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Partly as a result of these circumstances, much of the chemistry that Pauling had learned so far was fairly out of date.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.

Pauling’s OAC, 1919-1920: The Boy Professor

Paul Emmett and Linus Pauling, circa 1919

[Ed Note: Next week, school begins anew here at Oregon State University. And as has become tradition at around this time, we reflect back today on Linus Pauling’s attendance at Oregon Agricultural College one-hundred years ago. In this three-part series, we explore Pauling’s life and the culture of OAC during the 1919-1920 academic year.]

Linus Pauling began the summer of 1919 in a job he detested. Working 60 hours a week, Pauling held a position at Riverside Dairy that was responsible for “monitoring the quality of the bitumen-stone mixes” used in the company’s products. Exhausted and bored, Pauling started his search for a new summer job within only a couple of weeks.

Quickly he found a more desirable job with the Oregon State Highway Department working as a plant inspector at the Wolf Creek-Grave Creek section of the Pacific Highway. Importantly, the position allowed Pauling to work closely with chemicals, and once the new opportunity was confirmed, Pauling left the Riverside Dairy in favor of Josephine County, Oregon, where he would help to oversee the paving process.

The Grave Creek paving plant, 1919

As the end of summer neared, Pauling began to prepare himself to return to Oregon Agricultural College for his junior year as a Chemical Engineering student. However, he soon received devastating news: his mother, who as in dire financial straits, had used all of his savings to keep the family afloat in Portland, meaning that there was no money available to fund his continued schooling.

Defeated, Pauling continued his work as a plant inspector and, once September rolled around, he found himself debating paving techniques with other inspectors rather than attending classes in Corvallis. But even in these debates, Pauling relied upon his scientific training to put forth an informed argument and to contradict the conventional wisdom. Specifically, Pauling claimed that the state’s guidance to lay pavement at temperatures between 225-275 degrees Fahrenheit was not accurate enough; 275 degrees was, in Pauling’s view, necessary for the best outcome.


John Fulton, 1947. Also an OAC alum, Fulton served as chair of the Chemistry Department from 1907-1940.

Fortunately for Pauling, Oregon Agricultural College had seen an unprecedented growth in enrollment that fall and was now confronting a crisis as faculty struggled to meet the needs of a much larger student body. In late October, OAC Dean of Chemistry John Fulton reached out to Pauling – who was by then well-known to the faculty as being an exceptional talent – and offered him a position teaching analytical chemistry. Pauling was 18 years old at the time of the offer.

Though it would come with a $25 pay decrease to $100 per month, Pauling readily accepted the job, returning to campus on November 14 and officially beginning work as an instructor in Chemistry on November 20, 1919. Pauling’s personnel file indicates that this was not his first job within the Chemistry department – the previous academic year he had been employed as a student assistant, charged with mixing solutions for use in general chemistry laboratories.

Despite the pay decrease, Pauling found that his new job did come with a few perks. Nestled in Science Hall (present day Furman Hall) Pauling worked primarily on the second floor, which was dedicated to quantitative analysis, and was assigned his own office. He also enjoyed the services of his own assistant, a Mr. Douglas, who helped prepare solutions for the courses that Pauling instructed (the same job that Pauling had held the year before).

In winter 1920, his debut as a collegiate instructor, Pauling taught three courses: two sections of quantitative analysis for mining engineers, chemical engineers and pharmacy students; and one section of general chemistry for agriculture, home economics, and entry-level engineering students. The courses were listed as Chemistry 244 and Chemistry 102 respectively.  In these three classes combined, Pauling taught 83 students, one of whom was his close friend Paul Emmett, later to become an influential catalysis chemist. Emmett received an A in Pauling’s quantitative analysis course for chemical engineering and pharmacy students.

And as the year progressed, Dean Fulton and Pauling developed a consequential academic relationship and also a friendship. Importantly, it is likely that Fulton referred Pauling to a series of papers authored by Irving Langmuir and G.N. Lewis that became very influential in his later research. Following Pauling’s graduation from OAC, Fulton also supplied $100 and $200 loans to support Pauling’s research during his graduate school years at the California Institute of Technology.


With one term of instruction under his belt, Pauling’s horizons began to expand and his interest in the opportunities offered by an OAC education started to wither. In particular Pauling believed that the land grant curriculum put forth by OAC was lacking, particularly in its attention to theory, and increasingly he found himself drawn to Caltech and its new Gates Chemical Laboratory. As he considered a transfer, Pauling initiated a brief correspondence with Caltech’s Chemistry head A.A. Noyes, and he also secured a letter of recommendation from John Fulton. In the end though, Pauling was simply unable financially to commit to a move to southern California, and decided to stay on at OAC for another term as an instructor.

For spring term, Pauling was assigned two new courses: Chemistry 242 and Chemistry 245. Both were quantitative analysis surveys designed for engineering students and each included at least one lecture, one recitation, and anywhere from three to twelve hours of lab work per week. Each day of Pauling’s schedule had several morning hours blocked out for preparing and delivering the majority of his lectures.

View of the inside front cover of Pauling’s 1920 Quantitative Analysis notebook.

Pauling’s research notebook for that year – annotated with a hand-written “Keep Out! No Admittance” across the front cover – is riddled with student grades, calculations and notes on experimental methods. Pauling was compelled to consult this journal when, after finishing his position at the end of spring term and returning to his pavement inspector job, Dean Fulton contacted him at his Wolf Creek address. In his letter, Fulton requested that Pauling decipher some of the notes on quizzes that he had administered to his students during the previous term. Fulton also needed clarification on unknown solutions that he had produced and used during his classes.

Pauling’s appointment for the academic year ended in June 1920 and by June 11th, when OAC’s students were wrapping up their final examinations, “the boy professor” was returning to his position with the Oregon State Highway Department. He did so having also applied for a job as an assayer at Mountain Copper Company in Keswick, California, but he ultimately decided not to make the move so far south. During the summer months that followed, Pauling worked especially hard to accrue enough savings to support a true junior year at Oregon Agricultural College. Fortunately, he was able to do so and returned to campus the following fall, eager to begin classes after a one year hiatus.

Roger J. Williams: Nutrition Scientist

Roger J. Williams and Linus Pauling, 1972.

Roger J. Williams and Linus Pauling, 1972.

[Part 1 of 2]

“For about 15 years I have been working in the field of nutrition and I’ve become acquainted with many of the nutritionists, professors of nutrition. I have formed the opinion that Professor Williams is the outstanding man in this field in the world. I think that he has had the better background of training in the basic sciences which has permitted him to attack problems in this field more effectively than any other person.”

-Linus Pauling, November 1979.

Roger John Williams was a prolific scientist in the fields of biochemistry and nutrition who discovered pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and named and researched folic acid (vitamin B9). He was also an important advocate of public health nutrition. In his writings, Williams emphasized the biochemical diversity of humans and the importance of studying individuals and their different internal environmental requirements through the prism of nutrition. As with Linus Pauling, a large part of Williams’ legacy is one of wide promotion of the importance of nutrition in health and preventative medicine.

Williams was born in Ootacamund, India, to U.S. Baptist missionary parents, on August 14th, 1893. His family returned stateside when he was two years old and he grew up in Kansas and California. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands in 1914 and a high school teacher’s certificate from the University of California, Berkeley the following year. His undergraduate experiences with organic chemistry discouraged his initial inclinations toward graduate study in chemistry, and he chose instead to teach chemistry and physics at a local high school. During this time he also married Hazel Wood, his college sweetheart. They later raised three children together and were married for thirty-five years.

Roger Williams as a young man.

Roger Williams, age 16.

After two difficult years of teaching high school, Williams decided at last to pursue graduate school at the University of Chicago, the institution from which all three of his older brothers had graduated. Williams overcame his fear of organic chemistry with the help of a influential professor and earned his M.S. in 1918 and his Ph.D. one year later. His doctoral thesis was titled The Vitamin Requirement of Yeast, scholarship that attracted an unusual amount of attention and that proved to be the basis for much of his later work on nutrition.

Williams departed Chicago to become a professor at the University of Oregon, eventually moving to our own Oregon State University, then known as Oregon State College or OSC. During his two decades in Oregon, he continued to study yeast and human nutritional science, research that promoted the use of microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria in nutritional studies. The use of these substances sped up nutritional experimentation greatly and played an important role in advancing the fields of enzymology, genetics, and molecular biology.

While at OSC in 1933, Williams discovered and isolated pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5, an essential vitamin for synthesizing coenzyme-A and synthesizing and metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. He later won both the Mead Johnson Award from the American Institute of Nutrition and the Chandler Medal from Columbia University for this discovery.

Not long after, in 1936 Williams’ oldest brother, Robert, synthesized and isolated aneurin (now called thiamin or vitamin B1), an important vitamin for human neurological processes. Roger Williams later discovered that thiamine is also important for yeast growth.


Williams during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago.

Williams during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago.

Williams and Linus Pauling met at Oregon State College, where Pauling had received his baccalaureate degree in 1922. In 1936 Williams and Pauling began to correspond about Williams’ research on pantothenic acid, Williams requesting Pauling’s help in determining the structure of the substance using x-ray crystallographic techniques. Pauling agreed to help because he was very interested in Williams’ research, and the two continued their correspondence into the following year.

Amidst this scientific collaboration, Williams also wrote to Pauling to complain about the state of the chemistry department at OSC. Pauling, in turn, wrote a letter to the state’s chancellor of higher education, suggesting that the head of the OSC chemistry department, Professor John Fulton, retire and be replaced by Roger Williams. Pauling wrote a glowing recommendation of Williams, noting that

Professor Williams is recognized throughout the country as an outstanding teacher of chemistry and an outstanding research man. His text-books in organic chemistry and biochemistry are widely used and show him to be a thoroughly well trained and able chemist and teacher. His researches and in particular his recent work on pantothenic acid constitute the most important chemical contribution that has been made from Oregon.

Pauling’s interest in the situation did not end with this recommendation. After a visit to Corvallis to give a speech for the Sigma Xi scientific research society, Pauling investigated Fulton by writing a letter of inquiry to Harvard University. He found that Fulton had only finished one course at Harvard, for which he received a C. The rest of his coursework had never been completed. Williams and Pauling thus concluded that Fulton had a phony master’s degree on his vita.

Pauling’s advocacy of Williams apparently fell on deaf ears. In December 1939 Williams wrote to Pauling of a deteriorating environment at OSC and his decision to move on.

I have come to the decision that I must sever my connection with this institution as soon as I can make arrangements to locate elsewhere….The atmosphere in which I have found myself has often not been stimulating and continual annoyances are bound to wear away one’s spirit.

Williams’ departure was Oregon State’s loss; as it turned out, Pauling was correct in his evaluation of Williams’ abilities.


The decision to move having been made, Pauling continued to look out for Williams’ interest, writing query letters to multiple universities recommending the addition of Williams to their departments. In short order, Williams found a position as professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Williams expressed gratitude to Pauling for his assistance in the process and the two made a habit of sharing ideas on possible additions to each other’s departments for many years.

Williams ca. 1950s.

Williams ca. 1950s.

In 1941 Williams founded the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, serving as its director until 1963. Under Williams’ leadership, more vitamins and their variants were discovered at the Clayton Institute than at any other laboratory in the world. It was during this period that Williams first concentrated and named folic acid, or vitamin B9, an essential vitamin for DNA processes and red blood cell production. Sadly, it was also during this period, in 1952, that Williams’ first wife Hazel died. He married Mabel Phyllis Hobson the next year and the couple traveled extensively together all over the world, remaining happily married until Roger’s death in 1988.


In 1964 the volume of letters exchanged between Williams and Pauling began to increase, because Williams was writing a book and he wanted Pauling’s input. You Are Extraordinary, published in 1967, emphasizes as its central theme the crucial need for scientists to consider people as individuals, rather than focusing on the average human being. Pauling respected this idea so much that he devoted a whole chapter of his own book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, to Williams’ ideas, extrapolating from them that individuals have unique vitamin C requirements, person to person.

Williams later in life.

Williams later in life.

In 1970 Williams made news through his publication of an article about an experiment that he conducted on rats in which he fed standard enriched white bread to one group and bread further enriched with trace minerals, vitamins, and protein to a second group. The second group fared much better than the first and he used these results to argue that bread manufacturers in the U.S. should change their enrichment protocols to add more nutrients. In response, corporations in the bread industry stated that they would not make any changes until they were recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.

Interestingly, Williams’ older brother Robert was the scientist who devised the original enrichment recommendations. Enrichment standards are necessary because the typical industrial process of milling white flour in the U.S. removes many of the important nutrients naturally available in grains. Before white bread was enriched, many Americans suffered from B vitamin deficiencies. Roger Williams argued that his brother’s original recommendations were good in 1941, but that thirty years later they could be markedly improved upon.

Williams’ push coincided with problems that Linus Pauling had been facing in his own nutritional research. Both scientists felt that nutrition research was not well respected by medical doctors and most scientists, and thus its importance was downplayed or disregarded. Because of the low degree of institutional esteem afforded to work on nutrition, insufficient funding was available to the field.

Though fighting headwinds on numerous fronts, Roger Williams was well-respected within his own community of researchers.  In alignment with Pauling’s ideas related to orthomolecular psychiatry, he served as a founding fellow of the Academy of Orthomolecular Psychiatry in 1971. That same year, Williams became an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, though as we’ll see, the vigor of his work did not diminish in retirement.