The Soviet Resonance Controversy: Beginnings

Trofim Lysenko

[Part 3 of 7]

Linus Pauling’s resonance theory, while initially a bit difficult to grasp, gradually became an essential tool for predicting and understanding chemical structures. Widely lauded for the links that it provided between classical chemistry and the new quantum mechanics, the theory was also valued for its practical applications in molecular modeling.

But not all found comfort and solace in resonance. In particular, many Soviets viewed Pauling’s theory as an affront to their ideology, regardless of its chemical “correctness.” For these critics, an abstract hybrid model of the molecule – one lacking a foundation in a quantifiable reality – was too troublesome to ignore.


Pauling developed his theory of resonance in a series of papers authored in the early 1930s, and eventually codified the work in his 1939 book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Soviet scientists were surely aware of resonance theory throughout this time period, but it appears that ideological interest in Pauling’s ideas did not fully manifest until after World War II. This was likely because, during the war, the Soviet government diverted scientific work away from theoretical investigations in favor of practical applications that would benefit the war effort. Shortly after Word War II ended however, Soviet scientists Ia. K. Syrkin and M.E. Diatkina translated The Nature of the Chemical Bond into Russian. The tandem then wrote their own book outlining ideas on structural chemistry; a book that was based on resonance theory.

Though they had grounded their text in well-established chemical theory, Syrkin and Diatkina’s work was almost immediately criticized within the Soviet Union. In 1949, Soviet scientists V.M. Tatevskii and M.I. Shakhparanov published an article in the journal Voprosyi Filosofii (Questions in Philosophy) titled, “About a Machistic Theory in Chemistry and its Propagandists.” In it, the authors contended that Syrkin and Diatkina were obliged to carefully critique Pauling’s resonance theory, rather than bestow upon it “laudatory” praise. The paper then points out that Syrkin and Diatkina did not include

even one mention of the works of Russian or Soviet scientists…it was expected that the translator and editor, fighting for the honor of the Soviet science, would have seen to it to fill in this gap.

“Still worse,” the authors continued, “the annotations which Syrkin gives at the end of the book are represented primarily as indication of the works of American and English chemists.” This given, one could only conclude that Syrkin and Diatkina were merely “propagandists for the known-to-be erroneous and vicious theory of the American chemist, Pauling.”

Tatevskii and Shakhparanov’s views were not anomalous. In fact, the Soviet Academy of Sciences itself viewed Syrkin and Diatkina as being in “serious error” for “championing the theory of resonance or failing to expose its supposed fallacy.” The rhetoric only escalated from there, and in 1951 Syrkin and Diatkina were forced to recant their belief in resonance theory. In his recantation, Syrkin was famously quoted as saying that he had “overestimated second rate works of foreign scientists.”


On the surface, the criticism of Syrkin and Diatkina seems to have emerged primarily from their support of a non-Soviet scientist. And while this was certainly a factor, the attack was also a product of a larger ideological push within Soviet science that traced its origins to the 1930s and a man named Trofim Lysenko.

An agronomist, Lysenko came to symbolize the ideal Soviet man; a notion that received the full support of Premier Joseph Stalin. Lysenko had been born into relative poverty but eventually gained entry into the Kiev Agricultural Institute, where he studied wheat production. It was there that he began to develop the ideas for which he would become well known.

Lysenko believed that if he could freeze winter wheat, he would be able to force early germination of the crop, a process known as vernalization. He also believed that this early germination would in turn become a heritable characteristic. A breakthrough of this sort was highly desirable in the Soviet Union, in part because the vast nation had experienced multiple food shortages due to unseasonably cold winters and poorly structured collectivist agricultural practices. In Lysenko, Stalin saw the promise of more easily feeding the Soviet population, and the scientist quickly grew in stature as a “man of the people.”

But Lysenko’s ideas were attractive on ideological grounds as well, chiefly because his ideas on vernalization took a Lamarckian approach to evolution. Simply put, Lysenko believed that evolution was something that could be controlled by man; that the people had the means and ability to enact and propel genetic change.

This idea ran counter to those prevailing in other parts of the world and specifically the United States, where a more Darwinian notion of evolution had been adopted. In the Darwinian model, evolutionary change occurs by random chance and individuals do not possess the ability to create lasting heritable impact through their own actions. For the Soviets, the Darwinian model was seen as bourgeois, a word that was widely held in contempt. In contrast, Lysenko’s view of evolution was one that put the state in control, and it was absolute.


Given this context, it becomes easier to see how resonance could be viewed as being counter to Soviet ideology. And within the USSR, an alternative theory was accordingly developed by a Soviet chemist named Gennadi Chelintsev, who aspired to become the chemistry and biology equivalent of Lysenko.

Chelintsev applied Soviet ideology to chemistry in his book, Essays on the Theory of Organic Chemistry. Importantly, Chelintsev used the book to argue that every molecular compound had only one discrete structure. His ideas were appealing to many Soviet scientists because, as with Lysenko, they were primarily based in the mechanistic world view that was so deeply enmeshed in Soviet ideologies.  

By translating The Nature of the Chemical Bond, Syrkin and Diatkina had brought Pauling’s ideas on resonance to the widespread attention of Soviet chemists, a process that allowed many to become aware of a scientific concept that was contrary Soviet ideology. In reaction, Chelintsev and others found in Pauling’s theory a perfect tool for villainizing non-Soviet science. And while Chelintsev’s book did not target Pauling outright, it did bring attention to a conflict that would continue to grow in the years to come.

Spitzer: The Aftermath

Ralph Spitzer.

[Part 3 of 3]

Following the dismissal of both Ralph Spitzer and L. R. La Vallee, one newspaper described Oregon State College as “a battle ground” for the heavily debated topic of academic freedom. The newspaper explained that in the minds of many people, any alliance with the party of Henry Wallace was synonymous with being a communist.

Meanwhile, OSC President August Strand’s vague rationale for having dismissed Spitzer and Strand continued in his address to the college’s Faculty Committee.  In this talk, dated February 23, 1949, Strand hinted through his word choice that the duo’s discharge was politically based.

Specifically, Strand said that Spitzer’s dismissal was not motivated by his Progressive Party membership, but rather because he had followed the Communist party line through his support of an untenable scientific thesis, the Lysenko theory of genetics, which de-emphasizes the role that genetics plays in heredity and, in simple terms, suggests that environmental factors are more prone to shaping individual characteristics. While Lysenko’s work was focused mainly on agriculture, the Soviet apparatus used his thinking to forward the notion that life in a socialist state might cleanse the proletariat of certain bourgeois tendencies.

In his speech Strand also touched on the question of academic freedom, while at the same time asking a question of his own: “how about freedom from party line compulsion?”

The Oregon State College Daily Barometer, February 24, 1949.

Strand’s evidence for his assault on Spitzer’s alleged Lysenkoism was a letter published by Spitzer in Chemical and Engineering News in response to an H. J. Muller editorial claiming that science was being destroyed in the Soviet Union. Strand felt that the letter demonstrated Spitzer’s support for Lysenko, in deference to what he must have known to be scientific truth.

For his part, Spitzer found it ridiculous that he was being labeled a communist just for arguing on behalf of a Soviet scientific theory. He also felt that Strand’s statement proved that his dismissal was based on political grounds and was a clear infringement of academic freedom.

In a one-page typewritten statement, Spitzer made his case:

I did not support Lysenko in my letter; in any case, it is absurd to reason that agreement with a Soviet scientific theory is evidence of adherence to a party line….I did not stir up controversy, but rather commented on an editorial on Soviet genetics. The editorial was by a chemist, in a chemical journal, and was discussed by two other chemists in the same issue.


On February 28, 1949, five days after the President’s address, Linus Pauling wrote a letter to  Strand, stating that he was “greatly disturbed” by the failure to continue the appointment of Dr.  Spitzer. Pauling wrote not only as a friend of Spitzer’s, but as a graduate of OSC, as president of the American Chemical Society (which declined to intervene in the case) and as a man involved in the educational system. Pauling also felt that it was his duty as an American citizen to take an active interest in politics and that Spitzer had a similar right and duty. Pauling concluded by urging Strand to reconsider his actions.

Pauling received a response from Strand on March 4, stating that the letter written by Spitzer in Chemical and Engineering News “showed beyond question that he was devoted to Communist party policy regardless of evident truth.” Strand continued, “How far need we go in the name of academic freedom? How stupid need we be and just how much impudence do we have to stand for to please the pundits of dialectical materialism?” Strand concluded by stating

If by this action, Oregon State College has lost your respect and support, all I can say is that your price is too high.  We’ll have to get along without your aid.

Pauling’s letter, as well as Strand’s stern response, were both published in the OSC newspaper, The Daily Barometer, and later reprinted in Chemical and Engineering News, but no direct action was taken.

Author Suzanne Clark, in her book Cold Warriors: Manliness on Trial in the Rhetoric of the West, wrote of what followed.

Spitzer defended himself vigorously, if with a degree of innocence about the growing power of those who would finally be enlisted to anticommunism. He pointed out that cases such as his own served to damage academic freedom in hundreds of invisible ways as faculty members learned to be afraid. Spitzer immediately turned to the AAUP on campus, which declared itself without jurisdiction, and asked the Appeals Committee of the OSC Faculty Council to investigate. He made four points: the head of the chemistry department was not consulted; the acting head had no complaints about his work; he had been promised a leave for a fellowship; and he had been promoted to associate professor.

But Spitzer’s attempts to save his job did not bear fruit. In a report on the Spitzer and La Vallee cases issued by the Faculty Committee on Reviews and Appeals, it was revealed that the desirability of reappointing Dr. Spitzer or of granting him a leave of absence during 1949-1950 had been questioned the previous October. Likewise, the decision not to tender reappointment was a culmination of various consultations on departmental, school, and institutional levels extending over the preceding several months, none of which officially pertained to political party affiliation. The committee concluded that President Strand acted entirely within his administrative rights and in the discharge of his official duties in the decision not to renew the appointments of the dismissed junior faculty members.

The final decision raised awareness among students at OSC, prompting editorials to be published in The Daily Barometer, urging students to get involved and understand the implications that such an action had on them. One student wrote,

It means that compliance to ‘accepted’ political thought is required of our college professors. It means that any person who disagrees with either Democratic or Republican party platforms is not a fit person to teach in this institution. It means that Dr. Einstein wouldn’t be allowed to teach our physics department since he has been active in supporting the Progressive Party. For the same reason, Dr. Linus Pauling, OSC graduate and present head of the American Chemical Society, would be considered unfit to teach here.

The conflict also led to national-level stories, including one written by John L. Childs in The Nation, titled “Communists and the Right to Teach.” Among other details, the article noted that a recent National Commission on Educational Reconstruction meeting had determined that “membership in the Communist Party is not compatible with service in the educational institutions of the United States.”

Spitzer and La Vallee both made one final return to OSC on May 26, 1949 to speak about “Your Stake in Academic Freedom.” The event was publicized on campus as “the story the Barometer didn’t print.”


The debate over academic freedom raged on well into the 1950s and ’60s, and life after OSC for Ralph and Terry Spitzer was a bit of a challenge. Spitzer applied widely for academic jobs across the country, applications which invariably were met for an explanation as to the reasons for his departure from Corvallis.  Oftentimes these institutions also consulted with Strand, who only offered negative words on Spitzer.

Unemployment and passport controversies plagued Spitzer until he was eventually hired in 1951 by the University of Kansas City as a chemistry professor.  He and Terry later moved to Canada, where Ralph obtained an M.D.  The couple eventually settled in British Columbia where Ralph enjoyed a long career in medical research.

Ralph and Terry Spitzer, ca. 1970s.

For Pauling the Spitzer incident was a bitter pill and one that did damage to his relationship with his alma mater.  In a letter written to an OSC colleague in April 1959, Pauling summed up his feelings at the time

I wish that I could accept your invitation to me to participate in the symposium that you are planning, but I have decided, a number of years ago, that I would not return to the Oregon State College so long as the last word that I had from President Strand was his statement, published in the Barometer, that Oregon State would get along without me in the future.

And so it was that Pauling made no official visit to his undergraduate campus from 1937 to December 1966, when he returned to deliver an address on “Science and the Future of Man.” Pauling’s talk was delivered some five years after the retirement of August Strand from the presidency of what was, by then, known as Oregon State University.