Pauling’s OAC: A Maturing Relationship with Chemistry

Linus Pauling, 1920.

[A look back at Linus Pauling’s undergraduate experience from 100 years ago; part 2 of 3.]

By the fall of 1920, Linus Pauling was connected to an academic trajectory that he would continue to pursue for the rest of his life. That said, during his years at Oregon Agricultural College, he was compelled to advance his studies in chemistry through rather unorthodox means. Because OAC was a land grant institution, the practical and applied sciences were the main point of emphasis within the college’s curriculum. Further, because the state of Oregon discouraged (and later mandated against) redundancy in the majors offered by its two largest institutions of higher learning, and because the University of Oregon already offered a degree in chemistry, Pauling’s only real option as a Beaver was to major in chemical engineering.

Partly as a result of these circumstances, much of the chemistry that Pauling had learned so far was fairly out of date. Not surprisingly, Pauling had found many of his classes to be dull and, at times, rote in their emphasis on solving problems of interest to engineers rather than academic chemists. But by the fall of 1920, having spent the previous year teaching, Pauling re-enrolled at OAC with a boost in confidence and a willingness to seek out opportunities in non-traditional ways. Fortunately, the school year reciprocated, offering key new acquaintances who broadened horizons for the precocious young student.


Throughout his studies in chemistry, the young Pauling often found himself questioning aspects of what he was learning and seeking to uncover more. For example, Pauling was intrigued by magnetism and puzzled over questions of why certain materials with similar physical structures varied in their degree of attraction to one another.

The courses that Pauling had taken to date were not providing answers to these questions. As a chemical engineer in training, he was learning that different substances expressed different levels of magnetism, but he had no insight into why. Prior to his junior year, Pauling may well have been resigned to the notion that these were unanswerable questions. However, more satisfactory solutions soon emerged with the help of a few influential professors.

OAC alumni inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, 1924. John Fulton stands in the back row, second from right.

Though he had saved up enough money to return to school, Pauling still needed to earn a wage to pay for on-going expenses, so he took up a job as an assistant to OAC Chemistry Professor Samuel Graf. Even though the job consisted mostly of working through computations, it also allocated time for Pauling to engage with the scientific literature. OAC’s Chemistry head, John Fulton, helped facilitate this by giving Pauling a few of his own chemical journals, and during his stint as Graf’s assistant, Pauling began to consume these journals with relish.

It was in this setting that Pauling first encountered the work of G.N. Lewis and Irving Langmuir, both of whom were exploring some of the most exciting questions in subatomic chemistry. While their publications did not answer all of Pauling’s questions, (many of which were in their earliest stages of formation) reading Lewis and Langmuir made Pauling realize that this new field of subatomic chemistry could solve problems, many of which he had not even realized existed.


While the history of the field of subatomic chemistry is quite complex, many of the ideas that Lewis and Langmuir were developing emerged because of headways that the Danish chemist, Niels Bohr, made with the formalization of his quantum theory in 1918. At OAC all of the chemical engineering courses were physical and practical in their orientation. The kind of theoretical work that Bohr, Lewis, and Langmuir were doing was novel – and not being taught at OAC – but making its acquaintance equipped Pauling with new tools to explore some of the questions that he was pondering as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. This breakthrough renewed Pauling’s fervor for chemistry and his determination to pursue it for a career.

Pauling’s moment of insight was especially well-timed in that it corresponded with another interaction that he had with an OAC professor, one where he learned about the availability of graduate fellowships at the California Institute of Technology. The fellowship announcement bore the imprimatur of Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes, among the country’s leading physical chemists and a mentor to several promising young scholars. It is no surprise then, that the flyer caught the eye of Pauling almost immediately and helped to steer him toward graduate studies in Pasadena.

The Langmuir Award

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In 1931 Linus Pauling was early on in his career as a professor at the California Institute of Technology, and was deep into a program of research on structural chemistry that would prove revolutionary. Pauling was one of the brightest young minds that Caltech had seen to date, and the announcement that Pauling was to receive the inaugural Irving Langmuir Prize from the American Chemical Society served as further evidence of his extraordinary abilities. The first major award received by Pauling as an academic, the Langmuir Prize would be followed by countless additional decorations honoring a long and storied career.

The Irving Langmuir Prize, also known as the Pure Chemistry of the American Chemical Society Prize, was created by A.C. Langmuir, an industrial engineer who manufactured shellac and glycerine. First announced in early 1931, the $1,000 award was meant to serve as a form of encouragement and support for young chemists in the United States. The decision to honor Linus Pauling as the initial recipient of the award was made by a select committee of American Chemical Society members.


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Irving Langmuir

A.C. Langmuir named the prize after his brother, Irving, a renowned scientist who would receive the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1932 for his work in surface chemistry. In addition to his status as a Nobel laureate, Langmuir is today remembered by many for developing light bulbs that were more efficient and longer lasting than the Nernst Lamp model that had previously dominated the marketplace.

While Pauling no doubt appreciated Irving Langmuir’s practical work, his theoretical contributions made a far more profound impact on the budding young scientist, who began reading Langmuir’s papers while still an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College. As he noted in 1946,

I became deeply interested in molecular structure and the nature of the chemical bond in 1919, when I first read [G.N.] Lewis’ 1916 paper and Irving Langmuir’s papers on this subject.

One 1919 paper proved especially important. In it, Langmuir discussed his application of G.N. Lewis’ insights into chemical bonding and his observation that pairs of electrons can be shared by atoms in many substances. Importantly, Langmuir also used the article to put forth the idea that a full understanding of the chemical bond could not be arrived at through the simple application of a chemist’s or physicist’s training. Rather, the problem required a marriage of the two disciplines.

Titled “The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules” and published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Langmuir’s paper served as an inspiration to Pauling, who did indeed marry aspects of chemistry and physics in elucidating a new theoretical understanding of the chemical bond.

Twelve years later, Pauling was hard at work on several research projects that were driven by this stroke of inspiration. Most notably, Pauling had recently authored his landmark article “The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Application of Results Obtained from the Quantum Mechanics and from the Theory of Paramagnetic Susceptibility to the Structure on Molecules,” the first in a series of significant papers on the structure of the molecules. By the time that Pauling received his ACS award in September, he had already released the third installment in the series. Taking note of this dizzying array of productivity, Scientific American dubbed Pauling the “explorer of electrons” in a 1931 article.


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Humorous editorial cartoon published in the “Double Bond Jr.,” a publication circulated at the Buffalo ACS meeting in September 1931.

Pauling was nominated for the Langmuir Prize by his Caltech mentor, A.A. Noyes. The director of the Gates Chemical Laboratory and a respected member of the American Chemical Society, Noyes’ views carried significant weight with his peers, and in his nomination letter of June 8, 1931, Noyes described Pauling as “the most promising young man with whom I have ever come in contact in my many years of teaching.” This hearty endorsement, combined with Pauling’s vita – which already listed more than fifty published papers – made the decision an easy one for the award committee.

Pauling, with his wife Ava Helen, received the prize on September 2, 1931 in Buffalo, New York. At the ceremony, A.C. Langmuir praised the body of work that Pauling had already compiled and accurately predicted that he would one day be a Nobel Prize winner. The Langmuir decoration proved to be a source of significant attention for Pauling. In one of a bevy of congratulatory letters that followed, former classmate W.E. Ramsey noted that “I knew you were a genius because you could solve my calculus problems which were always a mystery to me.” Likewise, University of Chicago chemist Thorfin Hogness recounted that he expected Pauling would win the award as soon as it was introduced.

In addition to raising Pauling’s profile, the financial support provided by the Langmuir Prize was especially significant as the United States was entering into the worst years of the Great Depression. Indeed, the $1,000 award that came with the prize was equivalent to a quarter of Pauling’s annual salary. Today, in recognition of its namesake’s interdisciplinary focus, the Irving Langmuir Prize is granted alternately by the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society. Recipients now receive a cash award of $10,000.

As time moved forward, Pauling remained very active within the American Chemical Society, serving as president of the organization in 1949. He would also win several additional major awards offered by the ACS, including the Josiah Willard Gibbs Medal in 1946. So too did Pauling receive a great many decorations from regional chapters of the organization. In 1966, he was the recipient of perhaps the most noteworthy of these awards when the Oregon and Puget Sound sections presented him with the first Linus Pauling Medal for outstanding achievement in chemistry.