universities and research institutes without limitations on how it could be used. He also suggested that corporations that rely on scientific discovery for their products bore an obligation to fund a large chunk of that research by providing similarly unrestricted research grants. Pauling felt that $250 million a year in federal money through a National Science Foundation, and $75 million a year from science-dependent industries, would work well as starting levels of support.

There were some concerns, raised by Pauling himself, that such large subsidies might invite inappropriate outside influence on scientific studies. But in general it was agreed that the need for funding and the value of research were greater than the associated risks. Notably, Pauling also believed that the smaller contribution from industry would still be enough to protect against a government monopolization of science.


Newsweek‘s reporting on the annual meeting portrayed Pauling’s address as the highlight of the convention, while making passing mention of that fact that, at some point, “…a rare chemical element disappeared from the convention hall where it was on exhibit.” The element was indeed very rare, and quite expensive as well. Called promethium (originally spelled prometheum) it had first been synthesized at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the war years and had been kept secret for reasons of national security.

According to the article, the sample on display weighed only 2 milligrams yet was worth about $120,000 in 1949, which is equivalent to well over a million dollars today. After doing the math, the Newsweek reporter who filed the story concluded that

…the national debt of the United States would buy about 10 pounds of prometheum. The loss was deplorable but completely unpreventable, for prometheum is radioactive and slowly disintegrates.

The implications of the last sentence are never explained; instead, the article moves on to a discussion of new processes for electroplating aluminum coatings to other metals. Whether the prometheum was stolen or somehow degraded down to nothing during the course of the conference is unclear, though theft seems more likely considering its monetary value (and its 17.7-year half-life).


Michael Somogyi

One research paper presented at the national meeting caused turbulence for the ACS in the months that followed. In Atlantic City, Dr. Michael Somogyi gave a talk on the treatment of diabetes in which he stated that most cases could be managed through dietary means alone and did not require the use of supplementary insulin. In fact, Somogyi argued that doctors were overprescribing insulin treatments to the point of afflicting their patients with “insulin poisoning.”

The American Diabetes Association was infuriated by this stance, and complained that medically driven research with severe implications for the treatment of a disease should never have been presented by a chemist at a chemistry convention. The ADA also pointed out that, in allowing the paper to be presented, the ACS had undermined the ability of medical practitioners to effectively treat diabetics, since many patients had begun to request Somogyi’s insulin-free treatment plan. The association further stressed that Somogyi’s research had not been clinically validated and did not actually include a “treatment plan” per se, but rather consisted of a series of recommendations for treatment possibilities and a call for further research.

An ADA representative wrote to Pauling that Somogyi’s actions had the potential to “jeopardize the lives of persons under treatment for diabetes” by encouraging potentially lethal abandonment of treatment plans involving insulin and weakening patients’ trust in their doctors. The representative concluded that changes in the scientific understanding of medical treatments should not be released to the public until clinically approved by qualified medical practitioners, and then released by an appropriate scientific journal or medical body.


The Somogyi controversy was one of the last major topics that Pauling was forced to address during his term as president of the ACS and, as 1950 approached, he was ready to move on to other priorities. His popularity as a speaker and as a scientist did not wane, but the controversies surrounding his liberal political leanings and accusations of Communist sympathies continued to hound him for years to come. Elected to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for 1950, Pauling remained tangentially active with the ACS for the rest of his life.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: Presidential Duties

[Part 3 of 4.]

Although Linus Pauling’s political activities were a source of irritation to many in the American Chemical Society, they did not seem to diminish his popularity to any noticeable extent. During his year as president, Pauling traveled the country, speaking to a great many local ACS sections and receiving many more requests than he could possibly accept.

Pauling’s talks also routinely drew audiences that were far larger than many of the sections had seen before, and sometimes bigger than the sections had capacity to accommodate. After one such occasion, a regional section, in sending Pauling a note of thanks following his talk at their meeting, even apologized to him in case “…those who had to stand became restless and in any way annoyed you.”

Prior to his visit, Pauling generally offered each section he lectured to a menu of three possible talks from which to choose: 1) The Valence of Metals and the Structures of Intermetallic Compounds, 2) The Structure of Antibodies and the Nature of Serological Reactions, or 3) New Light on the Structure of Inorganic Complexes. As the year moved forward, he began to introduce two additional possibilities: Structural Chemistry of the Metallic State and Relations between Structural Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry.

Each stop on his speaking tours typically included a luncheon with a few of the section’s higher-ups; a visit to a local university, factory, or laboratory where the majority of section members were employed; dinner out with the section; and finally the lecture at the end of the evening. For his talks, Pauling always requested a slide projector and a “good-sized blackboard,” complaining rather bitterly whenever he arrived at a venue to find that the blackboard had been omitted or was not as large as he had anticipated. Sections were generally quite diligent in accommodating Pauling, with many changing the dates of their regular meetings and rearranging other speakers to suit the president’s schedule.


In March, Pauling attended the William H. Nichols Medal dinner, which was hosted by the New York section of the ACS. Pauling had himself received the Nichols Medal in 1941 for his work on the chemical bond. Though the reasons why are unclear, the banquet at which the medal was customarily awarded had suffered a loss of prestige in the years since Pauling had received it.

Hoping to restore the event to its former glory, the organizers made a concerted effort to invite as many high-profile ACS members as they could, and Pauling enthusiastically accepted the section’s invitation to be present at the high table and say a few words about the importance of the award. The 1949 recipient of the Nichols Medal was I.M. Kolthoff, now often cited as the father of analytical chemistry.

Pauling also served as the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial lecturer for the Philadelphia section of the society. Smith was an internationally renowned chemist and educator as well as a past president of the ACS. Pauling’s appearance drew a much larger crowd than the organizers had anticipated, filling the lecture hall completely including standing room, with many others turned away once the room reached capacity. The title of his lecture was New Ideas on Inorganic Chemistry, focusing specifically on the structure of chemical bonds.

Pauling’s travels were interrupted in early April 1949 when he was hospitalized for a “varicocele repair job.” Though a minor operation, his recovery proved more difficult than the doctors had initially anticipated, and Pauling ultimately remained in the hospital for a month. As a result, he was forced to cancel a speaking tour he had arranged on the eastern half of the U.S. as well as numerous other engagements that had been booked throughout the spring.

Perhaps because of his forced removal from the public eye, Pauling seems to have enjoyed a quiet period during which he went about his own work as well as those put forth by his presidential duties. Those duties included appointing various awards committees as well as delegates to events and conferences that the ACS was invited to; participating in conversations related to budgets and logistics; and, once he was well, attending as many national-level meetings and local section events as he could.


Not all of Pauling’s activities as president attracted widespread attention. In the middle of the year, the ACS forwarded a letter to Pauling from a John Albert, aspiring research chemist, who introduced a tale of job search woe as follows:

Having been seeking employment for one year, having contacted more than one thousand prospective employers by resumes, having gone into debt more than $700 for bodily sustenance (food) during this period, having desired to marry, and having been refused even laboratory technician’s employment…

Albert included his résumé with the letter, requesting that Pauling critique it and offer any advice that he could to help the struggling chemist find work.

Pauling and ACS executive secretary Alden Emery both took note of Albert’s forwardness and pluck in contacting the president of the ACS as a job coach, and they decided to offer what help they could. After a little digging, Emery discovered that although Albert had spent five years studying full-time for his undergraduate degree, he never actually finished it, and from 1942 to 1949, a period of seven years, he had held six different jobs. In addition, the types of positions he was applying for – roles like lab supervisor – were too ambitious for someone lacking a degree and a strong record of long-term employment.

Pauling centered his response to Albert around those two questions: why hadn’t he finished his bachelor’s degree? and why had he changed jobs so frequently? Albert replied that he had “not succeeded” in his chemistry courses at university but had earned A’s in his music and German classes, and that, upon reflection, he may note possess the skill set necessary to really do well at chemistry. This moment of introspection, as initiated by Pauling’s queries, moved Albert to change career paths and seek employment related to music or German.

Pauling responded one final time to congratulate Albert on making the effort to discover his true passion and follow it, assuring his correspondent that “…sooner or later you will be successful.” Alden Emery wrote back as well with the suggestion that he take an aptitude test which might help reveal professions to which he was well-suited. Albert promised to stop in at the office that Emery had recommended to inquire about tests of this sort. He admitted that he was concerned about the fees associated with the process but “…shall not close my eyes to any possibility which might uncover this enigma’s secret…”


Several months had passed since Ralph Spitzer’s dismissal from Oregon State College, but Pauling had not forgotten the indignity. In June, he took part in a luncheon discussion panel titled “Should Communist Party Membership be Grounds for Dismissal from a College Faculty?” In it, Pauling argued the negative, and Dr. George C.S. Benson, the president of Claremont Men’s College, argued the positive.

The crux of Benson’s perspective was that the Communist party required its members to follow the party line in every aspect of their lives. As a consequence, adherent professors would be obligated to sneak Communist philosophies into their lectures for purposes of secretly indoctrinating students. Benson also held that a Communist party take-over would prevent minority groups from organizing, and that a country whose greatest legacy is liberty could not support the rise of a party which would suppress civil rights, violently overthrow the government, and engage in “intellectual double-dealing.”

Pauling’s counter was that “We are in danger, not from Communism, but from loss of principles.” He pointed out that many political liberals and progressives, including himself, had been attacked for “Communism” though they were neither Communist party members nor sympathizers. Rather, the label had become an umbrella accusation used to derail or overpower any individual or group that did not conform to appropriately conservative political beliefs.

Pauling then proposed that establishing Communism as grounds for dismissal from a university faculty showed disrespect for the academic integrity of professors and students alike, by implying that students could not be trusted to think for themselves and that allowing Communism a platform at all would be enough to ensure that it prevailed as a dominant ideology. Pauling suggested that it was cynics such as Benson, and not liberals, who ought to be brought for questioning before the Committee on Un-American Activities.


Though there is no documentary evidence for how the ACS reacted to Pauling’s stance on academic freedom, it was not long before his continued political activities brought him back under scrutiny in a major way.

In July, Pauling received a letter from the Hanson, Lovett & Dale law firm, which had been hired by Dr. Roger Adams, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ACS. Through the lawyer, Adams complained that Pauling had utilized his title as society president in his endorsement of an ad that had appeared in The New York Times the previous day. The ad was titled “Tom Clark’s Police State,” and as usual was a political statement that ran counter to conservative sentiments. The lawyer, Elisha Hanson, informed Pauling that the use of his title in such a manner was unauthorized and a violation of society regulations.

Pauling wrote back three days later, stating that “I am very much troubled by the information… [that] the name of the American Chemical Society is used in connection with my name, in this political activity,” and that he had asked specifically that his professional affiliations not be listed. Pauling expressed his disappointment that a lawyer had been contacted about the matter before anyone from the society had bothered to ask him for a clarification. Though mostly a matter of miscommunication, the society’s knee-jerk reaction to a relatively minor offense serves as evidence of the rift that had grown between Pauling and the ACS little more than halfway through his presidential year.

Pauling’s Year as ACS President: Struggles Early On

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s year as president of the American Chemical Society. This is part 2 of 4.]

Having weathered the Henry Wallace controversy, Pauling entered into his presidential year as head of the American Chemical Society, and was immediately apprised of the need to address a significant problem. Namely, by the time he took office in 1949, the ACS had grown too large to function well from a financial standpoint. As a result, the society was constantly plagued by fiscal deficits on the order of several thousands of dollars, and was making budgetary adjustments left and right but still not breaking even.

One of Pauling’s first obligations as ACS chief was to publish a President’s Message in the January issue of Chemical and Engineering News, one of the society’s major publications. In his piece, titled “Our Job Ahead,” Pauling directly addressed the society’s financial difficulties, saying that he was sure the budget issues could be alleviated in a way that would support the society’s cost of operations and the publication of its journals. Pauling also wisely sought to address

…a related problem, the discrepancy between the remuneration of members and the rising costs of living, and to help generally in improving the economic and professional status of chemists and chemical engineers.

From there, Pauling warned his membership against any failure to use science for good, emphasizing the society’s responsibility to “…foster increased understanding and friendship among scientists of different nations” and reiterating the need to create a National Science Foundation. (As the year moved forward, Pauling addressed the issue of a National Science Foundation in several speeches to various ACS meetings, reiterating his support for the program, which had been proposed in the political arena but had not yet taken off.)

The feedback to Pauling’s column was generally positive, with many chemists taking especial heart in learning of Pauling’s concern for their financial well-being.


In mid-January, Pauling began to promote another idea that he supported: the World Calendar. The World Calendar was a proposition that would regularize the lengths of months and theoretically be adopted by every country in the world. In Pauling’s view, moving in this direction would rectify the “inconvenience” caused by the current calendar systems in use, and would make “every year the same.” “The advantages,” as Pauling put it, “are similar to those of an internationally accepted system of screw threads.” At the time that Pauling expressed interest in the idea, it had already been endorsed by seventeen nations around the world as well as multiple scientific organizations.

Correspondence exchanged between Pauling and other ACS executives indicates that there was a general willingness to bring up the idea at a meeting of the Board of Directors, and even some enthusiasm for its endorsement. The topic disappears from the record after January however, and obviously never went far in the national or international political spheres.


In February, a mini-scandal of sorts hit the society when a collection of non-members protested the registration fees required of them to attend ACS conferences that they had been officially invited to present at by the organization itself. Pauling had not known that the society charged registration fees to invited non-members, and expressed vehement opposition to the practice when it was brought to his attention. But Pauling was overruled by executive secretary Alden Emery and others, who pointed out that the practice was necessitated by a clause in the society’s constitution which would be difficult to change.

After a little more digging, Emery discovered that although the society as a whole struggled with funding – as did each local section and the society’s various publications as well – all of the complaints regarding non-member registration fees came from the Division of Biological Chemistry. According to Emery, that particular division was, in reality, in “excellent financial condition.”

Pauling and Emery eventually concluded that the division’s real issue was its lack of appeal to its target demographic. Fundamentally, the division was perceived by non-member biochemists to be more chemical than biological in focus, and therefore not an appropriate environment for sharing and publishing work that was more biological in nature.

As they puzzled over their continuing fiscal woes, the Board of Directors discussed the possibility of increasing membership dues in order to better support the society’s many undertakings. This notion was countered by fears that increased fees might create a corresponding drop in membership that would defeat the purpose. In the end however, the fees went up.


Ralph Spitzer.

The February 1949 dismissal of Ralph Spitzer from his faculty position in the chemistry department at Oregon State College, which has been written about in detail on this site and elsewhere, hit Pauling hard and brought his liberal political beliefs into the limelight once again. Pauling was a mentor and friend to Spitzer and also an OSC alum; indeed, he had recommended Spitzer for the position at Oregon State.

The grounds for Spitzer’s dismissal were vague, but clearly political in their motivats. Then OSC president August Strand had accused Spitzer of harboring communist sympathies based on his support of Henry Wallace in the presidential election and his advocacy of Trofim Lysenko’s theory of the intergenerational inheritance of acquired characteristics, a genetic theory that had originated in the Soviet Union and that differed from accepted Western theories. (Research in later years would ultimately prove Lysenko’s theory to be incorrect, although it does bear some largely coincidental resemblance to modern epigenetics.) Importantly, rather than an endorsement of the theory, Spitzer’s support was couched mainly in terms of defending the right for Lysenko’s theories to be heard, respected and considered through a scientific lens, and not discounted outright simply because of their Soviet origins.

As his standing at OSC dissolved, Spitzer wrote to Pauling to advise him of the situation and to ask for his help in trying to get his job back. Pauling promptly wrote to Strand to protest the removal of Spitzer on political grounds, which he considered to be an infringement of academic freedom since there had been no complaints of Spitzer’s political leanings affecting his research or teaching.

The year before, Pauling had publicly spoken out against the House Committee on Un-American Activities for not giving scientists the chance to defend themselves against accusations of disloyalty. Now he found himself in the midst of a public feud with August Strand over Spitzer’s dismissal, which culminated in a public rending of Pauling’s previously strong bond with his undergraduate alma mater. Pauling and Spitzer later took part in a forum on the perceived incompatibility between academic freedom and Communism, joining a set of professors from other universities who found themselves in the same boat as Spitzer. Documentary evidence as to how the ACS handled all of this is lacking, but the membership’s broad reaction to Pauling’s support for Henry Wallace leads one to suppose that the society was likely none too pleased about it.

Pauling’s Tumultuous Year as President of the American Chemical Society

[An analysis of Linus Pauling’s tenure as President of the ACS, published on the seventy-year anniversary of his holding the office. This is part 1 of 4.]

Linus Pauling was elected future president of the American Chemical Society in December 1947. In that capacity, he served as the society’s president-elect for 1948 – during which time he was living in England as a visiting professor at Oxford – and officially took up his post as president in 1949. He formally assumed office on January 1, 1949, with Ernest H. Volwiler serving as the president-elect for the year.

The news of Pauling’s election as ACS president was widely publicized in early 1948, with one short announcement reading:

Chemist’s Chief – Dr. Linus C. Pauling, chairman of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, has been elected president of the American Chemical Society. One of the world’s leading theoretical chemists, he was chosen in a national mail ballot of the society’s 55,000 members.

This same account was used in multiple newspapers with only slight variations. Chemical and Engineering News, one of the ACS’s signature publications, released a slightly longer announcement in 1949 describing Pauling’s achievements in the field, including his academic positions past and present, and his laundry list of awards and honorary degrees.

News of his election was initially well-received by scientists both within the society and outside of it, and Pauling received letters of congratulation from many of his new constituents expressing their excitement at being led by a chemist of such high ability and international renown. However, as seemed to always be the case with Linus Pauling, his political stances quickly became a point of contention between himself and others within the ACS.

While many members wrote to Pauling expressing their joy at the election of a political liberal (one correspondent, Bernard L. Oser of Food Research Laboratories, Inc., wrote that “The ACS has done honor unto itself by handing the gavel to a great liberal as well as a great chemist”) a larger and more vocal group of society members quickly withdrew their support. Indeed, Pauling’s liberal politics and anti-war work would keep him under near-constant scrutiny for the duration of his presidential year.


Henry A. Wallace

In November 1948, near the end of Pauling’s stint as president-elect, the first of the political controversies arose. In this instance, the catalyst was a pamphlet featuring Pauling’s name at the top of a list of sponsors endorsing presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Wallace had served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt and ran in the 1948 election as the Progressive Party nominee.

When he learned of the pamphlet, Henry C. Wing, the chairman of the ACS Board of Directors, wrote a letter to Pauling reprimanding him for publicly supporting Wallace, who had been accused of displaying Communist sympathies. In the letter, Wing suggested that “…your action has impaired the high position of our Society in the eyes of Congress and the nation, as it is impossible for you to separate your actions as an individual from that of the President of the Society.” Wing then warned that “There can be no question concerning the loyalty to the United States of the vast majority of the members of the Society…” and notified Pauling that his behavior would be discussed at the next section meeting.

Other ACS members wrote to the Board expressing similar concerns. One member, R.H Sawyer, summed up the views of others in asserting that, although Pauling’s name on the pamphlet was in no way overtly connected to the ACS (his professional associations were not listed), it still reflected badly on the society to have its members endorsing such politics. Sawyer then theorized that perhaps Pauling’s name had been used without his consent and called upon Pauling to confirm or deny his endorsement of Wallace. “Should [Pauling] fail or refuse to do so,” Sawyer warned, “I call upon the American chemist to repudiate as a political crack-pot the man they have honored as a scientist by election to the office of President Elect of the American Chemical Society.”

A different ACS member, M.L. Crossley, offered a similar complaint, explaining that:

…I shudder to think of what some of the radio commentators may do with the information that the President of the American Chemical Society is a sponsor of the Wallace-Marcantonio brand of politics. I register now and ever the strongest protest against any action by an officer of the American Chemical Society which may be used to convey the impression that I as a scientist and a member of the American Chemical Society subscribe to such a brand of dangerous, fanatical philosophy of government. I am a true American, believing in the principles of the philosophy of our democracy which has made this country the greatest land of freedom and opportunity the world has ever known.

While Sawyer and Crossley wrote to members of the ACS administration, others chose to address Pauling directly. These letters of criticism complained about his political views and expressed surprise that a man as intelligent as himself would be so liberal. The correspondents also requested that he release a statement clarifying his political views, and some even called for his resignation as president-elect.

Dr. Louise Kelly was one such author, lamenting to Pauling that “Having in the past had a high regard for your intellectual ability…” she was appalled to receive the pamphlet and find out that he was a Wallace supporter. Kelly continued,

I can understand why certain types of individuals, whose mental processes (I refuse to employ the word “thinking”) are as confused as those of Mr. Wallace, have been converted into followers of his, but I am at a loss to comprehend your position.


Pauling did not deign to accommodate requests for his resignation or to issue a public statement on his views, but he did reply to the letters that were sent directly to him. Confident as ever, Pauling answered Dr. Kelly’s letter by requesting that she re-evaluate her refusal to use the word “thinking” in conjunction with Wallace supporters, writing “I assume that you consider me to be a reasonably clear-headed fellow.” He finished by assuring her that there was no need to be shocked and appalled – his political leanings had never been a secret, and he promised that “I haven’t changed much in recent years, except that my health is not so good as it once was, my hair is getting thin on top, and my social conscience has grown a great deal.”

Dr. Joel Hildebrand had also written directly to Pauling critiquing his political views, portraying Wallace as an idiot and a wannabe-dictator, and insulting Pauling’s intelligence for supporting him. Although Wallace ultimately accumulated just a small share of the popular vote in the 1948 election, Democrat Harry S. Truman’s victory over Thomas Dewey informed Pauling’s somewhat sarcastic response to Hildebrand. “The presidential election was great fun,” Pauling quipped. “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed anything more than the upset of the Republicans.” Pauling concluded his letter by casually informing Hildebrand that Ava Helen had broken a bone in her ankle.

Although the ACS was officially a non-political organization, the bulk of its membership seems to have been politically conservative. The response that Pauling received to his endorsement of Henry Wallace is illustrative. In reality, Wallace’s platform was not Communist, but forward-thinking and focused on social justice. Wallace called Truman’s government war-mongering and hypocritical for pushing universal military training and a draft system while veterans returned from war were rendered homeless and unemployed. Wallace also believed that war profiteering on Wall Street was a source of the country’s increasing militarism. Wallace likewise viewed the Marshall Plan as a tool for the U.S. to cement political and economic control of Western Europe; he encouraged aid for Europe but wanted to work through the United Nations to insure that support was provided with “no political strings attached.”

Wallace campaigned for world peace and civil rights for minority communities, and his platform included calls for desegregation and anti-lynching laws, outlawing the poll-tax, and providing federal inspections of polling places to ensure fair voting conditions. He also pushed for a fair employment practices act, desegregation of the government and armed forces, and the withdrawal of federal aid from any institution engaging in discriminatory practices. He advocated for the end of Jim Crow legislation and sought to eliminate discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and “citizens of foreign descent.”


Pauling strongly believed that his actions as an individual remained separate from his role as ACS president so long as he did not leverage his position in order to support his political views. To this end, he made a point of not listing his academic or professional affiliations whenever he allowed his name to be used for political ends. He pointed out that he had never kept his views a secret and that his election had nothing to do with his politics.

In their exchange of letters, R.H. Sawyer retaliated that most of the society members who voted for Pauling would not have done so had they known of his political affiliations. Whether or not Sawyer was right, the Wallace affair was the first taste of a continuing conflict between Pauling and the ACS that would taint his entire presidential year.

The Gibbs Medal

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On June 14, 1946, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling traveled to Chicago to attend a dinner recognizing Linus Pauling as the thirty-fifth recipient of the Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal, an award given annually to the most prominent chemists and chemical engineers in the world. The Gibbs Medal was the second major prize bestowed upon Pauling by the American Chemical Society, coming some fifteen years after his receipt of the Irving Langmuir Prize in 1931.

By 1946 Pauling was widely considered to be among the world’s leading theoretical chemists. At just forty-five years old, he had already published more than 150 papers as well as three books. His connection to the American Chemical Society was strong as well. A member since 1920 – he joined before completing his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Oregon Agricultural College – Pauling was also a regular contributor to the Journal of the American Chemical Society. So it came as little surprise that the Chicago section chose to honor Pauling with the Gibbs Medal. And in receiving the award, Pauling entered into truly elite company, joining other greats including his Caltech mentor A. A. Noyes (1915), as well as Madame Marie Curie (1921), current ACS President Moses Gomberg (1925), and the namesake of his previous ACS prize, Irving Langmuir (1930).


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J. Willard Gibbs

The Gibbs Medal was established in 1910 by William A. Converse, a former chair of the Chicago section of the American Chemical Society. Converse greatly admired Josiah Willard Gibbs and considered him to be “an outstanding example of creativity in the field of scientific investigation.”

Gibbs (1839-1903) was an American mathematical physicist based at Yale University who made important theoretical contributions to multiple scientific disciplines and who helped to form the idea of intersectional science through his studies in physical chemistry. However, many of his contributions were not fully appreciated during his lifetime, and it wasn’t until later that his impact became more broadly recognized. Gibbs is now considered to be the “father of vector analysis” and his most significant work, On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, is well-known in the scientific world.


Though he won the medal in 1946, Pauling had actually been nominated several times before. On three occasions (1941, 1942 and 1946), these nominations precluded Pauling from carrying out a duty for which he had been selected: serving as a jury committee member for the Gibbs Award.

Nominations for the award were solicited by the jury committee each September. Once a pool had been compiled, the group would then proceed through several rounds of voting until just one nominee remained. This individual would receive the award from the Chicago section in the following spring. The jury was composed of twelve eminent chemists and chemical engineers enlisted from various regional groups of the American Chemical Society. In the year that Pauling was elected, the chairman of the committee was Dr. Henry R. Spruth.

Interestingly, Pauling’s role in the process of nominating and electing new recipients of the Gibbs Medal did not end after he won. The by-laws governing the selection of recipients state that, in cases where at least eight of the twelve members of the jury cannot arrive at a consensus, “the Chairman shall secure the vote of the past Medalists residing in North America on the two or more remaining candidates” in order to decide on a single recipient. Up until his death in 1994, Pauling was regularly asked to contribute a vote to resolve situations of this type.


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At the Chicago dinner, Pauling was presented the Gibbs Medal by W. Albert Noyes, Jr. A photochemist at the University of Rochester, Noyes was also president-elect of the ACS for 1946. In his introduction of Pauling, Noyes recited the long list of accomplishments that had led up to this moment:

…for eminent work and original contributions in chemistry and related scientific fields through the determination of many molecular structures, inter-atomic distances, bond angles and covalent radii of atoms; for quantitation of the classical theory of electronegativity; for extension and application of the resonance principle to chemistry; and for formulation of a framework theory of antibody formation. We honor Linus Pauling!

Pauling then delivered his acceptance address. Having penned multiple drafts in anticipation of the event, Pauling ultimately decided that, since he was being given the award primarily for his contributions to structural chemistry, he would focus mostly on this topic. He began his address by providing a survey of advancements in the field, beginning with Lucretius who, about 2,000 years before, had written that

wine flows easily because its particles are smooth and round and roll easily over one another, whereas the sluggish olive oil hangs back because it is composed of particles more hooked and entangled one with another.

From there, Pauling moved forward through a series of discoveries made by more contemporary scientists, each one building upon the next.

He then arrived at his own work which, by then, had touched on components of physics, mineralogy, chemistry, and biology, but had always followed one common ambition: the desire to truly understand the structure of the molecule. In particular, Pauling had made great use of x-ray diffraction and absorption spectroscopy techniques to advance his studies. He concluded his speech with a call to scientists everywhere that they apply the the theoretical breakthroughs that structural chemists had made in the first half of the twentieth century to the search for solutions to “such great practical problems as those presented by cancer and cardiovascular disease.”


Pauling was a popular pick for the Gibbs Award. Not long after delivering his banquet address, he received a letter from a colleague, Emory University professor William H. Jones, in which he added “my congratulations to the mound of fan mail” and asked “How does it feel to be a Cover Boy for the New Edition?”

Jones wasn’t wrong about the mountain of mail — Pauling received scores of congratulatory letters from colleagues, friends, former students and professors, and random strangers alike. The sentiment expressed by nearly all of these well-wishers was aptly summarized by fellow Gibbs laureate Moses Gomberg, who had presented Pauling with the Langmuir Prize in 1931. “He has grown by leaps and bounds – and is still young!,” he wrote. “My congratulations and wishes to him!”

[Ed Note: This is the 700th post published by the Pauling Blog.]

The Langmuir Award

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In 1931 Linus Pauling was early on in his career as a professor at the California Institute of Technology, and was deep into a program of research on structural chemistry that would prove revolutionary. Pauling was one of the brightest young minds that Caltech had seen to date, and the announcement that Pauling was to receive the inaugural Irving Langmuir Prize from the American Chemical Society served as further evidence of his extraordinary abilities. The first major award received by Pauling as an academic, the Langmuir Prize would be followed by countless additional decorations honoring a long and storied career.

The Irving Langmuir Prize, also known as the Pure Chemistry of the American Chemical Society Prize, was created by A.C. Langmuir, an industrial engineer who manufactured shellac and glycerine. First announced in early 1931, the $1,000 award was meant to serve as a form of encouragement and support for young chemists in the United States. The decision to honor Linus Pauling as the initial recipient of the award was made by a select committee of American Chemical Society members.


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Irving Langmuir

A.C. Langmuir named the prize after his brother, Irving, a renowned scientist who would receive the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1932 for his work in surface chemistry. In addition to his status as a Nobel laureate, Langmuir is today remembered by many for developing light bulbs that were more efficient and longer lasting than the Nernst Lamp model that had previously dominated the marketplace.

While Pauling no doubt appreciated Irving Langmuir’s practical work, his theoretical contributions made a far more profound impact on the budding young scientist, who began reading Langmuir’s papers while still an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College. As he noted in 1946,

I became deeply interested in molecular structure and the nature of the chemical bond in 1919, when I first read [G.N.] Lewis’ 1916 paper and Irving Langmuir’s papers on this subject.

One 1919 paper proved especially important. In it, Langmuir discussed his application of G.N. Lewis’ insights into chemical bonding and his observation that pairs of electrons can be shared by atoms in many substances. Importantly, Langmuir also used the article to put forth the idea that a full understanding of the chemical bond could not be arrived at through the simple application of a chemist’s or physicist’s training. Rather, the problem required a marriage of the two disciplines.

Titled “The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules” and published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Langmuir’s paper served as an inspiration to Pauling, who did indeed marry aspects of chemistry and physics in elucidating a new theoretical understanding of the chemical bond.

Twelve years later, Pauling was hard at work on several research projects that were driven by this stroke of inspiration. Most notably, Pauling had recently authored his landmark article “The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Application of Results Obtained from the Quantum Mechanics and from the Theory of Paramagnetic Susceptibility to the Structure on Molecules,” the first in a series of significant papers on the structure of the molecules. By the time that Pauling received his ACS award in September, he had already released the third installment in the series. Taking note of this dizzying array of productivity, Scientific American dubbed Pauling the “explorer of electrons” in a 1931 article.


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Humorous editorial cartoon published in the “Double Bond Jr.,” a publication circulated at the Buffalo ACS meeting in September 1931.

Pauling was nominated for the Langmuir Prize by his Caltech mentor, A.A. Noyes. The director of the Gates Chemical Laboratory and a respected member of the American Chemical Society, Noyes’ views carried significant weight with his peers, and in his nomination letter of June 8, 1931, Noyes described Pauling as “the most promising young man with whom I have ever come in contact in my many years of teaching.” This hearty endorsement, combined with Pauling’s vita – which already listed more than fifty published papers – made the decision an easy one for the award committee.

Pauling, with his wife Ava Helen, received the prize on September 2, 1931 in Buffalo, New York. At the ceremony, A.C. Langmuir praised the body of work that Pauling had already compiled and accurately predicted that he would one day be a Nobel Prize winner. The Langmuir decoration proved to be a source of significant attention for Pauling. In one of a bevy of congratulatory letters that followed, former classmate W.E. Ramsey noted that “I knew you were a genius because you could solve my calculus problems which were always a mystery to me.” Likewise, University of Chicago chemist Thorfin Hogness recounted that he expected Pauling would win the award as soon as it was introduced.

In addition to raising Pauling’s profile, the financial support provided by the Langmuir Prize was especially significant as the United States was entering into the worst years of the Great Depression. Indeed, the $1,000 award that came with the prize was equivalent to a quarter of Pauling’s annual salary. Today, in recognition of its namesake’s interdisciplinary focus, the Irving Langmuir Prize is granted alternately by the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society. Recipients now receive a cash award of $10,000.

As time moved forward, Pauling remained very active within the American Chemical Society, serving as president of the organization in 1949. He would also win several additional major awards offered by the ACS, including the Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal in 1946. So too did Pauling receive a great many decorations from regional chapters of the organization. In 1966, he was the recipient of perhaps the most noteworthy of these awards when the Oregon and Puget Sound sections presented him with the first Linus Pauling Medal for outstanding achievement in chemistry.