The Joseph Priestley Medal

On August 30, 1983, almost exactly 250 years after the birth of famous chemist Joseph Priestley, Linus Pauling was offered the most prestigious award granted by the American Chemical Society: the Priestley Gold Medal.

The medal, granted to an individual who has made tremendous and innovative contributions to chemistry, was established in 1922. Initially awarded every three years, the ACS decided in 1944 to make it an annual prize. The Society elected to name the prestigious award after Priestley as his work with gases influenced the field of chemistry as well as general science, and his interests in a whole host of other areas made a significant impact on a number of additional disciplines, including political theory and religious practice.


By the time that Pauling received the Priestley Medal he had been affiliated with the American Chemical Society for over fifty years, and many were shocked to discover he hadn’t already received the award. As an ACS past president as well as the recipient of the Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, and the Willard Gibbs Award, he was certainly a lauded and highly decorated member of the society. For many, the explanation for his omission could be sourced to the generally conservative political viewpoint espoused by of the ACS Board of Directors.

For many years prior to his receipt of the award, Pauling had played an active role in the Priestley Medal selection process. Notably, in 1949 he nominated the eventual recipient, Arthur B. Lamb, as an acknowledgement of Lamb’s work as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society as well as his contributions to inorganic chemistry and the structure of complex ions. By then, Lamb and Pauling had enjoyed a lengthy correspondence as the former would often send manuscripts to Pauling to edit and evaluate for inclusion in JACS.

The following year Pauling nominated W.F. Giauque, a Canadian chemist who focused on chemical thermodynamics. While Giauque was of four finalists, the 1950 Priestley Medal instead went to Charles A. Kraus. Pauling was among the pool of thirty-three individuals nominated for that year, but did not make the cut to the final four.

“The Dickinson College Award, In Memory of Joseph Priestley,” presented to Pauling in 1969

In 1969, Pauling won a different award named after Joseph Priestley: the Priestley Memorial Award from Dickinson College, home to the largest Priestley collection in the world. Pauling was selected for this honor because of his “significant contributions to the welfare of mankind through his research in physical chemistry.”

As a component of his trip to accept the award, Pauling spent two days on campus interacting with students and faculty, and discussing what was then his primary concern: the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs. Pauling considered the mere idea of ABMs to be “silly” and more of a threat to the nation than a tool to provide security. Pauling further believed that governments, especially the U.S. government, should instead be focusing on the “lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth,” which he regarded to be “a chief problem.”


Pauling receiving the Priestley Medal from an unidentified ACS representative.

The symposium to recognize the awardee, titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley,” was held in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1984, and honored not only Pauling but also another thirty additional recipients of ACS awards. Derek Davenport, a chemist and historian then serving as chair for the ACS Division of Chemical Education, proposed and helped organize the symposium, advocating for Pauling as the awardee from the very beginning. Since Ava Helen Pauling’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling had drastically scaled back his travel schedule, but he was glad to make a trip to receive this special award, named for a historical figure whom he greatly admired.

At the symposium, Pauling received a gold medal bearing the likeness of Joseph Priestley, as well as a bronze replica. In addition to his acceptance address, to be delivered during the symposium’s opening ceremony, Pauling was obliged to participate in several interviews with the Society’s radio program, “Dimensions in Science,” as well as a meeting with local school teachers, another radio program called “At Your Service,” and an appearance on a local television program called “Newsmakers.”


Pauling’s acceptance address proved controversial. Titled “Chemistry and the World of Tomorrow,” the lecture was penned as a sequel of sorts to “Chemistry and the World of Today,” Pauling’s ACS presidential address from 1949.

Thirty-five years before, Pauling had discussed how the entire world was affected by chemistry, stressing the imperative that the ACS take a political turn to address society’s needs in the wake of World War II. Pauling’s 1984 talk was much more in line with his recent anti-war rhetoric and included criticisms of industrial chemists who had contributed to the advancement of the nuclear arms race. In particular, Pauling felt that chemists had been ignoring their obligations as global citizens for far too long while they focused on the science of war, and he made it known that this shirking of responsibility had angered him to no end. Suffice it to say, this component of the address was not received warmly by many of the chemists in the audience.

Pauling also made a point to refer to George Kistiakowsky, who had passed away less than a year earlier. Kistiakowsky was a physical chemist who had advised President Eisenhower from 1959 through 1961, and who had warned about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Pauling embraced his words and carried their sentiment throughout his speech, quoting Kistiakowsky as follows:

…and so here we are, possessors of some 50,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to produce a holocaust that will not only destroy industrial civilization but is likely to spread over the earth environmental effects from which recovery is by no means certain…there is simply not enough time before the world explodes…the threat of annihilation is unprecedented.


For many, Pauling’s rhetoric sent a chill through the room. Once he had completed his remarks, all of the other award recipients being honored were presented, and one-by-one Pauling sought to shake their hands in congratulation. One man refused to engage in this way, leaving Pauling shocked and upset. Derek Davenport, the event organizer, later reflected that

We were treated to an uncharacteristically graceless litany of evils of the military industrial complex and the necessity for eternal vigilance on the part of the concerned scientist. Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm of the industrial chemists was distinctly muted and it was a rather glum Linus Pauling who assumed his seat in the center of the platform.

In the days following Pauling’s poorly received address, the ACS Board of Directors contacted previous recipients of the Priestley Medal to solicit their opinion on changing the address format during the opening ceremony. In this solicitation, the head of the Board Committee on Grants and Awards, Joseph Rogers, recommended shifting the acceptance address to a later date in the symposium and devoting only 10-15 minutes to an introduction of the awardee on the first day. In support of this change, Rogers cited the growing length of the opening ceremony as well as the presence of an audience that was mostly not of a scientific background.

Pauling responded to this proposal with disapproval, noting that the medal is “described as the greatest honor that the American Chemical Society can bestow.” Recipients then should logically have the opportunity to address the public at the initial gathering and to share their point of view in the spirit of the medal’s namesake.

Pauling and Priestley

Joseph Priestley

[Ed Note: This is the 750th post published by the Pauling Blog since its creation in March 2008.]

Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire, England on March 13, 1733 to a family of cloth dressers. Priestley’s mother died when her son was only seven years old, and he was raised by an aunt whose emphasis on religious studies – and eventually ministerial training – would impact the remainder of his life. A remarkable man of many talents, Priestley is remembered today as a theologist and philosopher; a chemist who conducted important work related to gases; a grammarian, political theorist and activist; a founder of Unitarianism; and the father of soft soda.


For the first thirty years of his life, Priestley was consumed by religion – until early adulthood he studied to be a minister, after which time he took on positions as a preacher or educator in religious settings. He was trained by a church that dissented from the Church of England, and Priestley himself often criticized the majority religion of his home country. This point of view would eventually manifest in his contributions to a new theological movement, Unitarianism, that was centered on his shared desire for a sound moral foundation and an ability to question the material world.

More unsettling to the English than his criticisms of the church was Priestley’s support of the French and American revolutions, both of which were taking place in the late 18th century. In 1791 this public stance led to the destruction of Priestley’s home and nearby laboratory by a mob of enraged Englishman. While Priestley and his family escaped unharmed, the bulk of his life’s work was lost.

Following what are now known as the Priestley Riots, the 61-year-old scholar was forced to immigrate to the United States with his family to escape the social ramifications of his political beliefs. The family settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where Priestley and his son sought to build a model community on a large piece of property, an idea that never panned out.


Though he is today best known for his contributions to chemistry, it wasn’t until the 1760s that Priestley began to take an interest in science. A decade later, Priestley initiated his now legendary experiments on gases. He began by simply examining naturally carbonated mineral water, a study that would ultimately lead to the discovery of how to control and reproduce the process of combining carbon dioxide and water, with the eventual creation of soft sodas following from there.

Priestley then attacked a larger project on the isolation of gases that would result in world-wide recognition. Through these experiments, Priestley discovered a great many gaseous compounds including ammonia, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide and, most importantly, oxygen (O2). His research also experimentally contradicted the popular belief that the space around us was simply “air” composed of all the same element. In subsequent years, Priestley made important advances in the scientific understanding of photosynthesis and respiration through his research on how these different gases interacted.


York (Penn.) Gazette and Daily, March 28, 1969

Though born nearly one-hundred years after Joseph Priestley died, Linus Pauling was profoundly influenced, both politically and scientifically, by Priestley’s legacy. Pauling had occasion to honor the great man when, on March 27, 1969, he received the eighteenth Annual Award in Memory of Joseph Priestley from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The decoration was conferred upon Pauling for his “contributions to the welfare of mankind” and he accepted the award with great pleasure.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to about 800 people and titled “The Origin of Scientific Ideas,” Pauling echoed Priestley in suggesting that “In much of our thinking we are just groping to find out what needs to be done rather how it needs to be done.” He then touched on familiar topics including his decades-long campaign against nuclearization and his more recent interest in vitamin C.

A few years later, Pauling appeared on the CBS Bicentennial Minutes program for a brief interview in which he mentioned Priestley’s “giant step in the creation of the science of chemistry” as well as the Englishman’s support for American “colonial independence.” In an earlier letter to colleague Fred Allen, Pauling further commented on Priestley’s move to the United States, noting his reverence for the U.S.’s historical role as a place of refuge for those with liberal ideas, and his sadness that the country had “deteriorated greatly” since.


Priestley’s scientific import was such that, in 1922, the American Chemical Society established its Joseph Priestley Award in his honor. The ACS was formed in 1876, only two years after a small group of chemists met in Priestley’s former home. (Chemist and historian Derek Davenport characterized Priestley as “something between a posthumous founding father and a reigning patron saint” of the ACS.) Some 250 years after his birth, the ACS held a symposium titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley” in which Pauling was aptly granted the Priestley Medal.

Pauling was nominated for the award on account of his being “the most Priestley-like figure of his time,” both for his groundbreaking work as a scientist and his courageous social and political stances. In his acceptance speech, Pauling reviewed his long-running opposition to militarism and war, using Priestley’s theology to support the moral grounds on which he stood. Pauling also drew comparisons between his own work on crystal structures and Priestley’s examinations of gases. A fuller exploration of Pauling’s receipt of the Priestley Medal will be topic of next week’s post.                                                                                      

Ahmed Zewail, Priestley Medalist

Ahmed Zewail

We send our congratulations to Dr. Ahmed H. Zewail, Caltech’s Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics, who was recently named recipient of the 2011 Joseph Priestley Medal, the highest decoration granted by the American Chemical Society.  Dr. Zewail is, of course, no stranger to major honors, having received the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

As with the Nobel award, Zewail’s Priestley medal is being granted for his groundbreaking research in femtochemistry.  Zewail was the keynote speaker at our 2001 Pauling Centenary Conference and his address, titled “Timing in the Invisible,” serves as a useful introduction into the fascinating world of femtochemistry – broadly defined as the study of atomic behaviors that occur in very short periods of time.

In his 2001 talk, Zewail described the experiments that his laboratory had, at the point, developed in their quest to measure the activity of very small, very fast systems.  Using homegrown laser technologies, the Zewail group first succeeded in making simple observations of the periodic stretching and compression of bonds between two atoms.  From there, the researchers moved on to more complex investigations, including measurements of the energy needed to break the bonds of a given atomic arrangement.

The speed of the processes that Zewail’s laboratory studies are mind-boggling to the non-scientist.  As Zewail described it, one primary use of femtoscience is the study of “the fundamental vibrational time scale” – the “spring-motion” movement of two bonded atoms – that occur in tiny segments of time ranging from 10-12 to 10-14 seconds.

And as it turns out, there are many practical applications that have emerged from femtoscopic research, including, for example, the mechanics of human vision and the properties of photosynthesis in plants.  Femtoscopic experiments also provide a method for researchers to determine the amounts of energy that hold together different types of chemical bonds. In effect, femtoscience allows scientists to, in Zewail’s words, “see bonds and atoms.”

Zewail also took a few moments in his Centenary Conference keynote to reflect upon his relationship with Linus Pauling, whom he knew for the last two decades of Pauling’s life.   In doing so, Zewail provided some context for what has become one of more eye-catching artifacts held in the Pauling Papers.

I also organized the 90th birthday for Linus at Caltech, and I think if Linus did not come back to Caltech to share his great moments, it would have been a mistake in the history of Caltech and science. I even crowned him the Pharaoh of Chemistry, and I believe that he loved this picture….It cost me about $500 to do this, because I had to go to Hollywood and try to fit his face into one of Ramses II.

As one might expect, chemistry’s king of kings also received the ACS’s most prestigious award, accepting it at a ceremony in April 1984.  In his speech that evening, Pauling reflected a great deal upon the life and work of Joseph Priestley (who was something of a kindred spirit), and in one particular passage especially, the reader is able to draw a parallel between the award’s namesake and its 2011 recipient.

One of Priestley’s biographers, Gibbs, has asked ‘How was it that, in this difficult and obscure field [of the existence and nature of different kinds of gases] he was able to make advances that had eluded so many men of science?  He himself put it down to his habit of searching into dark and mysterious corners, and of following a scent wherever it might lead, without any preconceived notions.  Almost alone among scientists then living, he was honest enough to credit part at least of his success to enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.

A Look at Anesthesia: The History of a Puzzle

Engraving of Ernst von Bibra by August Weger ca. 1888

Engraving of Ernst von Bibra by August Weger ca. 1888

[Part 1 of 5]

Anesthetics have been used throughout much of human history as tools for relieving pain and shielding the body. They have played a major role in human health and medicine from prehistory to the present. In our blog series “Linus Pauling: The Mystery of Anesthesia,” we will examine Linus Pauling’s intriguing theory of anesthesia and the science and history that surrounds it.

Until the 18th century, anesthetics were typically concocted from the local flora by herbalists and chemists. Opium, for example, is thought to be one of the oldest prepared anesthetics, distilled from poppy flowers farmed by Sumerians as early as 4000 BC. In the late 1760s, however, the great British scholar Joseph Priestley discovered the anesthetic power of nitrous oxide in its gaseous state, thus rendering as outdate most conventional herbal anesthetics. Following Priestley’s discovery, the international scientific community launched a number of small-scale investigations into potential anesthetics, eventually resulting in the medical use of ether, chloroform, and other gases. In 1803, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner distilled morphine from pure opium, creating yet another wave of interest among researchers.

Despite this pronounced early-19th century interest in anesthesia, little was known about the properties of anesthetics. Researchers wondered, what caused the numbness and unconsciousness? Why were the effects of anesthesia reversible? What made some anesthetics more powerful than others?

A few intrepid anesthesiologists suggested that anesthetic gases formed a sort of fog in the brain, or that they caused the nerves or brain matter itself to coagulate. Unfortunately, without access to advanced medical and chemical techniques, and lacking a sophisticated understanding of brain functioning, scientists harbored little hope of uncovering the precise mechanisms behind anesthesia.

In 1847 the German polymath Ernst von Bibra decided to tackle the problem. In his previous chemical work, von Bibra had specialized in the study of intoxicants and poisonous plants and, as a result, had accumulated a great deal of experience with the various medicinal compounds derived from flora. Von Bibra’s idea was that anesthetics might dissolve fats in human brain cells, resulting in a temporary loss of consciousness and normal brain activity. He further theorized that at some point after the anesthetized state had been induced, the anesthetic would eventually cycle out of the brain, thus permitting the brain’s cells to steadily return to their natural rate of functioning.

Von Bibra realized that, if true, his theory would explain the temporary yet reversible unconsciousness induced by anesthesia and, in the process, revolutionize the scientific understanding of how the brain works. Unfortunately, his research was largely ignored for a half-century, in part due to the limitations of mid-nineteenth century technology. However, in the late 1800s, von Bibra’s theory resurfaced and attracted the attention of several researchers who would go on to revolutionize the study of brain chemistry.

All of our posts on the theory of anesthesia will be collected here.  For more information on Linus Pauling’s life and work, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

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Anesthetics have been used throughout much of human history as tools for relieving pain and shielding the body. They have played a major role in human health and medicine from prehistory to the present. In our blog series Linus Pauling: The Mystery of Anesthesia, we will examine Linus Pauling’s intriguing theory of anesthesia and the science and history that surrounds it.

Until the 18th century, anesthetics were typically concocted from the local flora by herbalists and chemists. Opium, for example, is thought to be one of the oldest prepared anesthetics known to man, distilled from poppy flowers farmed by Sumerians as early as 4000 BC. In the late 1760s, however, Joseph Priestley discovered the anesthetic power of nitrous oxide in its gaseous state, rendering most conventional herbal anesthetics outdated. Following Priestley’s discovery, the international scientific community launched a number of small-scale investigations into potential anesthetics, eventually resulting in the use of ether, chloroform, and other gases. In 1803, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner distilled morphine from pure opium, creating another wave of interest among researchers.

Despite a great deal of medical interest in anesthesia during the early 1800s, little was known about the properties of anesthetics. What caused the numbness and unconsciousness? Why were the effects of anesthesia reversible? What made some more powerful than others? A few intrepid anesthesiologists suggested that the anesthetic gases formed a sort of fog in the brain, or that they caused the nerves or brain matter itself to coagulate. Unfortunately, without access to advanced medical and chemical technologies, or an understanding of brain function, scientists had little hope of uncovering the mechanisms behind anesthesia.

In 1847, Ernst von Bibra, decided to tackle the problem. As a chemist, he specialized in the study of intoxicants and poisonous plants and had a great deal of experience with the various medicinal compounds derived from flora. He suggested that anesthetics might dissolve fats in human brain cells, resulting in the temporary loss of consciousness and normal brain activity. He theorized that after the anesthetized state had been induced, the anesthetic would eventually cycle out of the brain, allowing brain cells to return to their natural state. von Bibra realized that, if true, his theory would explain the temporary yet reversible unconsciousness induced by anesthesia and revolutionize the scientific understanding of brain function. Unfortunately, his work was largely ignored for a half-century, in part due to the limitations of mid-nineteenth century technology. However, in the late 1800s, von Bibra’s theory resurfaced and attracted the attention of several researchers who would revolutionize the study of brain chemistry.

For more information on Pauling’s life and work, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal[CN1] or the OSU Special Collections homepage[CN2] .