David Pressman


David Pressman, 1937

[Part 6 of 6 in our series exploring Linus Pauling’s work on the serological properties of simple substances, and the colleagues who assisted him in this work.]

After a meeting with Karl Landsteiner in 1936, Linus Pauling began serious investigations into the link between antibodies and antigens, compiling notes for what would eventually become his serological series, a collection of fifteen papers published during the 1940s. Landsteiner had specifically piqued Pauling’s curiosity on the question of the human body’s specificity mechanism – e.g., how could the body produce antibodies tailored to lock onto and fight specific antigens?

Pauling ultimately surmised that the answer lie in the shape of the molecules, and in the type and number of bonding sites. He described this as a “lock and key” mechanism, otherwise termed as molecular complementarity. Throughout this project, which made a significant impact on the modern study of immunology, Pauling enlisted the help of many undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students, including a promising young scholar named David Pressman.

David Pressman was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1916. He attended Caltech as an undergraduate, studying under Pauling and completing his degree in 1937. He stayed in Pasadena for his doctorate, earning it in 1940. During this time, he became a part of Pauling’s quest to unravel the structure of proteins, and was particularly involved with the antibody and antigen work.

By this point, Pauling and his colleague Dan Campbell felt confident enough in what they had learned about antibody specificity to attempt creating artificial antibodies. Pauling was enthusiastic about the practical application that such an endeavor might promise for physicians. Warren Weaver, Pauling’s primary contact at the Rockefeller Foundation, which was funding the work, cautioned Pauling against becoming overconfident, but still granted him enough money to hire Pressman full-time. Thus began Pressman’s career in immunology.

At Pauling’s request, Pressman stayed on at Caltech as a post-doc, and during this time the two became friends. In 1943, after failing to prove that they could synthesize antibodies, Pauling’s research team changed their focus from understanding the structural components of antibodies and antigens, to looking for the binding mechanism that allowed antibodies to attach to specific antigens through Van der Waals bonds. One outcome of this was their development of the theory of complementarity, a “lock and key” model in which molecules fit together because of the high levels of specificity that they show for one another.

Pressman authored three papers with Pauling during this phase, including a very important one titled “The Nature of the Forces between Antigen and Antibody and of the Precipitation Reaction,” published in Physiological Reviews. In this paper, the researchers discussed the historical significance of immunology within the context of structural chemistry. Speaking of the tradition in which they worked, Pauling and his colleagues wrote that “two of the most important advances in the attack on the problem of the nature of immunological reactions were the discovery that the specific precipitate contains both antigen and antibody, and the discovery that antibodies, which give antisera their characteristic properties, are proteins.”  In this paper, they also theorized that the immune system depends on structural and chemical forces to function.


Pressman (at right) in the lab, ca. early 1960s.

In 1947, Pressman decided to pursue an interest in cancer research and moved on to the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City to investigate the use of radioactive tracers as they pertained to cancer treatment.  The West Coast was never far from his thoughts however, and he often wrote back to friends comparing the two regions and asking for information about life in Pasadena. Of his new arrangements he observed, “The mechanics of living take a much greater part of the time in New York, so that I do not have as much time to do as much as I would like to or could do in Pasadena.”

Pressman’s first few years at Sloan-Kettering were difficult, not only because of the nature of the research that he was conducting – a continuation of the research that he started with Pauling – but because he was frequently forced to move both his lab and his residence, a source of continuous disruption for himself and his family. Sloan Kettering had just been established in the early 1940s and wasn’t formally dedicated until the year after Pressman moved there. Though it eventually became one of the nation’s leading biomedical research institutions, Pressman’s early experiences there coincided with institutional growing pains.

Eventually, as the environment at Sloan-Kettering became more stable, Pressman settled in to his position and provided Pauling with regular updates on his progress. The two often traded manuscripts back and forth, and each solicited technical advice from one another on their specific endeavors, which gradually grew further afield as time moved forward. At Kettering, Pressman continued to study antibody specificity and explored the potential use of radioactive antibodies for tumor localization to develop immunotoxins. In 1954, he left New York City for the Roswell Park Institution in Buffalo, remaining there until his death.


60th birthday greetings sent to Pauling by David and Reinie Pressman, February 1961.

Pauling and Pressman remained in frequent contact for many years, focusing their voluminous correspondence primarily on work that Pressman continued to do as an outgrowth of their time together in Pasadena.  In July 1961, Pressman wrote that he and a colleague, Oliver Roholt, had potentially made a breakthrough with regard to the sequencing of the polypeptide chain associated with the region of specific binding sites in antibodies. He sent his manuscript, “Isolation of Peptides from an Antibody Site,” to Pauling for review prior to submission to Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Pauling felt that the manuscript had been put together too quickly and challenged Pressman to do better. He annotated the manuscript with numerous suggestions, most of which Pressman adopted. Less than a week later, Pressman sent the manuscript back to Pauling with the corrections and Pauling transmitted it in to PNAS, where it was received favorably.

The late 1960s were a period of great activity and advancement for Pressman. In 1965, he received the Schoellkopf Medal, a prestigious award granted by the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society. In 1967, he became assistant director at Roswell and, in 1968, he published a book, The Structural Basis of Antibody Specificity. By all outside indications, Pressman’s life was going well.

In 1977 however, tragedy struck when Jeff Pressman, David and Reinie Pressman’s son, committed suicide at the age of 33. Jeff was an up-and-coming professor of political science at MIT, where he was well-liked by faculty and students. Up until a few months before his death, Jeff had seemed happy, both with his career and his life at home. In a letter to Pauling, Pressman described Jeff’s descent into depression as sudden, severe, and uncharacteristic. He also documented the events leading up to his son’s suicide, conveying that he and his wife had become increasingly convinced that the responsibility for the tragedy lay at the feet of a rheumatologist to whom Jeff had been seeking assistance for back pain.

Believing Jeff’s back pain to be primarily muscular in cause, the rheumatologist had prescribed Indocin in January 1977. According to multiple sources that Pressman later consulted, Indocin was a mood-changer, so much so that other patients had reported sudden depressive symptoms and, in severe cases, committed suicide a few months after starting the medication. To complicate matters, the rheumatologist had increased Jeff’s dose to a level that few patients could tolerate well, and had done so more rapidly than was advisable. When Jeff began complaining of insomnia, the rheumatologist prescribed two additional medications, both of which had the potential to worsen his depression. Jeff finally stopped taking Indocin, but the effects lingered. Jeff’s wife, Katherine, reported that Jeff had felt increasingly hopeless about his depression, even though he continued to work at MIT up until his death.


David Pressman’s former secretary, Cheryl Zuber, posing with a plaque mounted in Pressman’s honor at the Cancer Cell Center, Roswell Memorial Institute, 1981.

In the wake of Jeff Pressman’s death, his colleagues at MIT published a collection of political essays dedicated in his honor. The dedication specifically called out Jeff’s commitment to his students and his impact as a teacher. In it, his colleagues wrote, “He cared deeply about public affairs and immersed himself in them because he genuinely felt that government at its best could improve peoples’ lives.”

Nonetheless, the loss took its toll and, for David Pressman, the only source of solace that he could identify was a return to work. In 1978, his focus in the laboratory was on localizing radio-iodinated antitumor antibodies. He later wrote to Pauling about chronic shoulder pain that he was experiencing, as he was aware of Pauling’s vitamin research and was in search of an alternative to the shoulder replacement surgery that had been recommended by his physician. Pauling put forth an argument for a megadose of vitamins, but Pressman was eventually diagnosed with osteoarthritis. By the end of the year, he was slowing down, both in his work and in his correspondence.

Two years later, in June 1980, Pauling received the news that David Pressman had jumped from the roof of Roswell Park Memorial Institute. In a letter to Pauling informing him of her husband’s death, Reinie Pressman cast about for answers. She wrote at length about the health problems that he had been experiencing, including partial hearing loss, prostate trouble, and chronic problems associated with the osteoarthritis in his right shoulder. She also confided that “You were a significant part of Dave’s happier past.” Pauling replied in kind, stating

I was very fond of David. Also, I owe much to him, because of the vigor and effectiveness with which he tackled scientific problems during the eight years that he worked with me. Much of the success of our program in immunochemistry was due to his contribution.

Campbell, Pressman, Pauling and the Binding of Antibodies

Drawings of the interaction between an antibody and azoprotein by Linus Pauling. 1940s.

Dan Campbell first collaborated with Linus Pauling on a fellowship at Caltech in 1940, during which time the duo tried to explain how antibodies are formed. At the time, Pauling believed that antibodies were proteins in-the-making that needed to bind to antigens in order to fold and complete their structure. If this principle was correct, Pauling thought, it might be possible to create artificial antibodies by simply denaturing proteins and allowing them to bind and refold in the presence of antigens.

Despite the fact that Campbell’s initial test results cast doubt on his collaborator’s theories, Pauling went ahead and published his ideas on how antibodies work, hoping that further research could support his paper. Thus began a lengthy study of antigen-antibody binding in which Pauling and Campbell attempted to develop a complete theory. Along the way, Dan Campbell’s research at Caltech would become very important to the Institute as well as to Pauling.

In 1943 a Caltech research fellow named David Pressman agreed to join Campbell and Pauling in their study of immunology. Starting with work that had previously been published, Pressman, Pauling and Campbell refocused their studies to explain how antigens and antibodies bind, a change in focus from Campbell and Pauling’s earlier inquiries into how antibodies and antigens are formed. The decision to focus on previous research was made after Pauling had mistakenly announced that antibodies had successfully been synthesized at the Gates and Crellin Laboratories. As it turned out, attempts to create synthetic antibodies using Pauling’s proposed methods were completely unsuccessful. Pauling thus decided to start from scratch by developing a theory of antigen-antibody binding, which he would use to further investigate the chemistry of this interaction.

In July 1943, the three men published “The Nature of the Forces Between Antigen and Antibody and of the Precipitation Reaction,” appearing in the journal Physiological Reviews. The paper attempted to make more educated predictions about antigen-antibody binding.  In doing so, the article begins by referencing the concept of structural complementarity, which posits that antigen-antibody binding is driven by the close complementary physical shapes of the two molecules, which fit together like two adjoining pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Commonly referred to as “the lock and key mechanism,” this idea was developed in the early 1930s, and served as Pauling and Campbell’s starting point in their initial investigations.

The 1943 study also drew from outside theories, such as the framework theory of precipitation, to suggest that antigen-antibody binding results in the formation of a precipitate; that is, that the two structures react to form an insoluble compound. Using these points as their foundation, the three researchers developed a new theory of antigen-antibody binding.

Pauling and Campbell, 1943.

Pauling and Campbell, 1943.

Campbell, Pressman and Pauling’s breakthrough came by way of their proposal that structural complementarity is an especially important feature for reactions that depend on Van der Waals forces. Van der Waals forces are weak forces of attraction that bind together molecules located in close proximity to one another. The Caltech researchers believed that the close complementary geometry of antibodies and antigens was significant enough to enable these molecules to fit together using the weak Van der Waals attraction as a binding force. In other words, the summation of Van der Waals forces present along the binding site of an antibody worked to bind it to its antigen, specifically because the shapes of antibodies and antigens complimented each other so closely. This theory explained much of what had been observed by immunologists across the discipline in multiple investigations of antigen-antibody reactions.

From here, the three researchers also asserted that two propositions placed forth in Pauling’s 1940 paper should still be considered for further study: the multivalence of antigen-antibody interactions and the probability of hydrogen bonds acting between the two molecules. The trio also concluded that the antigen-antibody mechanism would require at least two supplementary types of forces: Coulomb attraction and polar attraction.

Of the conclusions published by Campbell, Pressman and Pauling in 1943, the multivalence of antigen-antibody interactions and the three proposed forces (Van der Waals, Coulomb and polar) between the two molecules are still considered to be contributing factors to the functioning of the human immune system. With this publication, Campbell, Pauling and Pressman also showed that the immune system relies heavily on both structural and chemical features to carry out its processes.

The important conclusions derived from research conducted by Campbell, Pauling and others established Caltech as a leader in the field of immunology. Over the years that followed, Campbell and Pauling continued to develop their theory of antibody formation, which remained widely accepted until the 1950s. Even when the duo’s work began to be disproven by findings in the genetics field, the understanding of antigen-antibody interactions suggested by research done at Caltech remained undisputed.

Dan Campbell and Linus Pauling went on to publish more than twenty articles relating to immunology, exchanging ideas on the topic until the end of Pauling’s tenure at Caltech in the early 1960s. The attention that their work brought to the Gates and Crellin Laboratories at Caltech prompted the creation of a separate department, one that was entirely dedicated to immunochemistry. (The first of its kind on the west coast.)

For thirty years, Campbell headed Caltech’s immunochemical research and his fame as an immunologist grew to the point where, in 1972, he was named president of the American Association of Immunologists. Two years later, in 1974, Campbell passed away at the age of 67, the victim of a heart attack.  Over the course of his career, he published more than 200 papers as well as several books, and he served on editorial boards of four scientific journals related to immunology.

The Tantalizing Prospect of Artificial Antibodies

Linus Pauling and Dan Campbell, 1943.

[Part 2 of 3]

By late 1939, Linus Pauling had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the study of antibodies, specifically how they work and how they are made. He’d already developed a few memorable and unique hypotheses, though by 1940 they were still yet to be proven correct or otherwise.

In January 1940, a researcher named Dan Campbell arrived at Caltech with the intent of working on problems in immunochemistry. He and Pauling began collaborating, and ended up co-authoring several papers together. Later in 1940, after a first, erroneous paper, Pauling published another in which he claimed:

all antibody molecules contain the same polypeptide chains as normal globulin, and differ from normal globulin only in the configuration of the chain; that is, in the way that the chain is coiled in the molecule.

In other words, shape was what determined the effect of antibodies. Pauling acknowledged the potential for flaws lying within his hypothesis, but adopted it because of his inability to otherwise “formulate a reasonable mechanism whereby the order of amino-acids residues would be determined by the antigen.”

Nobody knew about the genetic basis of amino acids at the time. As a result, while Pauling’s hypothesis on how antibodies worked eventually turned out to be correct, his coupled hypothesis on how they were formed was still wrong. Regardless, Pauling’s theory “ruled the roost amongst immunochemists” for almost 20 years. It wasn’t even until 1949 that people began to seriously question Pauling’s model, and when that finally happened, it was because the model failed to account for the development of immunity to antibodies.

In July a colleague at Caltech, Max Delbrück – a German researcher who had arrived in the US on a study abroad trip and never went home – showed Pauling a paper written by Pascual Jordan, another German scientist. Jordan claimed that identical molecules were attracted to each other, and opposite molecules repelled from one another, because of quantum mechanical resonance. Pauling declared the idea “baloney,” and decided to write a paper debunking Jordan’s theory. He asked Delbrück to co-author it, which he did with hesitation, as the young scientist was nervous about signing his name to a paper attacking the theories of the famous and well-respected Jordan. The duo finished the paper and published it in Science, but unfortunately for them, the work went largely unnoticed.

Since the start of the Battle of Britain in 1940, Pauling had been doing some side research on explosives, propellants, and other “war work” in anticipation of United States involvement in the war raging across Europe and the Asia. In 1941, U.S. engagement finally came about with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pauling and his laboratory at Caltech switched their main priority to war work, as did just about every other research laboratory in the country. As part of this realignment of efforts, Pauling received a grant to begin a research project with the goal of creating gelatin-based blood plasma artificial antibodies, to be used for military medical purposes.

Pauling hypothesized that if a generic protein, such as beef globulin, was very carefully denatured, then placed in the presence of an antigen and revitalized, it would grow and mold itself to the antigen. If this worked, medical technicians would someday be able to create antibodies “made to order.” The potential import of the idea was clear: “the end result of a million years of evolution” would become available “by the quart.” Successful implementation would represent a massive breakthrough in medical technology, and Pauling was convinced that he was just the man to do it. He picked Dan Campbell and David Pressman to be his primary assistants and the group got to work.

The process was slow and complicated; it involved a mixture of 1-2% beef globulin, dissolved in 0.9% sodium chloride, then very slowly heated to 57˚F. Once at that temperature, alkali would be carefully added to bring the mixture to a pH of 11, before very delicately and slowly returning the mixture to pH 0. To further complicate issues, the process produced a large amount of nitrogen, which had to be removed, but the process of removing the nitrogen created carbon monoxide and other “undesirable substances.” The Pauling group tested their antibodies on rabbits, mice, and guinea pigs predominantly, as their labs lacked the space for more extensive animal research.

In March 1942, instead of submitting his ideas to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, Pauling issued a press release to Science News, claiming that his lab had developed artificial antibodies.

Text of Pauling's artificial antibodies press release, March 1942.

Text of Pauling’s artificial antibodies press release, March 1942.

The scientific community was vexed by this highly unusual action. Numerous scientists questioned the strength of the data, saying that the reports released by Pauling and Campbell were vague and weak. Pauling asserted that while the data they had gathered was not definitive, it was strong enough to make the statement that artificial antibodies had been produced. Pauling said that his artificial antibodies, though weak, were still real, and that he was going to continue improving on them. Specifically, he claimed that the antibodies had been used to prevent mice from getting pneumonia.

Pauling’s reputation helped to coax certain colleagues in the direction of his arguments. And after some skillful debating, the Rockefeller Foundation offered $31,000 to continue the research, while the federal Office of Science Research and Development offered $20,000.

Despite the skepticism of his peers, Pauling was enthusiastic and eager to continue research on this line of work. He had the funding and the desire, and he was convinced it was only a matter of time before he could start mass-producing artificial antibodies. However, he was about to run into some issues outside of his laboratories.