Peter Pauling: A New Life in London, 1956-1969

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Peter Pauling, speaking at his father’s sixtieth birthday party, Los Angeles, 1961.

[The life of Peter Pauling, part 7 of 9]

Journeying on their honeymoon through the caves of northern Spain, Peter Pauling and his wife Julia arrived at a small fishing village and made camp. His beard full and his hair grown to nearly his shoulders, Peter sat on the beach, scouring pots. Meanwhile, Julia watched the water, contented by the meal that she had just prepared for her new husband. She had always loved the sea, saying as much in her letters to Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, her new parents-in-law.

Julia had been a bright student at Cambridge. An avid reader of French and German literature, she was once hailed as the year’s best student at Girton College and had received the highest marks possible in her first year examinations, an achievement that surely would have impressed Linus and Ava Helen. Given the circumstances of their marriage however, Peter and Julia had their work cut out for them in attempting to smoothing things over with both sides of the family. As she attempted to do so in her communications, Julia was especially complimentary of the Paulings’ new property at Big Sur. In particular, she swooned over the “heavenly” view of the Pacific Ocean, as observed from the coastal bluffs of California.


Upon their return to London, the pair moved into their new home in Clapham, which Peter described as “an ugly Victorian suburban house that ought to be quite pleasant.” Many things changed for Peter as he settled into his new life. With the help of his mother and younger brother Crellin, he shipped his Mercedes back to the United States where it would eventually be sold. He had likewise traded in his most recent automotive conquest, a Porsche, upon his and Julia’s return from their honeymoon. The proceeds from these sales and trades were used – with added financial help from Peter’s parents and his older brother Linus Jr. – to purchase a new home for the family at Lansdowne Road.

By July 1956, Peter and Julia were thinking of names for their baby, with Peter being “most uncooperative about this business,” according to his wife. In her letters to Ava Helen, Julia noted that every time she suggested a reasonable name, Peter demurred, offering alternative suggestions like “Gregorio” and “Plug-up,” the latter a character from what Julia considered a “pointless space-fiction strip cartoon.”

When finally the baby came on August 22, the pair had settled their differences. Peter Andrew Thomas Pauling, to be called Thomas, was born that summer, to be followed by a younger sister, born February 5, 1960. Again there seems to have been some measure of disagreement about a name, with Peter first announcing his daughter to his parents as “Esmiralda Ermitrude.”

That name didn’t stick, however, and within a month, Peter was writing to his mother and father that their new granddaughter, Sarah Suzanne, had begun to smile and sleep all night. It was one of many letters in which Peter expressed joy at being a father. Within five years, Peter would excitedly report that Sarah was reading bedtime stories to him, rather than the other way around. By this time, young Thomas was at the top of his class as well.


Peter and Julia enjoyed a great deal of support from friends and family during these early years. Typically, the couple would spend the Christmas holiday season with Julia’s parents in the north of England, while the Pauling family would usually visit at various points throughout the year. Occasionally, Peter’s sister Linda and her husband Barclay would see the young family, bringing their twin boys “Barkie” and “Sasha” in tow. Linus and Ava Helen often came through London while on European trips for conferences, bringing with them comfort items from the States as well as more important cargo, such as the polio vaccine.

Thomas and Dorothy Hodgkin stopped in regularly, as did the Cricks and the Bernals. Joy and J.D. Bernal gave Thomas his first toys and provided the cake for Sarah’s first birthday party. The Hodgkins offered Peter and Julia their old baby bath, and Francis and Odile Crick passed along some hand-me-down clothes. “So far,” Peter joked, “the entire cost of the baby has been one box of chocolates for the nurses.”

Even Jim Watson dropped in, meeting young Thomas, who loved to turn all the knobs on a sprawling electronic gramophone that Peter had pieced together from spare parts. The room was a hopeless mess, Watson noted, and surely the bane of Julia’s existence. On top of that, Thomas’ interventions generally scrambled the music until it was incomprehensible.


Buoyed by a little help from his friends, Peter’s career took a positive turn as well. Lawrence Bragg had agreed to take Peter on at the Royal Institution for three months, in order to allow him to finish his degree. When three months turned out to be not enough time, Bragg and John Kendrew conspired with their colleague Jack Dunitz to obtain for Peter a position as a research student, working under R.S. Nyholm at University College, London. Once there, Peter would be allowed to continue his education while simultaneously collaborating with Dunitz to complete his research.

The arrangement worked. Peter switched the focus of his dissertation from protein crystallography to inorganic molecules, using x-ray diffraction to verify configurations of a halide compound, NiCL4. Peter likewise worked with a number of other transition metals, performing stereochemical experiments to determine their atomic structures.

At the same time, Peter began working with his father to develop a theory of the molecular structure of water, a subject on which he had spoken at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1957. After the two Paulings developed their theory, which postulated a random dodecahedral structure for liquid water, Peter became quite prolific. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, he published just over thirty papers, including fourteen in 1966 alone.

He also became much more active in the field, flying often to the United States for meetings of the Crystallographic Association, as well as other conferences in locations from San Diego to Denver to Pittsburgh. Having completed his PhD in 1959, Peter was immediately offered a lectureship in Chemistry at University College. And though he continued to muse in his letters to Ava Helen that he really didn’t want to do chemistry forever, he quickly accepted the position.


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Julia and Peter Pauling at the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

At long last, Peter seemed finally to be stepping out from his father’s shadow. And importantly, one sign of this transformation was his own realization that he was not, and could never be, the chemist that Linus Pauling was.

Instead, Peter began to focus his efforts on computers and other electronic systems valuable to the lines of chemical research that he had been pursuing. Among the rash of papers that he published in 1966 was “A Program for the Use of Large Computers for Crystallographic Problems,” which appeared in the British Journal for Applied Physics. Here, Peter was finally in his element, working at the forefront of a field that was swiftly changing, engineering devices by hand, and building complicated electronics systems such as a “one dimensional diffractometer” for x-ray crystallography – or what Peter called an “automatic gadget” – from plug-in logical blocks.

Peter took the first steps toward an important milestone in this new line of research, when he ordered a computer and electronic parts that he thought would be necessary to produce a copy of the state of the art diffractometer and visualization systems then in use at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the American research center founded in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. Funded by a Public Health Service grant, his system-in-progress deployed an ex-military scope equipped with a preamplifier, a Schmitt trigger, a monostable pulse generator (used to trigger the scope), and a Sherwood FM tuner that he had acquired from Linus Jr. The tuner in hand, Peter spent almost a year tracking down its circuit diagrams, so that he could most effectively cannibalize it in support of his cobbled together atomic measurement machine.

Once completed, not only did Peter’s device work, it worked marvelously. By May 1968, his computer and the program that ran it were making thousands of minute measurements per week. Indeed, the apparatus was used to determine the structure of five compounds in a ten-week period; a volume of calculations, as Peter pointed out, that was visually represented by four miles of punched paper tape that the computer had to read in producing the work. This huge success stood in stark contrast to Peter’s years at Cambridge, where he had struggled mightily to adequately determine the structure of a single compound.

With his machine, Peter Pauling was attempting to make University College technologically competitive with an institution that had received major support from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during the height of the Cold War. Astoundingly, he accomplished this goal using, to a large degree, spare parts. Later, Peter would use the measurements from his device to improve the Caltech method for drafting pseudo-perspective drawings of molecular structures, producing instead Third Angle Projection-style drawings of atoms and their bonds. As his successes mounted, he was promised a lab that would be four times larger, and was elected President of the Chemical and Physical Society of University College, London.


Behind the scenes, however, Peter was struggling to balance his career with his family life, and was plagued by personal demons. Ever since leaving Cambridge a decade earlier, his mother had been worried about his mental health, urging him to see a psychiatrist about his struggle with manic-depression. Over time, this view came to be shared by a growing number of friends and family. But burdened as he was by the competing forces of a new wife and children, the completion of his degree, and the press of research and professional obligations, there never seemed to be a good time.

At one point, Linus Pauling became so concerned for the welfare of his grandson, Thomas, that he offered to arrange for the boy to live in Pasadena for as long as might be necessary for Peter’s domestic situation to stabilize. Peter responded that he was far too busy writing his thesis and preparing lecture courses at University College to fly Thomas to New York. A few months later, he revealed that Julia was pregnant with their second child.

As time passed, the growing strain on Peter and Julia’s marriage became palpable to those who knew and loved them both, and by 1961 Peter had suffered a serious breakdown, confiding to his parents that he was finally and earnestly trying to see a psychiatrist, as his bouts with sadness had become “uncontrollable.” Peter’s lament seemed, at times, to mirror the dark geopolitical climate of the 1960s. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Peter wrote to his mother that he was “stricken” by the President’s death. The optimism of the Kennedy years had led him to think that “ordinary mortals” might “rest a little easier” under the vibrant president’s leadership. “Now,” Peter admitted, “I fear it is back to the struggle.”


But as the decade moved forward, Peter Pauling found that he had other struggles of his own to worry about. By 1967, he and his wife had agreed to a divorce. Peter subsequently moved into a flat in dodgy area of London – St. John’s – where he shared his new space with a painter. The flat was later robbed, and Peter lost most of his clothes and jewelry, as well as his radio, as loss that he lamented. (“I used it all the time,” he wrote, “to fill up the empty holes in my head when I am alone.”) Likewise stolen was a pot that his sister Linda had given him for Christmas. He wrote to her that he missed this item the most, as it meant more to him than anything else that was taken.

Linus Jr. came to London to visit his brother during this time, and ultimately left the scene both worried and relieved. The worry came from the fact that Peter, by his own admission, was drinking and smoking far too much. On the other hand, Linus Jr. felt a measure of relief that his brother had finally done what he thought was right for his children: leaving the family home at Lansdowne Road to Julia, Thomas, and Sarah.

Peter Pauling: Cambridge Struggles, 1954-1956

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Julia and Peter Pauling, 1956.

[The life of Peter Pauling, Part 6 of 9]

The year 1954 was a tumultuous one for Peter Pauling. For one, Jim Watson had left for Caltech, and Peter lamented that his absence was felt, as he was “a positive force, albeit a bit conceited” when it came to social dynamics in the lab. At the same time, Peter’s sister Linda was preparing to move to Cambridge, where her father hoped that Peter might help her to find lab work assisting with crystal structure determinations. (Linda was quite interested in mathematics.) His sister’s imminent arrival excited in Peter visions of European exploration, and especially of skiing.

But while Peter dreamed, serious matters were afoot at the Cavendish Laboratory. Its director, Sir Lawrence Bragg, was planning to resign his Cambridge professorship to take a position as head of the Royal Institution in London. Meanwhile, the lab’s incoming director of physics, Nevill Mott, was widely known to be of the opinion that the unit’s increasing focus on biology needed to be redirected. John Kendrew was worried that the MRC unit that he and Max Perutz headed might be kicked out of the lab, or even the department, entirely.

This uncertainty both distracted Kendrew from Peter’s lack of progress on his myoglobin work, and, in retrospect, made Peter’s lack of enthusiasm for his topic all the more glaring. Indeed, while John Kendrew was worried about the future of their research, Peter was writing to his father that he was unconcerned about Mott’s approval. Rather, as was so often the case, Peter’s main preoccupation was his vehicle, this time a 1930 Mercedes Benz open touring car, described as “18 feet long and mostly engine,” that Peter was now cruising in for special occasions like the May Ball at Peterhouse. Peter’s older brother, Linus Jr., had forwarded him money to purchase the car, hoping that it would be affordable to rebuild the engine. When the cost of doing so turned out to double his investment in the vehicle, Linus Jr. thought it more expedient to simply let his younger brother have the car.

Linus Jr. and Peter formed a strong relationship during Peter’s years at Cambridge, a time period where Linus Jr. and his wife Anita made a habit of travelling around Europe during the summers. This closeness marked something of a renewal of the brothers’ relationship since they had seen little of one another during their more formative years, and as children had little in common. Now, cars in particular emerged as an area in which the two could share their exuberance. Linus Jr. reflected later that, on those trips abroad, he and his wife enjoyed Peter tagging along – his vitality, beaming smile, and friendly nature made him the life of any party.

But this was clearly only one side of Peter Pauling. Privately, he admitted to his mother that he often felt unsure of his path in life, and that he felt unable to meet the challenges of his PhD program. He often wondered whether or not he would be better off simply teaching chemistry, or helping to write his father’s textbooks. These bouts with gloom were contrasted by sudden and excited turns to sociability. Linus Jr. would later point out that their paternal grandmother – Linus Pauling’s mother, Belle – was possibly manic depressive, and was reported to have died in a mental hospital. This, he believed, was likely where Peter had inherited his own emotional instability, and it was during his stint in Cambridge that manic depressive symptoms started to manifest most clearly.


 

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The Paulings in Stockholm, December 1954. Credit: Svenskt Pressfoto.

Linus Pauling’s frustration with Peter’s hoax “Francis Crick letter” had faded by the time that the entire family met in Stockholm for the 1954 Nobel Prize ceremonies. It was there that Pauling was to receive his highest honor to date, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, commemorating his work on the nature of the chemical bond. After a frustrating battle to receive government permission to leave the country – by then, Linus’ political activities were causing him problems with the Passport Office – the Pauling family flew to Copenhagen where they met Peter and Linda. By then, Linda had taken up residence in the basement room that her brother had just left at the “Golden Helix,” as the Crick home on Portugal Place was now known. Once arrived, she worked for a time as Francis and Odile Crick’s au pair.

Watson returned to the Cavendish in 1955 to find the MRC unit on the verge of being squeezed out by Nevill Mott. Finally registering this threat, Peter began to panic, writing to implore his father that he vocalize his positive impressions of the unit’s work and that he recommend that the group be allowed to continue their research there. At the same time, Peter applied for a post-doctoral fellowship grant from the National Science Foundation, hoping to solidify the standing of both himself and the group by bringing additional research money into the lab.

As it turned out, Peter’s maneuver worked: he received the grant, and this was no doubt a boon to his position at a crucial time. It did little to help him in his research, however. He continued to struggle with myoglobin and, increasingly, he placed his fading hopes squarely upon the idea that mercuric tetraiodide ion crystals might be a better candidate for the sorts of analysis that Kendrew and Perutz were beginning to doubt he could complete.


As the final year of Peter’s program dawned in fall 1955, the frequency of his drives about the grounds to impress the girls dropped to what Jim Watson considered a startlingly low level. Perhaps realizing the “do or die” position that he was in with respect to his research, Peter seemed to be redoubling his focus on finishing his degree.

During this same period, Peter had begun seeing a young woman by the name of Julia, who was a student at a nearby all-women’s school. Jim Watson, curious about the situation, queried several girls that he knew from the school, but most were silent, and Julia herself became conspicuously absent as the New Year drew closer.

Meanwhile, Peter’s father had been working to prepare his son for life after Cambridge, offering him an appointment in the Caltech Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering as a Research Fellow focusing on the crystalline structure of globular proteins, to be determined through the use of x-ray diffraction. Pauling wrote to his son

We have a real need here for someone who has had the sort of experience in taking x-ray photographs of crystals that you have obtained. I think our effort to determine the complete structure of a crystalline globular protein is going to be successful, and that you might like to be associated with the successful effort.

Peter did not respond immediately, taking about a week to think about the proposal. It may well be that he was simply overwhelmed by both the work to be done and the festivities to be had during his final months at Cambridge. Plus, it seemed that the job his father had offered likely would be waiting for him as soon as he had finished his program in England.


Few had seen much of Peter in the run-up to Jim Watson and Linda Pauling’s practical joke of a dinner party. In response to a rumor that Watson and Linda were seeing one another, the two decided in good fun to host a get-together, thus driving speculation into a frenzy by implying an impending announcement that, in fact, was never to come. Peter was invited and did show up, but much to the surprise of the hosts, he was not his usual grinning, charming self. Instead, he seemed sentimental and full of a solemn interest in the future of his friends at Cambridge. Watson and Linda later realized that, on this particular evening, Peter was wrestling with a weighty issue: he was soon to become a father.


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The Pauling family on Christmas Day, 1956. Peter and Julia sit at right.

A letter sent by Peter’s parents in early 1956 concluded with an expression of excitement: Linus and Ava Helen would be visiting soon and would look on with pride as they witnessed their son receiving his Cambridge Ph.D. In his response, Peter explained that this day, sadly, would never come. Though he felt that she was a “clever, delicate, and lovely girl,” Peter had not made Julia an “honest woman,” and for this he would be sent down from Cambridge and not be allowed to take a degree. Accordingly, this also meant that he would not qualify for the position that his father had offered him at Caltech.

When he learned of his situation, John Kendrew suggested that Peter might be able to transfer both the remainder of his fellowship with the National Science Foundation, and also the completion of his doctoral research, to the Royal Institution in London, where Sir Lawrence Bragg – his old program director at the Cavendish – was now director of the Davy-Faraday research lab. By then, however, Peter had decided to marry the mother of his child, and arrangements were quickly made by Linda Pauling for a quiet civil wedding that was out of the spotlight and not attended by Linus or Ava Helen.

Peter and Julia were married on March 13, 1956 at the Cambridge Register Office on Castle Hill. Peter’s bride was given away by her father, and with no family members other than Linda present, Peter’s sister acted as the sole adjudicator of the Pauling family’s approval of the union. Peter’s Cambridge advisor, John Kendrew, stood with him as his best man. Following the wedding, a reception was held at Kendrew’s home at Tennis Court Road, after which Peter put on his trademark grin and, with Julia, vanished in a new Porsche. Before the year was out, Linda Pauling, struggling financially and burdened by an expired work visa, returned to Pasadena.

Between 1957 and 1959, Kendrew and Perutz successfully modelled the molecular structure of myoglobin that Peter had been working on. In this, the Cavendish once more beat Caltech to the punch, as the position that Linus had offered to Peter was meant to contribute to a similar problem. Myoglobin was the first ever protein to have its atomic structure determined, and Kendrew and Perutz shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this achievement in 1962.