A Global Friendship


Asima Chatterjee (front row, third from right) with her students and the Paulings, February 1967. Credit: Indian Academy of Sciences

[An examination of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s relationship with the influential Indian chemist, Asima Chatterjee. Part 2 of 2.]

Asima Chatterjee’s one and only meeting with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling took place during the Paulings’ tour of India, which spanned the months of January and February 1967. During the final leg of this trip, for a mere sixteen hours, the Paulings landed in Kolkata, toured the University, saw Chatterjee’s labs, and met her students. From there the Paulings departed India en route to Honolulu, where they planned to spend a few days visiting with their son, Linus Jr. Before leaving however, the Paulings gave a sum of money to Chatterjee that they later requested she spend on a wedding gift from them for her daughter. Though a small token, this gift was surely an indication of the esteem that the Paulings felt for their friend and fellow scientist.

While 1967 began on a high note for Chatterjee, the year ultimately proved to be profoundly difficult. In the months following the Paulings’ departure, Chatterjee lost both her husband and her father. Congruent with these personal tragedies, the political environment in Chatterjee’s home region of West Bengal, and particularly in Kolkata, began to deteriorate as a radical communist group, the Naxalites, began to gain influence in the area.

While the details of Chatterjee’s personal heartache, as well as India’s mounting regional strife, were communicated in her letters to the Paulings, one is also able to intuit a degree of solace being found in correspondence. In particular, Chatterjee was keen to point out Linus Pauling’s sweeping geniality and friendship, commenting that “we all admire his enthusiasm and unlimited energy. He is so dynamic! We wonder where he gains this energy.”

Though first and foremost a scientist, Asima Chatterjee’s concerns for her home country’s well-being echoed similar frustrations being felt by her stateside correspondents. While the Paulings were focused primarily on global problems of the nuclear age, in India the worries were more acute. In particular, the need to navigate and correct a wide array of political, social and economic dysfunctions left behind by the colonial era proved to be a momentous and primary challenge.

The strains of adjusting to a new era of independence that were felt nation-wide also impacted Chatterjee in a multitude of ways. Professionally, many students at her university abandoned their studies to join the Naxalites in protest. As these demonstrations grew in intensity, splinter groups resorted to attacks on Kolkata’s infrastructure that resulted in damage to the city’s power grid.

During this period of tumult, Chatterjee’s concern for the fortunes of her students, her daughter and, indeed, her country were evident in her communications with Ava Helen. In their letters, the two women discussed a number of social issues, including student unrest around the world, Kolkata’s seemingly intractable troubles, and the escalation of violence in Vietnam. In a 1971 letter, Ava Helen expressed her sympathy for Chatterjee’s plight. “The world gets no better and we have been full of sorrow and anxiety for India the past year,” she wrote. “It is so dreadful that the world refuses to try another method.”

Replying a few weeks later – during the final months of a genocidal campaign that resulted in the deaths of between 300,000 and 3 million people in present-day Bangladesh – Chatterjee expressed growing dismay about the state of affairs on the subcontinent.

Air raid sirens and black outs are frequent occurrences in the city. The number of refugees in India is beyond imagination… It is not possible for India to look after those millions of refugees permanently.

Though she could not have known the final tally at that time, statistics now show that some 10 million refugees fled Bangladesh for India in 1971.


Asima Chatterjee (at center in white sari) with some of her students, 1997. Credit: Indian Academy of Science.

Chatterjee also noted that academic rigor at the University of Calcutta had diminished, suggesting that “the University has been converted into a machine for turning out [hundreds] of graduates every year.”

And yet, in spite of it all, Chatterjee remained very productive. By 1961 she had published 105 peer-reviewed papers and, in 1972, she was selected to be the honorary Programme Coordinator at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Chemistry of Natural Products. Three years later, she became the first woman to be elected as General President of the Indian Science Congress Association.

In 1982, after retiring from her duties as a professor, Chatterjee received a very different kind of honor when she was selected to a seat in the Raiya Sabha. A component of India’s parliament, the Raiya Sabha consists of twelve nationals who, in the estimation of the President, have made a profound impact on their fields. Chatterjee served in this is position until 1990. She died sixteen years later, on November 22, 2006, and is survived by her daughter Julie Banerji, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calcutta.

The global friendship shared by Linus Pauling, Ava Helen Pauling and Asima Chatterjee was certainly unorthodox — in person, the relationship consisted entirely of a single, half-day meeting. Through the power of the pen however, the Paulings and Chatterjee cemented and grew their fondness for one another, regularly exchanging holiday greetings and carrying out various professional favors. Today, their bond stands as evidence in support of the imperative that knowledge flow freely across social and geographic boundaries. Their story also serves as an example of the ways in which science and concerns for humanity are so often intertwined.


Asima Chatterjee


[Ed note: A Google Doodle published in September 2017 featured a name familiar to us — the groundbreaking Indian scientist Asima Chatterjee — and prompted us to investigate her story a bit more. Today’s post is the first of two reflecting on Chatterjee’s work and her long friendship with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling.]

It is easy to lapse into cliche when discussing female scientists of the 20th century. On the one hand, it is certainly true that women of that era, by obtaining their Ph.Ds. and rising through the ranks of academia, paved new paths for those to come by pushing through environments that were often hostile to their presence. Beyond this however, it is also crucial to acknowledge the multifaceted contributions that these women made to their scientific disciplines and to celebrate the ways in which their work made a profound impact outside of the context of gender relations.

Asima Chatterjee, born in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) in 1917, is a terrific example of a pioneering woman scientist whose impact has been felt in many ways and on many levels. Chatterjee, a brilliant and passionate scholar, was the first woman to obtain a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university; just one in a succession of accomplishments. In so doing, she both smashed cultural expectations and demonstrated the ways in which sexism is detrimental to society as a whole.

The importance of a woman’s perspective – in particular, the capacity for empathy so often engendered by the roles, expectations and cultural norms traditionally assigned to women – is a quality that Linus Pauling revered. The strongest piece of evidence that one might put forth in support of this argument was the genuine respect and affection that characterized his long relationship with his wife, Ava Helen Pauling. By her husband’s own admission, Ava Helen was crucial in building and maintaining the compassion, selflessness, concern and, indeed, courage that were fundamental to Linus Pauling’s peace work, which was honored by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 1963.

It is unsurprising then, that the friendship which flourished between Asima Chatterjee and the Paulings was steeped not only in mutual scientific interests, but also in a shared concern for social welfare. In fact, the two were not discrete nodes of their relationship: the desire for a more equitable and peaceful world was tethered to their mutual passion for science and, ultimately, became a central reference point in the constellation of their friendship.


The Paulings’ relationship with Asima Chatterjee likely found its start during Chatterjee’s stint as a fellow at the California Institute of Technology, though not in a typical way. In the years following the completion of her doctorate in 1944, Chatterjee and her one-year-old daughter, Julie, traveled abroad for a series of fixed-term research appointments, including a position at Caltech. While in Pasadena, Chatterjee studied carotenoids under Laszlo Zechmeister, a Hungarian scientist who had been hired by Pauling. Presumably because of his connection to Zechmeister, it seems clear that Pauling knew of Chatterjee’s visit, even though he was in England at the time, serving a year-long term at Oxford as Eastman Professor.

What is certain is that the Paulings’ and Chatterjee’s friendship was almost entirely facilitated through letters, dozens of them, penned over the course of nearly two decades. In their lengthy correspondence, Chatterjee and the Paulings touched upon a wide variety of topics ranging from professional favors to the shifting fortunes of India to the various exploits and undertakings of their children. Not until 1967, in Calcutta, did the correspondents finally meet face-to-face.

Chatterjee’s research focused primarily on natural products and phytochemistry, and placed prominent emphasis on the potential medicinal properties of the substances under study. Fascinated with botany early in childhood and, as a professional, inclined towards investigations in organic chemistry – the subject in which she received her doctorate – Chatterjee’s passions aligned in such a way as to enable in-depth studies of the structures and properties of plants native to India. One of Chatterjee’s especially prominent achievements emerged from her research on vinca alkaloids, used today for chemotherapeutic treatments. Chatterjee’s program of work made similarly important contributions to the attack on malaria and epilepsy.

However, despite her obvious promise as a scientist, Chatterjee’s research program was regularly hamstrung by funding problems. India achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 (around the time of Chatterjee’s U.S. fellowship tour) and, as a recently sovereign nation, had a great deal to figure out both politically and economically. Working within this climate, Chatterjee routinely experienced difficulty in acquiring the basic resources and supplies necessary to conduct her research. This reality made her international connections, at Caltech in particular, a lifeline for the progress of her work.

One example of this somewhat unorthodox international collaboration was documented in a March 1953 letter. In it, Chatterjee asked Pauling to provide a degree of technical support with an alkaloid, Rauwolscine, that she would later become well-known for studying. In particular, Chatterjee needed Pauling’s assistance with a form of x-ray analysis that was not beyond her level of expertise, but instead was inaccessible to her for lack of technical infrastructure. While in this insistence Pauling decided against heeding Chatterjee’s request – citing various stipulations of institutional policy – other letters provide numerous examples where he and his colleagues were able to aid in her work.

Asima Chatterjee’s tenacious nature and focused dedication to her field were formally recognized by her peers in 1961, when she became the first woman to be awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize. (An extremely prestigious honor for Indian scientists, this award has, to date, been bestowed to sixteen female recipients in total.) In next week’s post, we will examine the ways in which Chatterjee’s work, as well as her relationship with the Paulings, continued to flourish throughout the 1960s and beyond.


A Return to India, 1967

The audience assembled for one of Linus Pauling's two Azad Memorial Lectures, New Delhi, February 1967.

During the process of production of a fertilized ovum, half of the set of genes of the father and half of the set of genes of the mother, selected by a process that involves randomness, are passed on to the child.  Every child is a reincarnation, not a complete reincarnation of any one individual but a reincarnation of many people who preceded him in life and have passed some of their molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid on to him.

-Linus Pauling, Azad Lectures, February 1967.

Linus Pauling was invited to visit India again in the late 1960s, in large part due to his relationship with G. N. Ramachandran, a physical chemist at the University of Madras. Ramachandran had begun corresponding with Pauling several years before when, as a newly minted post-doc, he was seeking employment in Pauling’s lab. At the time Pauling couldn’t give him a job, but he was interested in Ramachandran’s crystallography research. In the mid-1950s, Pauling was trying to determine the structure of collagen and incorrectly theorized that its molecular structure was a three-helix cable. Ramachandran eventually correctly identified the structure as a triple helix.  Some years later, Ramachandran extended to Pauling the invitation of a visiting professorship at his institution, and Pauling eventually accepted, leading to the Paulings’ 1967 return trip to the subcontinent.

Word of Pauling’s visit quickly spread through the Indian scientific community and many more invitations came pouring in. Linus received such a large volume that he had to turn many of them down; especially those extended by smaller institutions and certain locations that he had visited during his 1955 trip. Once most of the dust had settled, Ramachandran was placed in charge of piecing together the Paulings’ itinerary.

Linus and Ava Helen arrived in Madras in January 1967 for a six week stay that would include visits to cities all over India – Madras, Bangalore, Delhi, Kerala, and Hyderabad were all on the schedule – as well as a stop in Sri Lanka. Though excursions to scientific institutions and meetings with important leaders – including Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the country’s second President – dominated the Paulings’ stay, time was once again set aside for seeing the sights.  After the conclusion of the trip, Pauling noted an encounter with a pack of 35 wild elephants as one particular highlight of the journey.

As part of his Madras professorship, Pauling began his visit by delivering a series of three lectures on molecular structure theory; a three-part lecture on nuclear structure would follow the next month. He likewise presented other technical lectures at Kerala University, the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science (in Sri Lanka), and the Indian Institute of Medical Science, and gave other more popular talks titled “Molecular Disease and Evolution” and “Molecular Structure in Relation to Medicine.”

Linus Pauling being introduced by Foreign Minister M. C. Chagla, Azad Lectures, February 1967.

Pauling also had the opportunity to speak about another subject about which he was passionate: peace. In preparation for these lectures, Pauling conducted extensive research on India’s socioeconomic situation, poring over government statistics and scribbling calculations in his notebooks.

Much of this research was compiled into Pauling’s two-part delivery of the Azad Memorial Lectures: “Science and Peace” and “The Future of the World.” The lectures were a high-point of the trip, and an internationally notable event – the U.S. Supreme Court even requested a copy of the speeches for its library.

In his Azad speeches, Pauling expounded upon Albert Schweitzer’s principal of the minimization of human suffering and tied all of his points into the current situation in India. Through his research, Pauling discerned that the average real income of an individual Indian had actually decreased since independence due to inflation, which ran to ten percent per year beginning in 1962.  From there he concluded that the rate of inflation was largely due to big increases in military expenditures, writing

In the year 1963 the military budget of India was more than doubled, so that it reached the amount 4.7 percent of the national income, which was 340,000 million Rupees; that is, the military budget reached the amount of 16,000 million Rupees in 1963.  This sum of money, the military budget, is just equal to the decrease in the purchasing power of the income of the people of India that has been caused for the average year since 1962 by inflation of the Rupee.  This comparison indicates that the purchasing power of the people’s income would not have decreased if these great expenditures for militarism had not taken place.

Pauling also noted that the nation was likewise manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium and had the ability to fabricate an atomic bomb within only twelve months.

Much of this increase in militarism was a response to increased hostilities with India’s western neighbor, Pakistan, to whom the United States had recently donated several million dollars worth of military equipment. Pauling was very up front in voicing his disapproval of American foreign policy, pointing out in particular the hypocrisy of President Lyndon Johnson’s claims to be in favor of peace while refusing to recognize the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, “despite his stated willingness to meet with any government to discuss a cease-fire and a negotiated peace in Vietnam.” Nor did Pauling buy into American rhetoric that war now prevented greater suffering in the future. Rather, in his view

Militarism is the cause of human suffering in two ways: directly, through the savagery of war itself, and indirectly, through the waste of the resources of the world, and the consequent increase in suffering caused by poverty and disease.

In his analysis of his host nation, Pauling also looked at birth and death rates: the population of India was soaring and Pauling couldn’t help but think that many of the nation’s problems could be solved or lessened if the growth rate was brought down to that of developed countries. India already had birth control programs in place in 1967, but Pauling surmised that an increase in this budget line item would be helpful, especially in promoting sterilization as an effective option.

At the end of the lectureship, External Affairs Minister M. C. Chagla, who had been presiding, delivered his own commentary on Pauling’s remarks. He disagreed that the quality of life in India was on a downward slope, countering that statistics could be manipulated for anything. He also defended the government’s increase in military expenses, saying that it was necessary with the rising threat of two hostile neighbors. He did, however, receive cheers for announcing that India would never manufacture nuclear weapons despite its ability to do so. (In actual fact, India tested its first nuclear weapon, “The Smiling Buddha,” in May 1974.)

While in Delhi delivering the Azad lectures, Pauling received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Delhi University. And not long after they were delivered, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations published the talks as a 73-page book.

For her part, Ava Helen took the opportunity of the 1967 trip to learn about the issues that Indian women were facing. Amidst her travels, Ava Helen gave at least one lecture to a women’s organization and also attended a seminar on “Small Family,” which covered topics such as methods of controlling family size, family planning education and the role of voluntary agencies in family planning. For three days in February she also visited women’s institutions around Madras with the Director of Women’s Welfare, touring government sponsored homes established for orphaned girls, young widows and destitute women. The institutions featured secretarial classes as well as instruction in needlework, doll-making and weaving. When she returned home to California, Ava Helen spoke of these experiences to the Santa Barbara County chapter of Women for Peace.

Ava Helen also kept in contact with Dr. Asima Chatterjee, a prominent Indian chemist and the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university. For several years prior to the trip, Linus had been corresponding with Chatterjee about various research matters, but neither Pauling had met Chatterjee in person until the 1967 visit. Their friendship blossomed during the Pauling’s tour and before departing the Paulings left a sum of money with Dr. Chatterjee that they later requested she spend on a wedding gift from them for her daughter.

In later years, the Paulings and Chatterjee regularly exchanged Christmas cards and notes about the goings-on of their respective families. Chatterjee likewise wrote of the ever-shifting political climate in India. In 1971 circumstances had taken a turn for the worse when civil war broke out in Pakistan and India was flooded with refugees. Ava Helen wrote that she was full of sorrow and anxiety for India. Chatterjee described the atmosphere as tense – at the time of her writing there existed a “deep lull” and sense of unease at not knowing know when the storm would break. The second major war between India and Pakistan would begin and end in December of that year.

The Paulings with three unidentified individuals, India, 1967.

The 1967 trip marked the Paulings’ last trip to the subcontinent.  While Linus is listed a speaker on a program for the One Asia assembly in Delhi in 1973, he did not actually attend this event – according to his notes he spent that day in California taking Ava Helen to see an optician. The conference was orchestrated by the Press Foundation of Asia, with the goal of discussing the failure of Asian countries to bring about significant change in the welfare of their people. Although the last time Pauling would set foot in India was in 1967, his apparent later willingness to participate in this event is evidence that he continued to keep up with its happenings.

In June 1975 an internal state of emergency was declared in India; a controversial new party had come into power and found a way to suspend civil liberties and democracy under the constitution. Thousands of critics of the government were arrested without charge. Pauling was one of eighty prominent Americans to sign a joint appeal expressing alarm at repression in India and calling for the restoration of human rights. Pauling found this event especially distressing because democracy was established in India after a long battle for freedom – a battle led by some of the century’s greatest exponents of human rights. His cooperation with the petition effort is the final major piece of evidence of his long-running interest in Indian politics and society. The country’s so-called “Emergency Era” came to an end in 1977 when a new party gained control of the world’s largest democracy.