Post 500

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling.  Angeles National Forest, Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. Angeles National Forest, Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

This is the five-hundredth post that we’ve published on the Pauling Blog, and in this season of thanksgiving we find ourselves in a grateful mood.  Five-hundred posts, surely at least a half-million words and, recently, our 500,000th view.  Great thanks to you, our readers, who continue to seek out and use this resource in steadily increasing measure.

To celebrate this milestone, we are publishing a few excerpts from one of our favorite Pauling manuscripts.  Titled “An Extraordinary Life: An Autobiographical Ramble,” the piece was written by Pauling for presentation to the Institute for the Humanities in Saledo, Texas, April 1989.  The text finds Pauling in an unusually reflective mood, speaking with serenity, at age 88, of a life spent dipping in and out of scientific disciplines in a most remarkable way.

Young Pauling, ca. 1910s.

Young Pauling, ca. 1910s.

[…] I am moderately smart. I estimate that there are 20,000 people in the United States who are smarter than I am, perhaps 15,000 women and 5,000 men. I reached this conclusion because a month after my wife and I got married, we had carried out some intelligence tests, and I discovered she was smarter than I, but we were already married. It was too late for me to do anything about it. Of course, I recognize that there are many physicists who are smarter than I am – theoretical physicists, most of them. There are a lot of smart people who have gone into theoretical physics, so there is a lot of competition there. I console myself with the thought that they may be smarter than I am and deeper thinkers than I am, but I have broader interests than they have. I don’t suppose that there is anybody else in the world who has a good background, knowledge of physics, mathematics, theoretical physics, and who knows a great deal about chemistry – the amount that I know.

When I was eleven years old with no outside inspiration – just library books – I started collecting insects. Not only collecting insects but reading about insects. I was filling my mind with a lot of information about the lepidoptera and diptera and so on. My father, a druggist, died when I was nine. There was another druggist who was a friend of the family to whom I went if I needed some chemicals when I got interested in chemistry, but I wasn’t interested in chemistry yet. I was just interested in insects when I was eleven. I said, “A person who collects insects needs to have a killing bottle.” And I got a Mason jar from my mother. So all I needed now was ten grams of potassium cyanide and perhaps fifty grams of plaster of paris. So Mr. Ziegler, the druggist, gave me ten grams of potassium cyanide and fifty grams of plaster of paris, and I took them home, went out on the back porch, because I knew that potassium cyanide was dangerous, and I dumped the potassium cyanide into the bottle. I mixed the plaster of paris with some water and put it in the bottle on top of it and let it harden. I had my killing bottle. I collected a lot of insects.

Next year I got interested in minerals. I didn’t have very many minerals, at least that I could recognize, only agates. So about all I could do was go around Portland looking for piles of gravel where someone was putting in a house foundation or sidewalk. I’d go through the gravel looking for chunks of agate.

Just think of what the difference is now.  A young fellow gets interested in chemistry and is given a chemical set.   The chemical set doesn’t contain any potassium cyanide. It doesn’t even contain any copper  sulphate  or anything interesting because  they are all  poisonous  substances. Most chemicals are poisonous substances. These young budding chemists don’t have any chance to do anything interesting when they are given a chemical set anymore.   As I look back, I think it is pretty remarkable that Mr. Zieglar, this friend of the family,  would have just turned over one third of an ounce of potassium cyanide to me at age eleven. […]

Linus and Ava Helen, camping near Palm Springs, 1924.

Linus and Ava Helen, camping near Palm Springs, 1924.

[…] I  was   very  fortunate  when   I   came  to  the   California   Institute   of Technology.    There was a new experimental technique that had been discovered only eight years before.    This was the determination of the structure of crystals by the x-ray diffraction method.    Roscoe Dickinson,  a  few  years older than I, had been using this technique for three or four years at the California Institute of Technology.    He was the first man to get a Ph.D.  from the California Institute of Technology. He taught me the technique.    I was very much excited about it.    It took only a couple of months for him to teach me how to determine the structure of a rather simple crystal by taking x-ray diffraction photographs of it and then analyzing those photographs.    Perhaps the greatest thing that he taught me was how to assess the reliability of your own conclusions.   He taught me to ask every time I reached some conclusion:

“Have I made some assumption in reaching this conclusion?    And what is the assumption? And what are the chances that this assumption is wrong? How reliable is the conclusion?” I have remembered this ever since and have continued to feel grateful to him ever since. It is possible to delude yourself if you have an original idea into thinking that there are observations that support this idea. Or it is possible when you think that you have developed some idea on the basis of a rational argument that you have made an assumption somewhere that isn’t justified. So this was very important in my development.

I hear people often describing me as a biochemist or as an organic chemist or something else. In fact, I never did like organic chemistry. I liked biochemistry even less. I didn’t have any courses to speak of in organic chemistry and no course at all in biochemistry. No course in any aspect of biology, nothing in medicine. But I have made contributions in the nutritional field and the biochemical field. If I were to go through my some eight hundred scientific papers, and see what fields of science I have made contributions   to,   I  could  say  I  am a x-ray  crystallographer. I am a mineralogist, because the American Mineralogist Society gave me their Roebling Medal which they give every year to an outstanding mineralogist. I am a physical chemist. That was what I called myself originally and what my Ph.D. diploma says. I am a chemical engineer too with a degree and five years of practical experience. I am an analytical chemist. When I was nineteen years old,   I didn’t have enough money to go back to my junior year at Oregon Agricultural College. As a sophomore I had taken the course in Quantitative Chemical Analysis and they gave me a job full time to teach the sophomore  Chemical Analysis. So I am an analytical chemist too. And I am an organic chemist.   I laid the theoretical  foundation for the tetrahedral carbon atom and developed resonance hybrid concept. I explained a lot of things in organic chemistry. I am a biochemist. I am a molecular biologist and sort of originated this field in a sense. I am a geneticist and have made contributions.   I’m an evolutionary scientist. […]

Pauling in 1989 - an extraordinary life. Photo by Paolo M. Sutter.

Pauling in 1989 – an extraordinary life. Photo by Paolo M. Sutter.

[…] In 1937, I was invited to give the prestigious George Fisher Baker Lectures at Cornell University. I went there for one semester. There had been famous chemists who had held this appointment. One requirement was that you write a book. My lectures were on the nature of the chemical bond, and the book came out in 1939, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. It was a bestseller, published by Cornell University Press. After a year the editor of Cornell University Press wrote to me and said, “Your edition of 10,000 copies is just about sold out. Would you prepare a second edition?” And I said, “Well, it hasn’t been a year yet. Nothing much has happened, but there have been some changes in this field. But why should I prepare a second edition of the book?”   He said, “Well, you don’t get any royalties from the book.   It was a condition of your appointment as George Fisher Baker Lecturer in Chemistry that you should write the book and present the manuscript.   There has never been a George Fisher Baker book that has gone into a second edition, but if you write a second edition, Cornell University Press will give you royalties on it.”

Well, that was a really good incentive.    I got busy and added ten pages perhaps and it came out as the second edition in 1940 and ever since then I have collected royalties.   On thinking back on this man, editor of Cornell University Press, he is really a remarkable man in that he should think that it would be unjust to me not to get royalties on that book that had become a scientific bestseller.    He was Amish from Pennsylvania and perhaps this may have something to do with his ethical standards.    It is a good thing that people have ethical standards.

People keep saying to me, “How does it come about that you shifted your field every five or ten years in a remarkable way?” In fact, all that I did was to expand my field of interest. I started out first determining the structure of minerals, and the second job I did was to determine the structure of an intermetallic compound — the first intermetallic compound to have its structure determined. For about ten years I worked on the structure of silicate minerals and of various other inorganic compounds.

So that was one period, but then I got interested in the structure of organic molecules. And there was another technique. We built the first apparatus in the United States to determine the structure of gas molecules by electron diffraction. A friend of mine, Herman Mark in Germany, was the man who built the very first apparatus of this sort. So I began determining interatomic distances, and applying quantum mechanics which I had learned as one of the first people in the field in 1926 when I was in Germany on a Guggenheim Fellowship.   All of this related to the question of the nature of the chemical bond. In the 1930s I formulated several new ideas about chemical bonds.

In 1935 the Rockefeller Foundation had been supporting my work on the crystal structure of the sulphide minerals, and they said to me, “You know, we’re not really interested in the sulphide minerals.    We’re interested in biological substances.”   They had been giving me five thousand dollars a year.   I thought, “What do I know about biological materials?   Not very much.   Hemoglobin, red cells in the blood, molecular weight about 68,000, that has four iron atoms in it.   Iron compounds often are paramagnetic.    So why don’t I apply to the Rockefeller Foundation  and  suggest  that  I  measure  the  magnetic   susceptibility  of hemoglobin and hemoglobin derivatives?”   So I did. And they gave me fifty thousand dollars.    This shows that these fellows in the big foundations can influence  activities  of  scientists.

So we measured  the magnetic susceptibility of blood. Venus blood turned out to be paramagnetic, and arterial blood was diamagnetic,  meaning repelled by a magnet.    Careful measurements  of this sort gave  astonishing  information  about   the  structure  of  the hemoglobin molecule. So then I thought, “Well, what about the rest of the hemoglobin molecule?    There are four iron atoms and 9,996 other atoms.   What are they doing?    So I had better work on the structure of proteins.”  I was giving a talk in 1936 at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research about the magnetic properties of hemoglobin.    A man named Karl Landsteiner sent word to me, asking me to come to his laboratory to talk to him.   I did.   He said he was making immunological studies — antibodies, antitoxins.   He wanted to know if I could explain some of his observations.    So I thought about them for four years and finally wrote a paper, and when the second edition of his book came out there was a chapter by me on the molecular structure of antibodies.    I hadn’t changed my course.    I’d just gone on roads that have diverged a  little from the ones I’d been  going  on.


Returning to Pasadena and Finishing the Manuscript

Segment of Pauling's draft manuscript for The Nature of the Chemical Bond, ca. 1936.

Segment of Pauling’s draft manuscript for The Nature of the Chemical Bond, ca. 1937.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Nature of the Chemical Bond. Part 3 of 6.]

While Linus Pauling, temporarily settled at Cornell as George Fischer Baker Lecturer, used his absence from his family to fuel his work and writing, he also ran into several obstacles and courted various diversions.  An early obstacle came by way of his left wrist.  Not long after Ava Helen left, Pauling’s letters home begin to describe mounting soreness in the wrist.  On November 11, 1937, Pauling’s main Cornell contact, Jacob Papish, intervened directly by calling a doctor “who said (without looking) for me to get it baked out at the hospital with a short-wave apparatus and bandaged. This was done.”

Pauling was not too impressed – later in the day he reported “I am carrying my arm in a sling – it hurts when I use it, and I find myself using it if it is free. I think it will be well soon, though. If it isn’t I’ll go to a doctor – not Papish’s.”  From the sounds of it though, the treatments started to work.  By the fifteenth Pauling told his wife that “it still hurts, but only once in a while, and I can use my hand if I am careful.”  But a few days later his voluminous writing began to catch up with him as he began experiencing cramps in his right hand and developed a callous on his pinky finger.  By the 24th, with most of his wrist pains behind him, Pauling finally remembered how he had hurt himself in the first place, recalling that he was “at Maury’s office” and “fell over backward in his chair – flat on the floor – and I’m sure that I fell on my wrist.  Isn’t it strange that I forgot that?  I’m rather tired of writing.”

Pauling also found a few diversions to break up his otherwise relentless pace of writing and lecturing while at Cornell.  For one, he took advantage of the opportunity to sit in on various campus lectures.  On November 11, for example, Pauling “listened to a long talk” that was “rather boring” but still boasting an interesting point or two – on the sweet-potato starch industry.”  Pauling also engaged in some reading, including Edwin C. Kemble’s The Fundamental Principles of Quantum Mechanics with Elementary Applications.  He likewise found time to read for pleasure, most commonly the Sunday paper and Time magazine.  He included a bit of space for fiction, including two short stories by Thomas Mann and Christopher Morley’s The Trojan Horse, which he found “very amusing” and useful for “put[ting] me in the mood (Liny’s word) for sleep.”  Alas, the technique didn’t work too well, because the next day a weary Pauling wrote to Ava Helen that he was going home early to finish the book and go straight to bed.

These diversions, it would seem, were not enough to slake Pauling’s loneliness and he continued to seek out ways to be together with Ava Helen.  At Thanksgiving Pauling wrote to his wife,

I am working hard now so that if you do come back with me in January I’ll have more time to play with you. We would have fun going to Princeton and Yale (also Buffalo – we would go to Niagara Falls again). I liked having you in the Lab. with me, but I did get worried about you, thinking that you were bored while I was trying to work. If you come back with me I’ll work in my/our room and you can read or go to bed. We used to do that in Munich. You have forgotten what it is like to have Paddy with you working.

Though Ava Helen initially protested the idea of going back to Ithaca, she gradually warmed to the suggestion.  For it to happen, they needed their helper Lola Cook to take care of the four Pauling children, including Crellin, still an infant.  This may not have been too difficult to arrange since Ava Helen had told Linus earlier, on November 11th, that Lola “said she wants to take care of the baby!”  On December 2, Ava Helen wrote, “I’d leave Lola with the baby I think and get someone to do the work.  I’m hoping that after three weeks at home you will want to return to Ithaca alone.  That would be simpler and less expensive.”  Those three weeks, as it turned out, were not enough, and Ava Helen returned to upstate New York with her husband in January.

The Paulings and Yvonne Handy at Niagara Falls, January 1938.

The Paulings and Yvonne Handy at Niagara Falls, January 1938.

As the time came closer for him to return to Pasadena for the Christmas holiday, Pauling began to run out of steam.  On December 3rd, he told Ava Helen, “I’m afraid that I’m getting stale – I’ve written only a few pages today.”  A few days later he repeated how “stale” he had become, telling his wife, “I need you to play with me and love me and make me happy again.”  Ava Helen responded the same day, though presumably to his December 3rd letter, telling him, “Of course you can’t write more on your book because you’ve worn yourself out.”  Luckily for Pauling, his plan to make a quick exit from Cornell for the winter break was successful and he was on his way home in early December.  Riding the train back to Pasadena, Pauling continued to work on his book, telling Ava Helen, “I haven’t anything to read” and, as a result, had “been planning out the last chapters of the book.”

Once Linus and Ava Helen were back together, first in Pasadena and later in Ithaca, progress on The Nature of the Chemical Bond slowed considerably – it would take several months to match the productivity of Pauling’s one month alone at Cornell, during which time he had written half of his book.  On February 10, 1938, Pauling, now back in Pasadena for good, wrote to Papsish at Cornell to let him know that he had just received his manuscript by mail and “shall now settle down to work on it with the hope of completing it before long.”  Over a month later, on March 18, Pauling told his Caltech colleague Eddie Hughes, who had stayed at Cornell to help push the book through the university’s press, “I haven’t done very much toward completing the chemical bond book, but I hope to get to work on it soon.”  The following month, when Pauling was away from Ava Helen again, he told her that he was working on the book “for a while (correcting old chapters).”

Ava Helen and Linus peeking through a train window, Spring 1938.

Ava Helen and Linus peeking through a train window, Spring 1938.

By May contacts at Cornell were inquiring into the whereabouts of Pauling’s book, but the author still had one chapter left to write.  On May 10 he told Hughes, “I am indeed anxious to get my book finished, but I am having trouble in finding time to work on it.”  Pauling decided to begin sending it in sections and told Hughes that he would finish it by the end of June, at which point Hughes could make his way back to Pasadena.

While he had not yet begun sending the manuscript to Cornell, Pauling resumed his correspondence with Papish to discuss a second edition; according to Pauling, “the field is progressing so rapidly…[a second edition] probably should be prepared in about two years.”  A month later Pauling began sending chapters one-by-one, telling Hughes that he was mostly finished “except for two or three odd sections” and “some of the figures.”  Pauling would find that his delay in getting a final manuscript to Cornell would only cause trouble and interfere with his plans to use the book in his classroom the following year.

The George Fischer Baker Lectureship and the Beginnings of the Manuscript


[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Part 2 of 6.]

While Linus Pauling attempted throughout the 1930s to sit down and compose a book-length treatment of his ideas on chemical bonding, he was seemingly destined not to complete it. Burdened, in a sense, by his own and other’s rapid advancements in understanding, early attempts at what would become The Nature of the Chemical Bond quickly went out-of-date if they were even briefly set aside.

A window opened at the end of 1936, when Pauling began to receive offers to serve as visiting fellow at two different institutions on the East Coast. One offer came from the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and the other from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to give the chemistry department’s George Fischer Baker Lectures. Pauling quickly saw the latter option as a chance to give himself both the time and structure necessary to write his book. The Baker Lectures appeared to Pauling to provide the best circumstances to accomplish this, since every year’s lectures were followed by a publication.

Pauling promptly tried to figure out how his writing of The Nature of the Chemical Bond could fit in with the Baker Lectures. In November 1936, he asked Jacob Papish, who was arranging the fellowship, if an expanded text based on his lectures was possible and how much the book might cost. Pauling wanted the price to be set as low as possible to have a “good sale,” and based his expectations on the one-cent per page cost of previous books published in the series. Royalties were also of interest as Pauling was already planning additional editions and expansions of his yet unwritten book. Papish welcomed Pauling’s idea and suggested (very correctly, as it turned out) that his book would be one of the most successful of the series. However, all royalties for the first edition would go to the Cornell University Press, while royalties for any subsequent editions belonged to Pauling.

With everything seemingly arranged by December, Pauling only needed approval to take leave. The death in June of Caltech chemistry head Arthur A. Noyes created some hesitation in the minds of those around Pauling; as he told Papish, “the authorities of the Institute” questioned whether it was appropriate for him to take leave. The matter was quickly resolved however and Pauling began to plan for his trip the following autumn.

The Pauling family, summer 1937.

The Pauling family, summer 1937.

Initially Pauling hoped that his whole family, including Ava Helen, Linus Jr., Linda, and Peter, could join him in Ithaca, where they would all stay together in a house. But the family was growing and, in June 1937, Ava Helen gave birth to the youngest Pauling child, Crellin. Linus Pauling, most likely relaying the results of his failed attempts to convince Ava Helen that the whole family make the trip, had told Papish a month before the birth that it would most likely only be him. Ava Helen did end up joining her husband on the train and staying with him for about a month, leaving the children and their dog Tyl in the care of Lola Cook, who lived with the Paulings to assist with childcare and household chores.

Preparations related to Pauling’s work responsibilities were also necessary. Pauling told E. Bright Wilson, Jr. that he planned to stay in Pasadena “until the last possible moment” so he could help the new lab workers settle in and prepare for the coming months without him. Pauling also arranged for a graduate student to work under him while at Cornell, choosing Philip A. Shaffer, Jr. from Harvard rather than someone from Caltech. Shaffer’s assistance was sufficient to merit a mention by Pauling in the preface to The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Two research fellows, however, did accompany Pauling from Caltech: G. C. Hampson, who continued his research on crystal structures, and H. D. Springall, who continued his work on electron diffraction. Both also earned Pauling’s gratitude in the preface.

The Paulings arrived in Ithaca during the last week of September 1937. Their date of arrival gave Linus one week to settle affairs before the start of his duties, which included giving the Baker Lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays and leading a weekly Wednesday seminar. The couple selected the Telluride House, which housed students, as their residence while in Ithaca, and Pauling wound up staying there for the duration of his lectureship. It didn’t take long for Pauling to make an impact: during the third week of his visit, he gave a public lecture to an audience of 100 that drew the attention of the Cornell Daily Sun and the Ithaca Journal. The town newspaper described Pauling as building “his story around the statement that ‘Structure is the basis of all chemistry,'” a story that was subsequently detailed in the Baker Lectures and The Nature of the Chemical Bond.


At the beginning of November, once living arrangements had been fully ironed out, Ava Helen returned to Pasadena. The separation was difficult for them both. By writing to each other several times a week, they salved their heartache and kept up to date on the everyday activities that occupied them and those around them. Ava Helen kept her husband informed on how Peter was beginning to read, how Linus Jr. was learning to pronounce “competitor,” and how Crellin was being “such a good baby” who “literally never cries.” Though Pauling missed the children, he longed for Ava Helen most of all and told her several times how lonely he was and that working was the only thing that was keeping his emotions together. On November 20, he wrote

I love you, my own dear Ava Helen, with every bit of me. Life doesn’t mean anything while you are away – I live in a sort of daze, with nothing worthwhile. The only thing I can stand to do is to work.

At least in part, it would seem then that it was out of a motivation to suppress his longing to be with his wife and children that Pauling wrote the bulk of The Nature of the Chemical Bond while he was at Cornell.

Pauling’s Cornell correspondence with Ava Helen also chronicles how hard he pushed himself to progress through his writing, to the point where he eventually wore himself out. Handwriting anywhere from ten to forty-plus pages per day of manuscript, Pauling often stayed late at the lab, sometimes until three or four in the morning. This upset his wife, who repeatedly admonished him for working himself too hard. On November 27th she wrote,

You are an awful boy to try to work all night. Your Wednesday (really Thursday) letter came today and I’m mad – hopping mad as Peter says. I told Mrs. Crellin that you worked until 4:10 a.m. (She took us all riding in her electric car this morning for an hour) She said you were shortening your life and that you owed it to your family to take care of yourself. It is wonderful that you were able to get so much done but I do worry about you.

Pauling was indeed able to get a lot done, finishing more than half of the chapters for his first book draft early in December, only a month after Ava Helen had left.

The Messenger Lectures

Linus Pauling, 1958

Linus Pauling, 1958

[Ed note: October 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. This is part one of a four post series discussing participation in the Messenger series.]

The Messenger Lectures on the Evolution of Civilization, better know simply as the Messenger Lectures, is a prestigious lectureship hosted by Cornell University.  Upon the 1924 death of Hiram Messenger, a Travelers’ Insurance Company actuary and graduate of Cornell University, a portion of his fortune was bequeathed to Cornell, his alma mater.  The following year, Cornell began its now famous Messenger Lecture series, defining it as “a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business, and social life.”

In 1925, James Henry Breasted, a historian-archaeologist made famous by his work in the Middle East, delivered the first Messenger lecture.  In his talk, he explored the implications of moral growth in the human race through a study of ancient European and Egyptian societies.  His scholarly, introspective lectures which married the history of science and philosophy, set the tone for future speakers.

Since 1925, a great number of intellectuals have served as Messenger lecturers.  Over the course of the lectureship’s history, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Robert A. Millikan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have all taken the position.  Perhaps the most famous of the Messenger Lectures are those by Richard Feynman, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.  In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures on “The Character of Physical Law.”  In 2009, Bill Gates purchased the rights to the BBC recordings of Feynman’s seven talks and made them available to the public as part of Project Tuva, giving Feynman, Microsoft, and the Messenger Lectures a great deal of publicity.

The lectureship has been particularly famous among academicians because it allows researchers and scholars to approach the human experience through the lens of their own field of study.  The series encourages scientists, historians, writers, political theorists, etc. to meaningfully apply their life’s work to problems of philosophical thought, resulting in unique and often striking conclusions about the human condition.

Because of their prestige, only the best known intellectuals of the day were invited to serve as Messenger lecturers.  In fact, it took Pauling more than twenty years of work as an internationally-known chemist to be given the honor.

In 1936, Linus spent four months in Ithaca as the George Fischer Baker Lecturer.  During his stay, he established lasting friendships with the Cornell chemistry department faculty and became something of a campus celebrity.  At that time, however, he was deeply immersed in the sciences and was of only minimal interest to the non-scientific community at Cornell.

Two decades later, however, Pauling was much more than just a chemist; he was a Nobel Prize winner, a peace advocate, and a household name.  What’s more, by the late 1950s, Pauling’s interests had fallen in line with the core focus of the Messenger Lectures.  Pauling was deeply concerned with the molecular basis of individuality, community, free will and, of course, peace and violence.  Where sociologists, anthropologists, and biologists were all looking at human civilization on a macroscopic scale, Pauling was examining the very particles of life and extracting astounding theories from the molecules of the human body.

When the Cornell faculty was asked to nominate a speaker for the 1959 Messenger Lectures, chemistry department members remembered the success of Pauling’s previous stay at Cornell.  In April 1957, Linus Pauling received a letter from A. W. Laubengayer, the acting chairman for Cornell’s chemistry department.  Laubengayer asked that Pauling hold six lectures in the Fall Term of 1959.  As was traditional, the university would provide only the broad topic, the evolution of civilization, leaving Pauling to interpret as he wished.

Pauling readily accepted the appointment, citing his fond memories of serving as Baker Lecturer.  His topic, he declared, would be “The Molecular Basis of Life.”  The concept was one that Pauling had lectured on several times before.  For a lectureship as significant and the Messenger series, Pauling needed to introduce a new and unique concept rather than rehash established ideas.

Over the course of the next two years, Pauling set about refining his theories on the influence of molecular evolution in individual and group behavior.  In February of 1959, he began his work on the lectures themselves.  The series was to be divided into six parts: Science and Philosophy, Molecules and Life, The Molecular Basis of Disease, Molecules and Heredity, Molecules and Evolution, and The World of the Future.  Lectures three, four, and five relied heavily on the material Pauling had presented in various publications and talks over the past five years.  Lectures one, two, and six, however, were unique.  It is on these three lectures, the focus of which were Pauling’s philosophical interests, that we will discuss over the course of our series Pauling and the Messenger Lectures.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.