Remembering Linus Pauling: A Personal Reflection

Stephen Lawson and Linus Pauling celebrating at Pauling’s 90th birthday party, 1991

By Stephen Lawson

August 19th 1994. Linus Pauling had been ensconced at his ranch on the beautiful coast near Big Sur, California, surrounded by family, for a few weeks, near death from prostate cancer. At the time, I was the chief executive officer of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto and relished a quiet summer evening at home. The telephone rang – Linus Pauling Jr. broke the terrible but expected news that his father had died. Trying to overcome grief, I raced to the Institute to start faxing an obituary that had been prepared months earlier to important news sources – The New York Times, major networks, and other media. Almost immediately the phone lines lit up with reporters asking for more details and comments on Pauling’s life and death. I managed to provide some salient information while struggling with my own strong emotions about Pauling’s death.

Many people who met Pauling or respected and admired him even without having had any personal interaction were also grief stricken. In the following weeks, hundreds of condolences – telegrams, cards, letters, faxes, and phone calls – came to the Institute from around the world. People expressed such sorrow that the great humanitarian who had showed them such courteous kindness had died. They admired his work in science, his never-ending efforts for peace, his championing of vitamin C and other micronutrients, his courage in the face of a hostile US Congress, his patriotic work for the United States during World War II, and his devotion to and love for his wife, Ava Helen.

Pauling connected with people in a way that left many feeling love for him. Of course, he was lauded by luminaries – Francis Crick anointed Pauling the major founder of molecular biology, and Arthur Kornberg noted that Pauling, who had won two Nobel Prizes, deserved another for his discovery of the cause of sickle-cell anemia, the first disease to be characterized as a molecular disease. In 2000, the “Millennium Essay” in Nature – one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific journals – ranked Pauling with Galileo, Da Vinci, Newton, and Einstein, among others, as “one of the great thinkers and visionaries of the millennium” and noted that Pauling was responsible for the “extrapolation from physics to chemistry and the articulation of chemistry as an independent subject” and that “Chemistry, then, is utterly different from physics and biology in its dependence, at a primal level, on just one scientist” – Linus Pauling.

But in the weeks following his death, I was especially impressed by the expressions of sympathy and loss from people who had written to Pauling asking about vitamin C and health problems or other matters and received personal responses, probably often to their surprise. Pauling, who believed that scientists, as experts in their fields, have a social responsibility to explain their work to the public, took time to connect with everyone. As the author of several textbooks, one of which, General Chemistry, educated generations of scientists, and others, including No More War!, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, How to Live Longer and Feel Better, and Cancer and Vitamin C that were written for the lay public and health professionals, Pauling practiced what he strongly advocated.


I first saw Linus Pauling when I was on my way to class in the Quadrangle at Stanford University in Palo Alto. It was a tumultuous era in American history – there were strident demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and students vigorously promoted free speech rights. As I walked to the Quad, I noticed a gaggle of students and faculty outside the office of Stanford’s president, Richard Lyman. In particular, two elderly men, one of whom was Linus Pauling, were holding signs protesting the firing of H. Bruce Franklin, a political firebrand who had been a tenured professor of English at Stanford and an expert on Herman Melville and science fiction. Stanford had had enough of the turmoil associated with Franklin’s behavior and fired him, an act that Pauling was protesting because tenure supposedly protects the expression of ideas, especially controversial ones. I wasn’t very familiar with the details about the issue, but I certainly admired Pauling’s courage, a quality that defined Pauling’s activism throughout the years. Although Pauling was on the Stanford faculty, he wasn’t teaching undergraduates at the time, so I never had the opportunity to see his celebrated performances in the classroom that had famously inspired legions of students at Caltech.

Years later, when I worked at the Linus Pauling Institute in Menlo Park, Pauling would often stop by my office to exchange greetings, ask me to write for publication, or to help out with experimental studies, which is how I became very interested in vitamin C. Still later, in Palo Alto, Pauling approached me about setting up a laboratory with his quantum chemist colleague Zelek Herman to conduct experiments aimed at producing material that he wanted to support his patent application for a novel method of fabricating superconductors. His goal was to license the invention in order to generate a revenue stream to support orthomolecular research at the Institute. Aided occasionally by Ewan Cameron, Pauling’s medical collaborator on clinical vitamin C studies, we finally succeeded in fabricating the material that Pauling had hoped we would, and Zeke and I went to Pauling’s apartment to show him the samples. It was immensely gratifying to see what joy he expressed, and at that moment I understood how he must have felt every time he made discoveries – understanding something that no one else had understood – throughout his long career.   

Pauling lived by an age-old maxim that he humorously amended: “Do unto others 20% better than you would have them do unto you in order to make up for subjective error.” Even in the face of caustic criticism, he remained courteous, usually with his humor intact, and supremely confident – a confidence stemming from his formidable memory and mastery of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, mineralogy, and other disciplines. He trusted his own intellect and urged others to do likewise – never simply accept what is said without critical examination.

Pauling had reams of papers on vitamin C that the Institute librarian had acquired at Stanford libraries. In that era, most of the original data was presented in the paper, and Pauling usually checked the statistical analysis that the authors employed, sometimes finding errors that compromised their conclusions. I attended a lecture he gave to a group of biostatisticians at Stanford in the late 1980s in which he discussed the application of the Hardin Jones principle to death rates in clinical studies. He argued that it revealed more information about subcohorts than the standard Kaplan-Meier analysis. There he was, in a room with many of the leading statisticians in the country, and none argued against his thesis. Of course, he was famously wrong about a few things, including the structure of DNA, but sometimes only because he didn’t have access to better data.

Linus Pauling made an indelible impression on everyone who met him, and for them and for those who never had that opportunity, he will continue to serve as a unparalleled model of brilliance, integrity, creativity, and courage – truly a man for the ages.

Remembering Linus Pauling: The Obituaries

Linus Pauling, 1988. Image credit: Albert Dadian

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers at Oregon State University Libraries include more than 3,000 newspaper clippings that focus on Linus Pauling as a primary subject. Among these, 170 extant clippings are devoted to remembering Pauling in the days and weeks following his death on August 19, 1994. In today’s post, we present a few anecdotes that we came across in reviewing this content, snapshots of a remarkable life.

Keay Davidson, San Francisco Examiner

Professor Pauling has brilliant blue eyes and an infectious grin. He wore a dusty blue beret and always stood to extend an enthusiastic, wrinkled hand to reporters and just plain admirers.

Former students loved to recall his lectures, which have been compared, for sheer entertainment value, to those of the other great showman of modern American science – the late physicist Richard Feynman. In his 1985 autobiography, “Radiant Science, Dark Politics,” former Berkeley scientist Martin D. Kamen fondly recalled a Pauling lecture of the 1930s: “He bounded into the room, already crowded with students eager to hear the Great Man, spread himself over the seminar table next to the blackboard and, running his hands through an unruly shock of hair, gestured to the students to come closer.”

“I remember one of my best friends at Caltech, when we were sitting in a chemistry lecture, looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t know what is more fun – watching Pauling or watching you watching Pauling,” Art Robinson, a former colleague, recalled.

“Linus Pauling Dies at 93,” August 20, 1994

Jeff Gottlieb, San Jose Mercury News

“He’s really a compulsive worker,” said Linus Pauling Jr, a retired psychiatrist. “He had built-in energy. Most people when they leave the office at the end of the day they quit working. He would bring stuff home and he would work. It was really the only thing he did.”

Matthew Meselson, a biochemistry professor at Harvard who was one of the last graduate students to train under Pauling, recalled a story his teacher told him. The great German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss, Pauling said, was asked why he was so great in his field. “I don’t know,” Gauss replied, “but maybe it’s because I never do anything else.”

Pauling took the insights he learned in quantum mechanics and brought them to chemistry with his theory of the chemical bond. “He was this country’s first and best ever structural chemist,” [Roald] Hoffmann said. “He pioneered several techniques in this country and he put this country in the leadership of chemistry through his work.”

“Nobel Winner Linus Pauling Dies of Cancer,” August 20, 1994
Linus Pauling at the Grand Canyon, circa 1947

Robin McKie, The Times (London)

All of [his] achievements were made in typical Pauling style – involving displays of astonishing intuition, a phenomenal memory and a willingness to take great intellectual risks. As historian Horace Judson states in his history of modern biology, The Eighth Day of Creation, “Linus Pauling had energy, inventiveness, showmanship and genius enough for a consortium.”

“Linus Pauling: The Century’s Greatest Chemist,” August 21, 1994

Elizabeth Weise, Associated Press

“I consider him to be certainly the most influential chemists of the century, but he really belongs among the most extraordinary scientists of all time,” said Dr. Henry Taube, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford. “In a sense he put structural chemistry on the map. He made some of the most important contributions to this field, and his ideas on the structure of proteins stand today,” Taube said.

Dr. Max Perutz, founder of the molecular biology laboratory at Cambridge, England, called Pauling’s 1939 book The Nature of the Chemical Bond a revelation. “I think that’s what he should be remembered for. As a student, chemistry was something you learned by heart but you didn’t understand. Linus Pauling’s book made me and countless others understand chemistry for the first time.”

Pauling was best known in the past two decades for his belief that large doses of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, could protect people from colds, cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as extend the lifespan for decades. Despite skepticism over his claims, Pauling retained the respect of his fellow scientists [Horace] Judson said. “There are plenty of scientists who say ‘This has been disproven but if Linus says it’s true, I’m going to take my vitamin C every morning anyway,” Judson said.

“Pauling Chartered Life Itself,” as published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 21, 1994
Pauling holding a model of the alpha helix, circa 1980s

Richard Severo, The New York Times

In the early 1950s, Dr. James D. Watson and Sir Francis Crick were constantly looking over their shoulders at the body of the research of Linus Pauling with a mixture of admiration and apprehension. Dr. Watson and Sir Francis were at the time feverishly trying to determine that structure that is crucial to the construction of all living cells – DNA – and Dr. Pauling was pursuing the same goal.

Writing years later in The Double Helix, a book about the discovery, Dr. Watson described Dr. Pauling’s presentation of work, showing, in part, the helical structure of proteins. The passage reveals not only the high esteem in which Dr. Pauling was held by his colleagues but also the intense envy he sometimes engendered.

“Pauling’s talk was done with his usual flair,” Dr. Watson wrote. “The words came out as if he had been in show business all his life. A curtain kept his model hidden until near the end of his lecture, when he proudly unveiled his latest creation. Then, with his eyes twinkling, Linus explained the specific characteristics…that made his model uniquely beautiful. This show, like all of his dazzling performances, delighted the younger students in attendance. There was no one like Linus in all the world. The combination of his prodigious mind and his infectious grin was unbeatable. Several fellow professors, however, watched this performance with mixed feelings. Seeing Linus jumping up and down on the demonstration table and moving his arms like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of his shoe made them feel inadequate. If only he had shown a little humility, it would have been so much easier to take!”

“Linus C. Pauling, Pioneering Chemist, Voice for Peace and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93,” August 21, 1994

Los Angeles Times

Pauling was a very compassionate individual, by all accounts, and his sympathies instantly sprang to those who had been made to suffer for their political beliefs. “He once hired a lab director,” [James] Bonner said, “whose sole credential for the job was the fact that he had been fired from his previous post for citing the 5th Amendment on his own behalf during some anti-Communist hearings. The man was not a good choice for the job, but still Linus stuck by him.”

Pauling’s greatest strength, said many who knew him through the years, was also his Achilles’ heel: a supreme, unshakable confidence in the correctness of his own judgments. “When he was right, which was more often than not,” said one longtime friend, “he was very, very right. But when he was wrong, which he also was from time to time, there was no way to get him to see it, or to compromise, or to make any kind of concession. This attitude frankly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

In the end, such foibles amount to little when compared to the achievements of Pauling’s remarkable contributions to science and society. “He had one of the most original, creative minds of any scientist in the 20th century,” said Norman Davidson, a longtime colleague. “There is no doubt that he will be the preeminent chemist of this century.”

“A Flamboyant Scientist’s Legacy,” uncredited staff writer, August 21, 1994
Oil painting of Linus Pauling by Giovanella, circa 1970s

David F. Salisbury, Stanford Campus Report

Henry Taube recalls vividly the first time he met Linus Pauling. It was at a seminar held in 1938 at the University of California-Berkeley. “Pauling was already famous,” the Stanford chemistry professor and Nobel laureate says. Following a brilliant lecture, Pauling handled all the questions put to him so readily and deftly that a fellow scientist was moved to remark that Pauling must have a pipeline to God and to jokingly propose that he should be called Pope Linus I. “Pauling responded by informing the person that there had already been several Pope Linuses, so he couldn’t be the first. However, he didn’t object to the fitness of the designation,” Taube says.

“He had a great sense of humor. It was not canned, but spontaneous,” [Harden] McConnell says. He points to a humorous scientific paper that Pauling published about a commercial product that was supposed to combat odors. Because his analysis showed that the product was mostly formaldehyde, Pauling concluded that it worked by embalming people’s noses.

“Colleagues Recall Multifaceted Scientist Pauling,” August 24, 1994

Alexander Rich, Nature

Linus Pauling was widely honored. In addition to two Nobel Prizes he received over 50 medals and awards from a great variety of organizations, and almost as many honorary degrees from universities. The esteem with which he was regarded was vividly illustrated to me in 1951 when, as a postdoctoral fellow of Pauling’s, I visited Albert Einstein in Princeton. Einstein’s comment to me was “Ah, that man is a real genius!”

“Linus Pauling (1901-1994), September 22, 1994

Remembering Linus Pauling: Twenty-Five Years Later

At 7:20 PM on August 19, 1994, Linus Pauling passed away, a victim of rectal and prostate cancer. Twenty-five years later, the Pauling Blog will be devoting the month of August to remembering.

Today’s post features three video clips of local news broadcasts announcing Pauling’s death and commenting on its aftermath. Each of these reports was collected by Oregon State University’s News and Communications Services unit and later deposited with the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU Libraries.

In the first clip below, which aired the day after Pauling died, Portland’s NBC affiliate KGW-8 provides a nice overview of Pauling’s life that includes footage of his last visit to the Rose City in February 1991.

News coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KGW-8 Portland, August 20, 1994

This next clip, which also aired on August 20, 1994, was produced by Eugene station KVAL-13 and features footage of OSU chemist Carroll DeKock as well as Ramesh Krishmurthy, formerly the Projects Director at the OSU Special Collections. Both talk about Pauling’s impact and Krishnamurthy provides a glimpse of the Pauling Papers as they were arranged at that time.

Local news coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KVAL-13 Eugene, August 20, 1994

Finally, this shorter item, which aired on August 23rd, was broadcast on a different Eugene station – KEZI-9 – and focuses on the future of the Linus Pauling Institute. It also includes a few shots of the Special Collections reading room, which was located on the fourth floor of the Kerr Library at the time and demolished five years later as part of a major building expansion that relied, in part, on Pauling’s name to generate private support.

Local news coverage of Linus Pauling's death, KEZI-9 Eugene, August 23, 1994

The History of the Pauling Blog: An Archivist Reflects

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Red carnations left anonymously in the Valley Library Special Collections and Archives Research Center foyer on February 28, 2018 — Pauling’s 117th birthday.

[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Part 4 of 4.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Do you see yourself as his biographer?

Chris Petersen: Oh no, definitely not. But here is what I do see myself as. I see myself as a person who, through pure accident, wound up in a very unique position. I was hired as a student assistant in 1996, I was hired as a full-time [faculty member] in 1999, and that was the period of time during which the collection was being processed. And somehow I took charge of that when I was a student. The person who had my job before me left in the spring of my senior year of college, and at that point I began to lead the processing effort of this enormous collection. And that continued.

We published the catalog in 2006, so that’s ten years of work based on my start date as a student. And that’s never going to happen again. Nobody’s ever going to re-process the Pauling Papers. I hope not, at least. [laughs] So I had this opportunity that nobody else will ever have. And when you work with a collection, you don’t necessarily become their biographer, but you do have a level of intimacy with the material that nobody else will ever have, because nobody else is going to process that collection.

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Linus Pauling in the original Special Collections reading room, 1988.

And now when I think about the blog I think about it in multiple ways, but one of the ways that I think about it is it being a resource for future archivists who work at OSU to be able to work with this collection in a more effective way, just because they’re not going to have that same experience of working with it that I had. And part of what continues to motivate me to publish the [Pauling Blog] is that — to leave a little bit of my experience behind after I’m gone. Because the blog will hopefully continue to exist. I doubt it will continue to be published after I stop doing it, whenever that is, but what we’ve done will continue to exist. We’re archiving it with our Archive-It instance, so it’s in the Internet Archive. It gets archived once a quarter.

And I’m happy about that. It’s a very big collection, it’s difficult to provide reference for it because of its size, and it’s unfair for all of the people who work here to be expected to know it on anything more than a surface level. So this is a tool for them to have in the future.

TEM: Is there a post that you thought about writing, because of the depth of knowledge that you have about the collection, that you decided not to write?

CP: Yeah, I thought about writing something [for the tenth anniversary of the Pauling Blog] but we’re doing this instead. [laughs]

There’s a part of me that wants to write a reflection about my engagement with Pauling, a person I never met. He died when I was a senior in high school; actually the summer after my senior year of high school. I was working for the Department of Transportation picking up garbage by the side of the road in Eastern Oregon on the day that he died. So that was my status at the end of his life. But I have come to know him well through strange ways, and I have come to know his oldest son quite well – Linus Jr. – through oral history. And I was in the middle of this department [Special Collections] that doesn’t exist anymore, that was devoted to him. And that’s, again, a unique experience.

Part of my oral history work, in addition to Linus Jr., was to interview Cliff Mead – basically the only head of Special Collections that ever existed – to try to get some of his memories from the chapter before I came along in ’96, because there were nine years of time that elapsed. So I could have a history of Special Collections recorded somewhere.

And anyway, part of me has thought about writing these recollections down, but it seems like a lot of work [laughs] and I have other things to do right now. But maybe someday.

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Ava Helen Miller with Linus Pauling, 1922.

TEM: What about topics that you’ve thought about writing about? I mean, there’s some really personal relationship stuff between he and Ava Helen.

CP: Yep. That’s actually a good example of something that I’ve thought about and haven’t done. So they were separated for a year when he went to Caltech and she was here [at Oregon Agricultural College]. They wanted to get married and their parents wouldn’t let them, so she stayed here in Corvallis for a year and he went for his first year of grad school. And then he came back that next summer, they got married, and they went off together. But they were apart for one year and they wrote to each other basically every single day, and we have all of his letters but none of hers, because he burned them. And I think that there’s probably good stuff in those letters but I just can’t deal with it because there’s also a lot of lovey-dovey stuff, and there’s just a lot of stuff period.

But I think that the correspondence between he and Ava Helen is ripe for mining, and Mina Carson did some of that for her Ava Helen biography. Pauling was super formal in his correspondence and pretty much to the point, because he was doing a lot of corresponding and just was a very busy person. The one time where he reveals himself on any deeper level, or reveals any kind of vulnerability, is in his correspondence with his wife. So I think that there’s probably a lot there that could be thought about and teased out, but it would take a lot of time and thinking to try and figure out what exactly is going on here with some of that stuff. But that’s something that I would like somebody to do some day; that’s definitely at least a paper, if not a book.

Something that I would like somebody else to do that definitely is a book is to talk about his relationship with Caltech. He was there for a long time and it would be really interesting to trace his evolution while there and also to trace the Institute’s evolution while he was there, and think about how the two of them were symbiotic on some level. I mean, Caltech was not Caltech when he joined, and it is Caltech today in part because he was there. He helped to build that place. He certainly wasn’t the only person, but he was a significant piece of it.

And on the same token, when he went to Caltech — he came from an extremely humble background and he’s lucky to have made it out of that background. When he went to Caltech he was very smart and ambitious but super green. I mean, his education that he got here was, I think, pretty modest. OAC was a land grant institution, it was focused on practical stuff, and he had far greater aspirations than that.

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

And he got into Caltech — one of my favorite stories about Pauling is that, so he’s been accepted to Caltech and the summer before he goes down there he’s working for the Department of Transportation and he’s a pavement inspector. And so he’s out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, inspecting pavement and living in a tent. But before he embarked upon this job he wrote to A.A. Noyes, who is the head of the Chemistry section of Caltech — there are basically three people who started Caltech and Noyes was one of them — and Pauling says, “I’m coming to grad school, how do I become a grad student?” And Noyes is writing a textbook and he sends him a manuscript version of the textbook and tells him, “Do all the problems in this book.” And so that summer in his tent, with a lantern, Pauling is doing this work and learning how to become a grad student and how to become a scientist.

And so he goes to Caltech and he’s there for a few years and at the end of that he gets this Guggenheim fellowship to go to Europe to learn quantum mechanics as it’s basically being invented. And then he comes back to the United States, applies quantum mechanics to structural chemistry, publishes a series of papers that become The Nature of the Chemical Bond in 1939, and that’s Nobel-quality work at that point. And it’s a very short period of time during which this process is moving forward, but for me it begins in that tent.

In any case, Caltech was hugely important for Pauling and vice-versa, and I think that would be a book that somebody should write; I’d love to see that. That’s not a series of blog posts.

One of the things that we’ve done a lot is to talk about his associations with places. We’ve done a series on his tenure at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which was rocky at best and short-lived. Same thing with UCSD. We’ve got a series coming out soon about his time at Stanford. We’ve done a lot on his relationship with Oregon Agricultural College too. But it’s harder to wrap yourself around the relationship with Caltech because he was there for so long and so much happened.

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But I think I figured out a way that we can start to engage with that a little bit, and that’s something that’s being worked on right now, and that’s to talk about his work as an administrator. So he was the head of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering for a long time and he was in charge of a lot of grant money and he had an army of grad students who worked for him. And part of his success story is that he was a very able administrator, and obviously a brilliant thinker.

So he’d come up with an idea and give it a grad student, and that might become that grad student’s entire career basically. They would pursue that as a grad student and continue to pursue it for the rest of their career. It was something that would emerge from this yellow piece of paper that he would give to people, saying “you can work on this if you want, you don’t have to.” It was implied that you should. [laughs]

But he published 1,100 papers and you don’t do that without help. And there are plenty of co-authors there and people who went on to win Nobel Prizes — the Pauling tree is vast and significant. So I’m interested in that; I’m interested in his ability to be a leader of men. And it was men, because Caltech didn’t allow women. But I’m interested in his ability to attract grant money and how this all flows into creating this career that is so remarkable. And a lot of it happened at Caltech; a lot of the best stuff happened at Caltech.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: Of White Whales and Other Challenges

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[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Part 3 of 4.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: How many students have worked on the blog?

Chris Petersen: Well, thirty-three people have written for the blog and I would say that probably more than twenty-five of them have been students. It’s mostly students.

So the people that have written for it have been students and me and a sort of random collection of other people. [Pauling biographer] Tom Hager contributed a couple of things he actually had written for something else, but we re-posted them. We also had a guy named John Leavitt, who was an employee of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine when it was in the Bay Area, who has taken an active interest in us for a long time. And he’s been our – I called him our East Coast Bureau Chief for a while because he’s based in Connecticut. He’s sent us quite a bit of stuff and we’ve published him.

Another hat that I wear within the department is Remote Reference Coordinator, and so sometimes somebody will contact us with a fairly in-depth inquiry about Pauling and it’s going to be published in a book or in a paper or whatever. And I’ll invite them to write something for the blog and tell them that it actually has a pretty good audience and it’s going to expose your project to a wider audience than maybe it would otherwise receive. And we’ve gotten guest posts based on that as well.

But those are few and far between, relatively speaking. It’s been mostly students, and a full gamut of students too – undergraduates, master’s-seeking, and Ph.D. students. We’ve had good luck with the [Oregon State University] Honors College; we’ve recruited a lot out of the Honors College here. We’ve had good luck with the History of Science program, we’ve had good luck with the English program. But not necessarily just those three – again, there’s a bit of word of mouth from time to time, and just good luck as well happens from time to time too.

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TEM: What is the most memorable thing that a student found or researched or asked you about?

CP: Yeah, that’s an easy answer for me. I don’t know what the year was, it’s been a few years ago, but there’s a controversy – a very weird scientific controversy – on something called quasicrystals. Quasicrystals, I would not pretend to be an expert on them, but I can say that they are exotic and they are related to structural chemstry and there’s a lot of math involved.

And so I knew that Pauling had done a lot of writing and speaking about quasicrystals in the ’80s, and he got into basically a dispute with another guy named Dan Shechtman about – I think Shechtman was pro-quasicrystals and Pauling was anti, I’m honestly not even sure at this point. But there was a dispute and Shechtman was right and, as it turned out, Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for this work on quasicrystals. And this stands as a piece of evidence about Pauling’s stubbornness and about his inflexibility at times, which was very much a part of his personality, especially as he got older.

I wanted to do something with this, but I knew that I didn’t have the ability to do it and I didn’t figure many students would either. But we finally had somebody who came across my desk who I thought, “she might be able to pull this off.” And she did.

So she devoted a lot of time to this. She was married and her husband created animated gifs to use as illustrations because she felt like that was necessary to provide context for what she was writing. And she worked from home for a while because I think she was having some health issues, and she finally emailed it to me. And she emailed it as a full package and in the email she quoted Moby Dick. And part of the quote – I don’t know the whole thing – but “from hell’s heart I stabbeth thee” was part of what she said because she had slayed this white whale of this set of posts about quasicrystals.

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And it was terrific, it really was. She was an extraordinary talent. And that was, I think, pretty much the end of her time with us; I don’t know what happened to her since, I hope that she’s done well. But she was exceptional and that really stands out in memory as just being a terrific accomplishment; something that I couldn’t have done. I think that most of what we publish is good to pretty good to excellent, and most of it I could do if I had the time and wherewithal. But I don’t know if I could have done that. She did and it was great. So, “from hell’s heart I stabbeth thee.” [laughs]

TEM: I was sort of thinking that the answer to that would not be quasicrystals but that it would be something more controversial. So Pauling also had other controversial aspects of his life and his career and I’m curious about how you’ve dealt with that?

CP: Yeah. I think that the blog is mostly friendly to Pauling and I think that’s valid. We are not an exercise in hagiography though, and we have written things that are not necessarily flattering. I think the quasicrystals instance is one of them, in fact.

The topic du jour these days is whether or not Pauling was a eugenicist, and we’ve written on that. It’s tricky, for sure, but I think we’ve taken a pretty balanced approach to that. And the last bit that we did was actually a summary of a talk that was given here by somebody from our Resident Scholar Program. So that’s been another thing that we’ve done is writing profiles on the different people who have come here as Resident Scholars to do work on Pauling; there have been several of them. And this guy gave a nice talk that, I think, presented the nuance pretty well, and I wrote that post. I was there for his presentation, I re-watched it, I wrote up the notes, and I thought a lot about how to present this. And I think that stands as a nice statement on Pauling’s point of view related to eugenics, which I’m not going to get into here. But that is one instance.

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Another instance that I think is valid is his relationship with his children. We’ve done two sets of posts on his two sons that are no longer living – Crellin was the youngest one and was actually the first one to die, and then Peter was the second oldest of the kids who had a tough life on a lot of levels. And we took a deep dive on both of them and engaged with their life stories in a way that, I’m sure, nobody else has.

Pauling, I think, he was of a different generation of parent than I am. He was very focused on his career and he had a wife who saw it as her role – early on, at least – to care for the children and to create a scenario in which he could do his work most effectively.

And he did a lot of very effective work, but I think it also had an impact on his kids on some level. I think that he loved them, I think that he certainly provided for them well after they were out of the home – most of them. But that warmth was not always necessarily there and the time was not there for sure, and that’s a criticism. And I think that comes through in the writing on some level.

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So those are a couple bits. Another thing we’ve done is written extensively about lawsuits. And he was involved in a lot of lawsuits. The ones that we’ve engaged with are well in the past and they’re libel lawsuits – mostly papers or magazines calling him a communist, and him being very litigious about it. And, so there was a Supreme Court verdict that came through that basically shot his point of view down and that was the end of him being successful with these lawsuits, but he pursued them doggedly and a sort of persnickety side of his personality arises.

He could be a little cranky at times and he probably had a right to be as far as that was concerned, but in my reading of the documents and just in his interactions with people as a writer of letters, he was always very formal and he sometimes could be pretty terse and not especially warm. So we dug into the lawsuits in significant depth and I think that showed pieces of his personality as far as that’s concerned.

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We’ve done a lot of work on vitamin C, especially vitamin C and cancer, and to a lesser degree vitamin C and the common cold, and vitamin C and heart disease. And Pauling was obsessed with vitamin C – I think that’s a fair statement – and was not necessarily willing to hear contradictory points of view very much, or perhaps pursued lines of inquiry that were not super scientific but were favorable to his perspective or were overly favorable.

And so some of that has emerged in the writing. But I also think, there seems to be a trend now – a rising trend – of scientists who are starting to think that he was on to something, and that’s been fun to document as well. So the idea basically is that if you take vitamin C orally you are not able to absorb most of it, you excrete most of it in your urine. So there’s a threshold of absorption. And he knew that, I think, but tried to suggest different ways of taking it, kind of a steady dose over the course of an entire day that would increase the concentration in the blood. But some of the things that he said were going to happen concerning the promise of vitamin C to heal in various ways were lost because you just couldn’t absorb the ascorbic acid into your body.

But in more recent time, scientists seem to be coming to the understanding that if you take it intravenously it’s a different transport mechanism and you’re able to absorb a lot more and, in fact, some of what he thought was going to happen may actually be true. And this is of, like, last Fall – there was a seminar at the Linus Pauling Institute for their Diet and Optimum Health Conference that was devoted entirely to that. So I sent one of our students to cover it and it was great. It’s really fun for me to be able to follow that a little bit and to convey that a little bit, because he took a real beating for his point of view on that. And his tactics were not the best tactics, but it’s pretty interesting to me that, these many years later, he actually may have been right about some of that stuff.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: An Expanding Purview

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[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This is part 2 of 4.]

Chris Petersen: [Once the Pauling Blog had been launched in Spring 2008] it took us a little while to figure out what we were doing. The early posts are short, they’re link-heavy, they traverse familiar ground related to Pauling, and they were twice a week. So that was a thing that we were doing. And it took us a little while to figure out what kind of resources one needs to operate a blog that publishes x number of times. And eventually we settled on once a week and the posts started getting longer.

So we started out from the origin story [described in part 1 of this series] to the next phase. And that, as I recall, was – once we had sort of done all the search engine optimization that we could think of – was to use the documentary histories themselves as a data source, or as a set of information that a student would be restricted to in telling a different story. So perhaps they are expanding upon something that was mentioned in the narrative of the documentary history or going down a different line of inquiry that could be supported by the documents that had been digitized into that resource. And that was the next step.

So we went from re-telling the same stories that had already been told to telling somewhat new stories that were not reliant upon the full collection for the research. Instead, it was an artificially constrained collection that the students were using to write. And part of that was just me not being totally sure if a student could handle the whole collection in terms of research and writing. But that was, I guess, the next phase of us branching out in terms of using the blog as a platform for something that was different from the original idea.

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: How did you decide what to write about? Or what to have students write about?

CP: Well, I’d been working with the papers for twelve years at that point, so I was pretty familiar with the mythology and the canon. And it was easier earlier on because, again, we weren’t really trying to do something new and original, we were trying to steer traffic.

And then beyond that, when we started to use the documentary histories as our source, it was, again, fairly straightforward for me to analyze that and think about, “well, this might be interesting to expand upon.” It’s basically thinking about, “here’s our [documentary history] website, it’s structured with a narrative and has supporting documents, and the narrative tells the story in a particular way. But Pauling’s life is so vast and sprawling in a million different directions that there are lots of ways that you can tease out small details.” So it was just sort of using my imagination as far as that was concerned.

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And I often knew what the outcome was going to be from that piece of research, just from my exposure to the collection. But it had not been written up or documented very well, at least on the web. It might have shown up in a biography somewhere. So I guess that’s how it happened.

TEM: Were there things that you carried forth from the time that you had actually worked with the papers, that you wanted to know more about?

CP: Later. I mean, that’s sort of where we’re at now actually. That’s become something that’s probably driven the blog more than anything else over the last two or three years, is me being interested in something and having a student go research it for me so I can learn something new. [laughs]

TEM: Did you imagine, in this second phase, that the blog would become a research resource in and of itself? That you would be pointing people in that direction who wanted to know more about Pauling?

CP: That’s a good question; I’m not sure. I think that it probably gradually happened over time. A lot of it was in the context of the department as well. For [the Special Collections department] – Pauling was the dominant presence in Special Collections for the whole time that it existed and the Pauling Blog was a piece of that ecosystem. So we had all the websites that we created, we had all the outreach that we were doing, and the blog was a part of both of those. But we were also in the middle of a project to document every single day of his life, which we got from 1930 to 1969, Linus Pauling Day-by-Day. And so that was the level of thinking in terms of resources available to researchers.

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That situation has changed significantly and the connection to Special Collections that exists now is the Pauling Blog. And it’s a significant connection. But it’s become more valuable, I think, in that context, in the sense that the work that we’re doing related to Pauling now is the blog, and has been since 2011. So it’s not quite seven years now yet, but it’s a good amount of time in which that’s been the case. So it’s become more of a point of emphasis as a result of institutional change, I would say.

TEM: So rewinding to 2009 say, so you’ve been doing the blog for a year, what were some of the challenges that you were facing in those early year or two years?

CP: Well, I don’t really remember there being a lot of challenges because, at that point, we were still mining low-hanging fruit and we were filled with possibility and we had as many resources as we possibly could have wanted. It was mostly an issue of channeling energy and recruiting good people. And that is a continuing challenge, but we’ve been pretty fortunate as far as our success rate in that sense.

So the first writers for the blog were me and [SCARC Public Services Archivist Trevor Sandgathe]. Trevor was a student then and he and I basically co-founded this resource. At some point I realized that I wasn’t going to have as much time to do research and writing for the project, so I asked him if he knew anybody that was good and he did: his buddy. [laughs] And so I hired him. And they basically took over the research and writing at that point, and things just sort of evolved from there.

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Early on we also had a graduate student who worked for us who, I don’t remember her circumstance but she was in Corvallis for a summer somehow, and I came into contact with her, and she had her own points of view and interests. And again, we hadn’t done a whole lot of writing at that point, so she could kind of dip into the collection and talk about the things that she was interested in. And the things that she wrote about were interesting and wouldn’t have occurred to me at that point. They were mostly about Pauling’s research methodology, so she wrote posts about electrophoresis and x-ray crystallography and that sort of thing, and it was great. So that’s how things evolved earlier on.

But in terms of challenges, I don’t think that there have ever been really significant challenges. We’ve been fortunate to have administrative support for the project from the beginning. I figured out at some point that it needs two students. The students who work for us usually work about ten hours per week, roughly. So about twenty hours a week of student assistance is required to keep the blog operating at its current level, which is posting once a week and the posts are usually about 1,000 words. And now we’re doing almost all original research, so it takes time, it takes talent.

And there’s never been any push-back on that. I mean, that’s 0.5 FTE for students and that’s significant. I think that there are probably plenty of archives where that is their whole student staff or maybe it’s more than their whole student staff. So I think the big challenge would arise if and when it was impressed upon me that we couldn’t afford it anymore, and that would probably be the end of the project. But it’s never even been introduced and I’m very grateful for that.

But beyond that, the other challenges would be finding good people to write – we’ve had good luck there. Also making sure that I have the time to devote to it, and I’ve gotten pretty efficient at this point so that’s not been an issue. And continuing to come up with ideas, and there’s a lot in that collection to write about, so that also has not been a huge challenge.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: Origin Story

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[Over the next four weeks, the Pauling Blog will celebrate its tenth anniversary by sharing extracts from an oral history interview conducted with Chris Petersen, the founder, editor and publisher of the blog. This interview was led by Tiah Edmunson-Morton, who is an archivist and instructor, and also the curator of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, a component of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University Libraries, which is likewise home to the Pauling Papers and the Pauling Blog. The transcript extracts presented here have been lightly edited for clarity. Click here to view the full interview.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Tell me the story of how the Pauling Blog started.

Chris Petersen: Well, the origin story of the Pauling Blog would precede the blog itself by several years.

So I started working in Special Collections in 1996 and, at that point, there was a strong interest in digitization already. The Pauling Papers had been at OSU for about ten years, kind of/sort of. Pauling made his donation in 1986, he lived until 1994. Over the course of that time, maybe twenty percent of the collection showed up and a smaller portion of that was jammed into a very small space in the old Kerr Library – a space that doesn’t exist anymore. But the part that we had mostly was not in that space; it was in a couple of other places outside of the library and was basically just in storage. And then Pauling died in ’94, it took about two years to resolve the estate, so around ’96 is when most of the stuff came. And then ’98 is when the facility that we’re in now was completed, and that’s when things came under one roof for the first time.

During that period of time, from ’86 to ’98, we had the stuff that we had and we were processing it as well as we could. And during that time, the library was very interested in doing some sort of digitization project. And so they settled on something called LaserFiche, which was a database-driven piece of software that was fairly slick. It allowed you to create a folder structure online that looked similar to what we might see in Windows Explorer now, and then digitize stuff into those folders and make it available. It could be password-protected if you wanted. And that’s how people would access the content online.

So that was something that was being pursued with gusto and press announcements went out, “we’re digitizing this, isn’t it great?” And it was, sort of. But there were a couple of problems. Number one, we started digitizing before the collection was here – never a good thing. So the collection was being processed and re-processed as time was moving forward, and this directory structure that we were creating was no longer relevant. So things got pretty messy in a hurry.

The other thing that happened was copyright: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and put us in a situation where we could provide access to everything that we held the copyright for, which was all of Pauling’s writings, but not all the other things in the collection that weren’t his writings which, there’s a lot of that. So that project kind of fell apart as a result of that.

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There was still an interest in digitizing though, and so from there we switched into thematic websites, which is what is represented now — particular aspects of Pauling’s life and career represented through these documentary history websites mostly, but also through some more traditional kinds of digital collections that were created over time as well. So that was a big point of emphasis for Special Collections from really the beginning of my association in ’96 to, well, for the entire duration of the department, which ended in 2011.

TEM: At that point was it pretty standard or traditional for archives that focused so much on one person to digitize that much content? Or have that robust of a website, period?

CP: I doubt it. I think that we were different in a lot of ways. I think that probably there weren’t that many archives that focused on one person. We technically didn’t, we had about a dozen other collections, but they were all quite a bit smaller than the Pauling Papers.

But the library was very invested in innovation and developing a digital presence – that was a very big part of our identity as a library – and Special Collections was a big part of making that come to fruition. So there was an emphasis on that administratively, and we wanted to do it too within the department. We also were well-equipped to do it. I mean, I didn’t have a whole lot of technical skill when I started working, but [Analyst Programmer] Ryan Wick definitely did. He’s still with us and he was the driving force on the technical end. And I was a useful helper as far as that’s concerned and learned things, and he and I have been a good partnership over the years in that regard.

Anyway, this is a very long way of getting to the Pauling Blog, but… So we did all these websites and they were what they were, and they got used and we were proud of them. We were pretty obsessed with our Google ranking for a while and so that was one piece of how the Pauling Blog came about – I’ll tell that story in a second. We also had a need to tell people about events that we were participating in or hosting. And the solution we had was basically a little spot on our website and an RSS feed that would shoot out, that maybe people would use, probably not a lot of them. And that was our “something’s happening,” if you happened across our website you might find out about it, if you subscribed to our RSS feed you might find out about it.

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So we wanted something better for a particular event and that was the release of a postage stamp. In March 2008, the Postal Service released a series of stamps celebrating American scientists, and Pauling was one of them. And they had an event in the basement of the Memorial Union, they had a cake, and Linus Pauling Jr. came, and students from Linus Pauling Middle School came, and all the local stamps geeks showed up, and it was great. It was actually fun – it was great.

But anyway, this was happening and we wanted to let people know it was going to happen, and we wanted a better way to do it than what we had from our website and our RSS feed. We also wanted to be able to follow up; we wanted to take pictures, we wanted to make them available somehow. And this was pretty early on in terms of photo sharing, etc. We definitely didn’t have a Flickr account or anything like that.

So I was thinking about this and I talked about it with a student of ours – Trevor Sandgathe, whom you and I know well, he’s still on staff [as Public Services Archivist] – and we talked about creating a blog. And the blog would be a place where we could be more flexible with telling stories about Pauling, but also raising awareness about events like this. That’s really how that piece of it got motivated.

But the other bit was the Google ranking. And so we would do a lot of searching for “Linus Pauling” and we got frustrated because we learned pretty quickly that, at that time – I’m sure things have changed since – but at that time, Google would lump everything that we had ever made about Linus Pauling into one pot, basically. And so you would search for “Linus Pauling” and you would get the documentary history website that was the most popular, which was Nature of the Chemical Bond, and you wouldn’t have any indication that all this other stuff existed. If you did the “Linus Pauling” search, you wouldn’t have Nature of the Chemical Bond, International Peace Movement, Proteins website, etc. All you’d have is Nature of the Chemical Bond. And if you clicked on “more results within domain,” then that’s when that other stuff would start to appear.

So essentially we were burying ourselves within our domain; we were getting this one return. The only way you would ever find anything else was if you did “Linus Pauling” plus some other word to get into that other chunk of stuff that we had put up online.

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So we started to think about that, the fact that we were burying ourselves in our own domain, and we thought, “wouldn’t it be interesting if we had a different domain that we controlled that we could use to funnel traffic into these other resources?” So essentially what we were trying was a very rudimentary approach to search engine optimization. That was another goal of the blog – unstated, but certainly it was.

So if you look at those early blog posts, we have the stamp announcement and the follow-up. But we also have a series of short posts that are very link-heavy, that essentially are retelling stories that had already been told on the documentary history websites. But the thought process was that eventually the Pauling Blog would raise up in rank in Google and that people would come across this content in the Pauling Blog, and they would click on the links, and that would get them into the stuff that was within the Special Collections domain. And that – I don’t know if it ever actually worked, but those were the two reasons why the Pauling Blog came into being. That’s the origin story.

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