Pauling’s Input on Some Notable Guggenheim Applicants

Linus Pauling, 1950s

[Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation]

During the years of Linus Pauling’s association with the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, many high profile individuals were awarded fellowships. The year 1951, for instance, saw Rachel Carson of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service – and future author of the environmental classic Silent Spring – awarded $3,000 for a one-year study of the ecology of Atlantic coast animals. That same year, the experimental poet e. e. cummings received $3,000 to support his creative writing. Though in many cases Pauling’s only involvement was as a voter, he occasionally spoke to or was in contact with people who had achieved or would gain wider recognition.

Garrett Hardin

In 1952 Henry Allen Moe, the Foundation’s Secretary, was looking for an assistant to help him comb through Fellowship applications. One person he had in mind was Garrett Hardin, a biologist at the Santa Barbara College of the University of California. During his tenure at Santa Barbara, Hardin had focused on improving the school’s biology curriculum. Partly as a result of this work, Hardin authored an extremely successful textbook titled Biology: Its Human Implications that was earning him some $10,000 per year in royalties.

Moe feared that the financial windfall from the biology text would put Hardin in a position to turn down any offers to leave California and devote time to tasks outside of revising and updating his book. Regardless, Moe wanted Pauling to interview Hardin and then supply his opinion on whether or not the biologist would be a good fit for the Foundation. Hardin had applied for a Fellowship that year, and Moe suggested that Pauling use this as a pretense for the interview. Moe also wanted Pauling and Ava Helen to visit as a couple with Hardin and his wife Jane to help round out a fuller and clearer impression. Pauling was advised that he could treat the trip as a vacation for which he would be reimbursed by the Foundation.

Pauling agreed to the task, noting that he did not need the Foundation to pay for his trip since he already had a funded visit to Ventura County on the calendar, to be sponsored by a high school teachers group. After meeting with the teachers, Pauling spoke with Hardin and stayed overnight, something he would have ended up doing anyway since a large storm had come in.

Having completed his trip, Pauling reported that he did not think Hardin would be a good candidate to assist Moe, nor even a good candidate for a Fellowship. According to Pauling, Hardin was “too helter-skelter in his actions, and probably also in his thinking” to work well as an assistant. And while he appeared to form good solid opinions of others, Pauling harbored doubts about Hardin’s thoroughness, a quality of high importance for Moe’s assistants.

Pauling’s main objection to Hardin’s Fellowship application was that the plan that it outlined was too weak. In his proposal, Hardin indicated a desire to “harmonize” the disagreement between R. A. Fischer and Sewall Wright’s dueling interpretations of Theodosius Dobzhansky’s work on population genetics. Wright thought that Dobzhansky’s views supported his own “shifting balance” theory, which posited that random genetic drift could overcome the stability of isolated populations created by natural selection. Fischer disagreed with this notion.

When Pauling pressed Hardin to explain how he would harmonize the opposing viewpoints, Hardin apparently lost his nerve and admitted to an incomplete understanding of Wright and Dobzhansky’s positions. Hardin further disappointed Pauling when he criticized George Gaylord Simpson’s books on evolution by saying that they had many mistakes in them, without qualifying that Simpson was a very good paleontologist and popular science writer. A week after Pauling submitted his report, Moe replied that he and Associate Secretary James F. Mathias had been admiring Pauling’s letter as a “complete, and completely perfect, communication” that told them all they needed to know and more.

While he was neither offered the assistant position nor a Fellowship, Garrett Hardin went on to become a popular, if controversial, science writer. Of particular note was his 1968 book The Tragedy of the Commons, which addressed overpopulation as moral rather than a technological problem. Many of his subsequent books amplified this position.

George Gamow

In 1952, after twelve years of service, Pauling rotated off of the Committee of Selection, but Moe continued to request his input on certain applicants, especially for those individuals working on research close to his own. In one instance, when solicited in 1956, Pauling thought there was “no doubt” that Columbia University biochemist Erwin Chargaff deserved another Guggenheim to extend his recent work with DNA.

The following year, Pauling took a contrary view in recommending against George Washington University physicist and cosmologist George Gamow, who was working on protein synthesis. Though he had spent little time studying protein structure, Gamow sought funding for a trip to England to learn more about it with Frederick Sanger and Francis Crick. Pauling did not imagine that Sanger and Crick particularly wanted Gamow to make the visit and did not expect Gamow to make a substantial contribution to the field. For Pauling, the small number of papers that Gamow had already published on the topic did not say anything especially new and were unlikely to stand up once all the open questions had been settled.

Pauling considered Gamow to be a very good popular science writer, but not a top-tier scientist in any sense. This assessment was surely colored by a personal exchange wherein Gamow sent Pauling a manuscript that he intended to publish on protein structures the put forth ideas very similar to those formulated by Pauling and Robert Corey. In going through the paper, Pauling found a flaw in Gamow’s argument that threw off his numbers. But when Pauling wrote him about it, not only did Gamow fail to respond, he later published the manuscript without taking Pauling’s criticism into account.

Timothy Leary. Credit: Philip H. Bailey

Another applicant whom Moe asked Pauling to review was psychologist Timothy Leary, who submitted a proposal in 1959. While on faculty at Harvard, Leary began working with Richard Alpert to research the psychological effects of psilocybin, a potential overlap with Pauling’s interests in the biochemical basis of mental diseases.

Moe passed the application along to Pauling telling him that others had already looked it over, at which point Pauling saw that one literary critic had called it “horrible!” and a psychologist had dismissed the ideas as “pseudo-science.” Moe and board member E. B. Wilson were not so sure and wanted Pauling’s open mind to provide an opinion. If Pauling thought it necessary, Moe told him he should meet with Leary in person.

Pauling quickly decided that a meeting would not be necessary. Though the plan was very original, Pauling did not think it had much chance of going anywhere were it funded. That said, Pauling also admitted that his ignorance of some of the subject matter had the potential to obscure any of the possibilities and so made no formal recommendation either way. Moe appreciated Pauling looking at Leary’s application and figured he was “chasing the wrong hunch.” In the end, Leary and Alpert carried out their research without support from the Guggenheim Foundation but had their project shut down by Harvard in 1963. Soon afterward, Leary became a prominent figure promoting the use of psychedelics.

Linus Pauling’s association with the Guggenheim Foundation provided him with a great many opportunities to meet and learn about a wide array of people whom he would not otherwise have known. That Henry Allen Moe turned to Pauling for his opinion on such a diverse group of people, including several who worked outside of Pauling’s areas of expertise, is indicative of the high value that Moe placed on Pauling’s judgments.

DNA: The Aftermath

Pastel depiction of the DNA base pairs by Roger Hayward.

Pastel depiction of the DNA base pairs by Roger Hayward.

The solving of the double helix structure of DNA is now considered to be one of the most important discoveries in modern scientific history. The structure itself suggested a possible mechanism for its own replication, and it also opened up a huge window of opportunity for advances in multiple fields ranging from biology to genetics to biochemistry to medicine. Almost immediately after James Watson and Francis Crick announced their structure, new research began based on the structure’s specifications.

An Early Idea from George Gamow

The Pauling Papers contain an interesting example of research done on the structure of DNA mere months after its discovery. On October 22, 1953, the Russian-born physicist (and founder of the “RNA Tie Club“) George Gamow sent a letter to Linus Pauling that mentioned some work he had been doing with DNA. Gamow explained that he had found a manner by which the twenty amino acids that make up proteins could be related to different combinations of the four nucleotides found in DNA.

At this time, it wasn’t known that the DNA strands unwind during replication, and Gamow assumed that protein synthesis occurred directly on the double helix. He suggested that a “lock and key relationship” might exist between each amino acid and that the “holes” formed between each complementary base pair in the DNA chain. Science is now aware that this is not the case, but Gamow’s letter is nicely demonstrative of the innovative research ushered in by Watson and Crick’s solving of DNA.

Excerpt from Gamows letter to Pauling, October 22, 1953.

Excerpt from Gamow's letter to Pauling, October 22, 1953.

Click here to view Gamow’s entire letter, and here to read Pauling’s response.


As the buzz around DNA started to die down, scientists began to move toward the next logical step: RNA. By then, Watson and Crick’s structure was widely accepted, and it had been clear for some time that DNA was the site of the gene. So, then, how did DNA transfer its information to RNA, and finally on to proteins?

Gamow’s above suggestion was a possibility, but it didn’t even involve RNA. Watson spent some time playing with the matter, but was not able to equal his luck with DNA. Unfortunately, it would be quite some time before this mechanism was elucidated. Even now, some of the finer details of how this is accomplished are not completely understood.

Four members of the RNA Tie Club, 1955. Clockwise from upper left: Francis Crick, Lesley Orgel, James Watson and Alexander Rich.  Founded by George Gamow, the RNA Tie Club met twice a year in pursuit of greater understanding of RNA.

Four members of the RNA Tie Club, 1955. Clockwise from upper left: Francis Crick, Leslie Orgel, James Watson and Alexander Rich. Founded by George Gamow, the RNA Tie Club met twice a year in pursuit of greater understanding of RNA.

Eventual Honors

Unsurprisingly, as time went on, Watson and Crick began to accumulate awards for their work with DNA. On December 15, 1959, Linus Pauling responded to a previous letter sent to him by Sir William Lawrence Bragg soliciting Pauling’s support of the nomination of Watson and Crick for the Nobel Prize. In this letter, Pauling stated that he would indeed be willing to write the requested letter of support. However, contrary to Bragg’s suggestion that they be nominated for the prize in chemistry, Pauling stated his belief that a prize in physiology or medicine would be much more fitting.

Several months later, on March 15, 1960, Pauling finally sent his letter to the Nobel Committee.  By the time of its authorship, Pauling’s feelings about the importance of Watson and Crick’s work had become even more tepid.

While acknowledging that “the hydrogen-bonded double-helix for DNA proposed by Watson and Crick has had a very great influence on the thinking of geneticists and other biologists,” Pauling notes that their work was, at least to some degree, “stimulated” by his and Robert Corey’s incorrect triple-helix structure, and abetted by Maurice Wilkins‘ x-ray photographs.  Pauling also points out that Wilkins, Corey, Karst Hoogsteen and himself had already tweaked the Watson-Crick model a bit, “which suggests the possibility that a further change in the structure of nucleic acid may be found necessary.”

In the end, Pauling couldn’t bring himself to go through with the promised nomination.

It is my opinion that the present knowledge of the structure of polypeptide chains in proteins is such as to justify the award of a Nobel Prize in this field in the near future, to Robert B. Corey for his fundamental investigations of the detailed molecular structure of amino acids and the polypeptide chains of proteins or possibly divided between him and Kendrew and Perutz. On the other hand, I think that it might well be premature to make an award of a Prize to Watson and Crick, because of existing uncertainty about the detailed structure of nucleic acid. I myself feel that it is likely that the general nature of the Watson-Crick structure is correct, but that there is doubt about details.

Pauling’s hesitations served only to delay their inevitable receipt of a Nobel Prize for a short time. In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared the award in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

The discovery of the structure of DNA was clearly one of the most important discoveries in the modern scientific era. Not only was it a huge breakthrough in itself, but it also opened the door for major advances in numerous other science-related fields. For more information on DNA, check out the rest of the posts in our DNA series or the website on which they are based, “Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History.” For more information related to Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.