The Lomonosov Gold Medal

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The late 1970s, a period still defined by Cold War tensions, was full of obstacles for Linus Pauling. Living in California, Pauling had been confronted with a number of serious issues within the research institute that bore his name, including a wrongful termination lawsuit and chronic financial instability. Likewise, his continuing research on the potential therapeutic impact of vitamin C on cancer drew mounting criticism from the scientific community, and he was often denied funding to further his work.

One of Pauling’s supporters and friends, psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, believed that the nature of Pauling’s research was not the only reason why funding sources had chosen to withhold support. For Osmond, it seemed that many granting institutions had been steering clear of Pauling ever since his loyalty and patriotism had been questioned nearly thirty years before.

So in the minds of many it was a mixed piece of news when, in Fall 1977, Pauling received notification that he would be awarded the Soviet Academy of Science’s highest honor, the M.V. Lomonosov Gold Medal. But for Pauling, the choice to accept was easy. Never shy in the face of controversy and always eager to improve scientific relations between the world’s two superpowers, Pauling happily agreed to the Soviet offer and began making plans to receive the award in Moscow.


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M.V. Lomonosov

The Lomonosov Gold Medal was named after Mikhail V. Lomonosov, an eighteenth century natural scientist who developed the concept of heat movement as well as a basic understanding of matter. Lomonosov was particularly significant to the Soviet Academy of Sciences as he founded the organization’s first chemical laboratory in 1748. In addition to his scientific significance, Lomonosov was also a humanitarian who often commented on social issues within his writing.

First awarded in 1959, the Lomonosov Gold Medal was designed to honor individuals who had made especially significant contributions to the understanding of natural sciences. The purview of the award clarified a bit more in 1969, when the Academy decided to grant it annually to two recipients: one Soviet and one foreign.

In 1977, the year that Pauling was selected, Mikhail Lavrentyev also was recognized as the domestic recipient. Lavrentyev was a mathematician who had organized the Siberian branch of the Academy in 1957 and who had previously received many other national awards including the USSR State Prize, the Lenin Medal and the title Hero of Socialist Labor. Subsequent American winners have included Pauling colleagues James Watson, Alexander Rich and Roald Hoffmann.


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Pauling delivering his lecture at the Shemyakin Symposium, September 1978

Pauling accepted his medal about a year after the award notification was circulated. He did so at the Shemyakin Symposium on Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology, which was held in Moscow in late September 1978. Pauling had initially been invited to attend the Soviet Academy’s annual meeting the previous March, but was unable to clear time in his schedule until the fall. The Shemyakin Symposium was arrived at as an agreeable compromise, and Pauling made the trip with his wife, Ava Helen, as well as his research partner Ewan Cameron and Cameron’s wife too. (Pauling insisted that both Cameron and the symposium would benefit from their combined presence.)

Bestowed “for outstanding achievements in the fields of chemistry and biochemistry” and for his work as “an active fighter for peace among the nations,” the medal was given to Pauling by Anatoly Alexandrov, the president of the Soviet Academy, at the symposium’s opening ceremony. Pauling accepted the award by giving an address that detailed the specifics of his most current work. Titled “Orthomolecular and Toximolecular Medicine Compared,” Pauling’s lecture was delivered to an audience of more than 300 people, including 70 scientists visiting from other countries.

Later on in the symposium, Pauling gave another talk on a completely different area of interest: “The Nature of the Bond Formed by the Transition Metals in Bioorganic Compounds and other Compounds.” While in Moscow, the Paulings also did their best to take in as much culture as possible, and following the close of the meeting the couple traveled to Uzbekistan where they visited the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.


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Andrei Sakharov

Though Pauling’s receipt of the Lomonosov Medal would only serve to heighten the suspicions of certain stateside critics, the response from his colleagues was mostly very warm. But in one particular instance, an important peer saw the decoration as an opportunity for Pauling to do more, and quickly.

Only days before accepting the medal in Moscow, Pauling was handed an untranslated letter written by Andrei Sakharov, the famed Soviet dissident who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his activism. In the letter, Sakharov urged Pauling to use the Lomonosov trip to speak out against the wrongful imprisonment of Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov, mathematician Alexander Bolonkin, and biologist Sergei Kovalev. “I am convinced that today you share the concern of many Western colleagues over violations of human rights in the whole world,” Sakharov wrote, “and particularly in the Soviet Union.”

Kovalev’s case was representative of the persecution suffered by many scientists who spoke out in favor of reforms. A member and supporter of the organization Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, Kovalev had been sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp and another three year in a standard prison for his activities.

Pauling was caught off-guard by Sakharov’s communication which, unbeknownst to him, had also been released to the media. While in the Soviet Union, Pauling did not address the content of Sakharov’s request, and when he returned to the U.S. he found that his reputation had suffered for this in action.

In a letter to the editor of Physics Today authored a month later, Pauling defended himself, noting that

I had signed statements and had written letters about scientists and other people whose rights have been reported to have been violated by the USSR government and other governments, although I could not remember with confidence whether or not I had taken action about these three men. I added that all governments are immoral, and cited the example of the United States government, which in 1952 refused me a passport and thus prevented me from participating in the two-day symposium in London that had been organized by the Royal Society…

A response to Pauling’s letter by I.I. Glass of the University of Toronto called him to task for comparing “what happened to him during the McCarthy twilight era with the darkness in which many of our colleagues in the USSR are living today.” Pauling offered this reply:

All governments are immoral. But I agree with Glass that the immorality of the government of the US is different from that of the government of the Soviet Union. Also, I am concerned about Sakharov and other scientists in the Soviet Union. My letter to Physics Today expressed my concern, although only briefly, and expressed also another concern, about how the Sakharov problem is being handled. I wish that I knew more about the whole matter.

Although Pauling does not appear to have followed-up on the issue raised by Sakharov in September 1978, the two activists did maintain a correspondence and, in the years that followed, Pauling offered public support for multiple appeals issued by his Soviet counterpart.

An Interview with Zia Mian

Dr. Zia Mian, who will be traveling to Oregon in April to accept the 2014 Linus Pauling Legacy Award, was kind enough to give us a bit of his time not long ago for an interview.  In it he discussed a whole range of topics including the development of his socio-political consciousness, his admiration for Pauling and his thoughts on healing old wounds in South Asia.  The transcript of our conversation is presented below.

For a more technical perspective on Mian’s thinking with particular respect to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, see the embedded video above.  An excellent profile of Mian, published by his home institution, Princeton University, is likewise available here.


Pauling Blog: You studied physics in graduate school. Were you already interested in socio-political issues? Or did you experience an awakening of sorts, as happened to Pauling with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Zia Mian: I’m of a generation of people that were growing up during the period of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, what has come to be called the Second Cold War, where President Reagan and the United States, and I believe it was Western Europe, moved new nuclear missiles into Western Europe as a response to new Soviet missiles that had been developed. And so there was a great risk of nuclear war again and peace movements across Europe and in the United States became very active. We had some of the largest demonstrations by these groups that had ever been seen in New York and London and other cities. And the presence of such a large and determined and active social movement raises questions for all kinds of people, such as “what do I think about this issue? What does this mean? How does this impact society and what is my role in what’s going on?”

And so as a young physics student it became obvious that nuclear weapons were something that I had to think about and to try and understand what I thought about them and what they might mean. And so as a consequence I think that it wasn’t so much like a calling of having a Hiroshima or Nagasaki type moment, but the existence of a large and determined peace movement raising the issue to people across the world, that this is an issue you have to take seriously and come to a position on. That led me to think about what nuclear weapons meant and how I felt about them.

PB: With Pauling and several other scientists at the beginning of the nuclear age, they could understand the science behind nuclear weapons as well, and that seemed to lend itself toward their activism, in the sense that they could understand how they worked and the amounts of energy they could release. Did that play in for you as well?

ZM: At the beginning of the nuclear age certainly many scientists, including ones who had worked on the Manhattan Project, realized that the public and policy makers needed to understand the new dangers that nuclear weapons and nuclear materials posed to the world. And having a technical background made it easier to understand some of the things that nuclear weapons mean, without having to know secrets. Because the science was sufficiently clear that you could make this understanding of what was going on. What you have to remember is that lots of other people came to a similar understanding about nuclear dangers without being scientists. One thinks of Mahatma Gandhi writing about the danger of nuclear weapons soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus or the English writer George Orwell or the American writer Lewis Mumford. All of them, within months or the first year or so after Hiroshima, tried to explain to people that these nuclear weapons posed a profound and unimaginable new danger, without being scientists themselves.

But the scientists—being experts gives you a somewhat privileged position to debate, because people have a tendency to look to scientists as being people who can understand and explain some of the more detailed factual and technical basis of what nuclear weapons and their production and use mean, rather than just talking about the politics of what nuclear weapons mean or the ethics and morality of what nuclear weapons mean. But I can’t emphasize strongly enough that many of the early scientists like Pauling and others, as well as writers like Mumford and Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus and George Orwell who wrote about nuclear weapons, combined both a technical understanding and a political understanding and a moral and ethical sensibility about what these weapons would mean. And it was only by taking them all together that one can see what kind of intervention they made in helping people understand the nuclear danger.

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Back in the USSR

Linus Pauling lecturing after receiving the Lomonosov Gold Medal, Moscow, September 25, 1978.

[Part 3 of 3]

In 1967 Linus Pauling was invited back to the USSR by the Soviet Academy of Science (Akademia Nauk USSR) to join their general special meeting session in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. He was not able to attend but, around the same time, he was also asked by the Academy to participate in the publication of Functional Biochemistry of Cell Structures, for which Pauling submitted a piece titled “Orthomolecular Methods in Medicine.” The paper discussed Pauling’s growing interest in the molecular basis of health and disease. In it, he delved into the benefits of orthomolecular study, providing both examples and rationale in support of an orthomolecular approach to medicine. The piece was published in 1970 and the volume edited by Pauling’s old friend A. I. Oparin.

That same year, Pauling was honored for his peace activism with the International Lenin Peace Prize for 1968-1669, the Soviet Union’s most prestigious award for humanitarian efforts. Pauling was the fifth American to receive the prize since its inception in 1949, following the likes of W. E. B. DuBois and Rockwell Kent. Pauling was presented with the award by Soviet physicist Dmitry V. Skobeltsyn in a public ceremony held at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. In his acceptance address, Pauling emphasized the need to achieve global peace through international law and expressed growing confidence in the world’s ability to facilitate international relations without reliance on nuclear weapons.

In 1975 Linus and Ava Helen made a return visit to the Soviet Union to participate in a celebration marking the 250th anniversary of the Akademia Nauk. Linus Pauling was one of twenty-seven Americans invited to participate in the event, which had been delayed for more than one year from its original start date due, according to the Associated Press, “to head off embarrassing discussions on intellectual freedom and Jewish emigration.”

Outline annotated by Pauling concerning his appearance on “The 9th Studio” Soviet television program, October 21, 1975.

While in Moscow, Pauling was asked to appear on a Soviet television program, “The 9th Studio,” alongside Bulgarian scientist Angel Balevski, Soviet physicist Nikolay Basov and Soviet philospher Dzermen Gvishiani. The round table was asked to discuss modern science, the prohibition of nuclear weapons and proliferation, and the struggle for peace. The program was broadcast to a potential audience of 80 million people throughout the Eastern bloc.

Though the bulk of Pauling’s relations with the USSR focused on the pursuit of world peace and disarmament, many of his Soviet colleagues were also interested in his work with vitamin C. His popularity in this field provoked an invitation to return to Moscow in 1978 to give talks on ascorbic acid and chemistry. While there, he spoke to the Shemyakin Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry on his growing interest in using vitamin C in the treatment of cancer. He also presented to the USSR Academy of Sciences on vitamin C, and attended the International Symposium of Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling picnicking on the shores of Lake Baikal, southern Siberia, 1978.

During this visit, Pauling was also awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award conferred by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Officially, the prize was given for his outstanding achievements in chemistry and biochemistry though, as stated in a letter from Soviet poet Mikhail Vershinin, the award was also in recognition of Pauling’s work as a “knight of peace and progress.” To commemorate the occasion, Pauling gave a lecture on the nature of the bonds formed by transition metals in inorganic compounds.

Pauling visited Moscow again in 1982 for ten days in order to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the USSR. This time, he was the only American invited to attend this celebration. The trip came near the end of a long run of international travel scheduled, in part, to keep his mind off of the death of Ava Helen, who had passed on year earlier. Pauling’s diary from this trip is wistful in parts; of his arrival in Moscow he noted only the landing time and a “Russian girl with a Barbie doll.”

In between this visit and his next trip in 1984, Pauling continued to think about the political and cultural norms developing in Moscow, writing a support notice for the book Give Peace a Chance: Soviet Peace Proposals and U.S. Responses and attending a conference, “What About the Russians?” that took place in Corvallis, Oregon. He also nominated two of his colleagues, Dorothy Hodgkin and Joseph Rotblat, for the International 1983 Lenin Peace Prize.

Pauling in lecture to the Chemistry faculty of Moscow State University, June 18, 1984.

Pauling returned to the Soviet Union for the final time in June 1984, during which time he toured the national biological research center and attended the opening session of another “Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology” conference. In this symposium he and others discussed research agreements proposed by the Union of International Research’s Committee of Human Relations for Peace and by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

On this trip Pauling also attempted to arrange a meeting with Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet nuclear physicist and humans right activist. At the time, Sakharov was effectively under house arrest and confined to his apartment in the city of Gorky. Pauling proposed that he meet with Sakharov in Gorky, but the request was denied. In his diary Pauling noted having been told by a Soviet official that “he was sure I could understand that a person with secret information might have to have his travel restricted.” So ended Pauling’s personal contacts with the U.S.S.R., a nation whose enchantments and flaws revealed themselves to Pauling, over the years, in near equal measure.