Hydrogen Peroxide

Linus Pauling in the laboratory. 1940.

I am planning to carry out during the next few days some experiments on the resistance of concentrated peroxide to shock by detonators and by rifle bullets, and I shall let you know the results of the experiments.

-Linus Pauling, letter to T. K. Sherwood, November 14, 1940.

Beginning in early 1940, Dr. Paul A. Giguere, a visiting researcher from Laval University, began a study of the properties of concentrated hydrogen peroxide at the Caltech labs. Under Pauling’s watch, Giguere spent several months performing electron diffraction analyses on samples of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine. By November, the testing had been completed and the two men wrote a brief report on their findings. Pauling, already deeply involved in the development of the oxygen meter for the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), felt that his and Giguere’s work might net the Institute another war research contract.

On November 14 he sent Thomas K. Sherwood, his primary NDRC contact, an enthusiastic letter detailing the initial findings. One early indication of Guigere’s work was that hydrogen peroxide might be used to absorb shock from explosives or rifle bullets. He also thought it possible to develop a means of controlling the evolution of hydrogen peroxide, suggesting that it could be used to produce oxygen for respirators. The laboratory intended to begin shock resistance tests immediately so that a clean set of data might be prepared, pending Sherwood’s response.

Pauling received an encouraging reply from Sherwood, but it is unclear at what point further work on the hydrogen peroxide project began. Fully two months after the initial correspondence exchange, Sherwood sent a letter to Caltech requesting a progress report from Pauling. In response, Pauling appears to have sent two letters: one detailing work on the oxygen meter and the other containing information on the hydrogen peroxide project. Unfortunately, it seems Pauling’s archives are incomplete as only the first letter remains extant. Whatever information may have been included in the second letter is lost, though we do know that Sherwood responded positively and sent Pauling data on hydrogen peroxide as a chemical fuel for combustion engines.

Thomas K. Sherwood, ca. 1960s. National Academy of Sciences image.

Bizarrely, following this last communication from Sherwood, no further mention of the hydrogen peroxide problem appears in Pauling’s papers until February 1943, in the form of a letter from Giguere demanding to know why Pauling’s article – presumably on his hydrogen peroxide research – had never been published. In response, Pauling reported that he and Dr. Verner Schomaker had only recently completed the manuscript and would send it on to Giguere shortly. Interestingly, this report too appears to be absent from the archives. What’s more, only a single page of hydrogen peroxide research remains in Pauling’s research notebooks.  This page details the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide in blood – a tantalizing entry that gives little indication of the nature of his research.

It is surprising that Pauling, who maintained comprehensive records of his scientific activities, possessed so few notes on his work with hydrogen peroxide. One might speculate that perhaps certain of the materials related to this project were turned over to higher authorities within the government, as has been confirmed with other projects in which Pauling was engaged.

Whatever the cause may have been for this lapse in the record, it seems plausible that Pauling’s early hydrogen peroxide work did have some long-term consequences.  In 1942 Pauling began work on a war research project on the development of a plasma substitute eventually known as oxypolygelatin. This work was spawned from his private Caltech-based research into bovine gamma-globulin, possibly the cause of Pauling’s initial experiments with blood and hydrogen peroxide. It may have also been this initial investigation that led Pauling to use hydrogen peroxide in the creation of oxypolygelatin.

Unfortunately, without letters, reports or laboratory data to review, it is impossible to know exactly what Pauling’s hydrogen peroxide research entailed or how it affected his later research. It seems then, that this particular project will remain one of many small mysteries in Pauling’s life.