Big News

We are very excited to announce the release of our latest website, The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling:  A Documentary History.  The fifth in our documentary history series, the project took us nearly thirteen months to complete.

As with the previous four documentary histories, the war site is comprised of a Narrative, a Documents and Media repository (nearly 300 documents and audio clips were used), and a link to Linus Pauling Day-by-Day.  One crucial difference between this project and its predecessors, however, is that our staff researched and wrote the Narrative in-house. (Past Narratives were written either by biographer Tom Hager or historian of science Dr. Melinda Gormley.)  This was largely necessitated by the fact that no author had, to this point, rigorously delved into Pauling’s vast program of scientific war research, as conducted for the United States government during World War II.

The primary thrust of the war site narrative is a detailed review of the many specific projects that Pauling either directly investigated or oversaw as an administrator during the war years.  Our research indicates that these were the main projects with which Pauling was involved:

Amidst the project descriptions, the narrative also features an interlude that recounts the Pauling family’s experience of life during wartime, including Linus Pauling, Jr.’s stint in the United States Army.   The project likewise details the elder Pauling’s early interactions with a host of the era’s pivotal figures, including Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Committee, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and W.W. Palmer’s committee, which was charged with charting the course of post-war scientific research funding in the United States.

Group photograph of the National Defense Research Committee membership. approx. 1940.

One of the real pleasures of working on this project has been the discovery of several small details that have added flavor to the overall story of Pauling’s war experience.  Users of the site will learn, for instance, of the following anecdote, as recorded in a 1967 letter written by Arne Haagen-Smit.

During the year 1944 Mrs. Ava Helen Pauling worked for several months in my laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Her task consisted in the separation by chromatography of various colored derivatives of plant products and the determination of their physical constants. I remember with a great deal of pleasure her participation in our research which she carried out to my full satisfaction. I have no hesitation in recommending her for an appointment which would enable her to return to the laboratory.

In a later interview, Linus Pauling would further reveal that his wife had “worked for a couple of years as a chemist on a war job making rubber out of plants that would grow in the Mojave.”

The website incorporates twenty-five audio clips extracted from interviews conducted by Tom Hager in the early 1990s for use in his standard-bearing biography of Linus Pauling, Force of Nature. Here too we find many amusing anecdotes, including this great bit from Nobel laureate William Lipscomb.

In a similar vein, included among the nearly three-hundred documents used to provide deeper context for the narrative are a series of drawings created by David Shoemaker, who was at that time a Caltech Ph. D. candidate working under Pauling’s direction.   One of Shoemaker’s primary charges seems to have been the visual conceptualization of specific German instruments of war, as described in various internal documents.  Our favorite of these conceptualizations has to be the incredible “Die Walze” rocket, which apparently was designed to operate not unlike a stone skipped across a pond.

At this point in time, most of Linus Pauling’s biography has been combed over pretty thoroughly and analyzed by any number of authors.  It is a rare opportunity, then, to be able to present a large volume of new information on Pauling’s life and work.  This is a project that should prove to be of interest to many different types of users.

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Pauling’s Early Development as a Peace Activist

Linus Pauling, 1940s.

Before America’s involvement in World War II, Linus Pauling was openly in favor of intervention to stop the spread of fascism, a menace that he considered dangerous to the stability of world peace. He was horrified by stories emerging from Europe, some pertaining to the treatment of well-respected scientists. He later received pleas from colleagues who were unable to attain visas and thus escape to the United States, and was disturbed and saddened by his inability to aid acquaintances that desperately sought his help.

Throughout the ensuing military engagement, the U.S. government financed research at levels unheard of in previous times. Linus Pauling and many others at Caltech gladly aided the war effort in their own way, and benefited greatly from generous war time funding in the process. Several divisions of the Institute changed dramatically as a result, responding to the growing needs of the armed forces.

Pauling oversaw the development of several devices and innovations, mostly medical in nature, that were meant to be used for the war effort. Near the beginning of the war, he co-manufactured an apparatus that could measure oxygen levels in submarines using a magnetic field. Towards the war’s end, he was developing an artificial substitute for blood plasma, which received substantial attention from the press. He also spent a considerable amount of time examining and testing combustible powders at Caltech’s rapidly expanding powder-research facilities. As the war was drawing to an end however, Pauling began shifting his research focus from federally funded war projects to Rockefeller-oriented protein work.

Though Pauling was mildly active in political affairs before the onset of the war, he tended to keep such views private. He was often too caught up in his work to spare much attention for such things, but he also valued principles of neutrality and objectivity, qualities that stemmed from his scientific research and academic training. Pauling began to change his mind however, when faced with a growing mix of racism, extreme nationalism and atomic peril. Among other stimuli, including countless discussions with Ava Helen, two particular events affected Pauling’s willful political silence during the course of the war.

The first incident involved a talented Japanese-American student. Caltech resided in a zone that required all Japanese and Japanese Americans within to move to internment camps. Realizing the seriousness of his plight, the student turned to Pauling for help. After a difficult search, Pauling finally found him a job on the east coast, but the injustice of the affair caused Pauling some discomfort.

A second event involved George H. Nimaki, a returned Japanese-American evacuee, who was temporarily employed by the Paulings as a gardener at their home. One morning in March of 1945, the Paulings woke up to graffiti on their garage door. Some one had painted, in bright red, “Americans die but we love Japs – Japs work here Pauling” alongside an image of the rising sun flag. Pauling was appalled, and equally appalled by subsequent threats made against him and his family after he spoke out in condemnation of the incident.

These two events began to shift Pauling towards a more active and open involvement in public affairs.  Another would soon cement this attitude.


On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. Among other less apparent ramifications, the use of the bombs signaled the end of the war. The day after the first bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a day he never forgot, Pauling read of the story in a local newspaper. He was immediately interested in the physics of the bomb, but did not share in the euphoria that was sweeping the nation.

During the war Pauling had been offered a spot at the chemistry division of the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was developed, but he had had little personal interest in the opportunity. Following the bombings in Japan, groups of concerned scientists that had accepted the Los Alamos offer began discussing the effects of their work. The devastation which resulted from the use of atomic weapons began to weigh heavily on many of them. Consequently, they began distributing  information about the role that atomic weapons might play in a rapidly changing world.

Linus Pauling speaking in Tampa, Florida. 1950s.

Pauling received much of this material, and began to attend informal and formal meetings where issues, such as civilian control of atomic weapons and technology, were the main topic of discussion. As Pauling increased his involvement with the growing movement, his political views began to surface more readily. After hearing what many other scientists had to say, and reflecting on his own beliefs, Pauling became openly supportive of sharing atomic secrets with Russia, and of increased cooperation generally. While on a trip in September, Pauling wrote to Ava Helen about his growing concerns, noting that

[Samuel] Allison has made a strong public statement against keeping the A-bomb secret from Russia. . . I think that Union now with Russia is the only hope for the world.

Pauling learned more and more about the science of the bomb, and began giving talks around southern California, his first at the Rotary Club in Hollywood. As time went on, he began to incorporate international relations and politics into his talks, but most people found his non-science discourse dry and unconvincing. After one of these early speeches, Ava Helen told Pauling that he should stop discussing war and peace. He later wrote that her comments changed his life. Pauling struggled with the advice, plagued by inner turmoil.

I thought ‘What shall I do? I am convinced that scientists should speak to their fellow human beings not only about science, but also about atomic bombs, the nature of war, the need to change international relations, the need to achieve peace in the world. But my wife says that I should not give talks of this sort because I am not able to speak authoritatively. Either I should stop, or I should learn to speak authoritatively.’

From this point on, Pauling devoted half of his time to peace and the abolition of war. He began to read about international relations and law, treaties, history and other information related to the peace movement. Pauling tackled social science much the same way that he approached chemistry, focusing on function, frameworks and the interests that motivated different groups of people within certain circles of debate. His new speeches were often concerned with world union and peace with other nations. He shared Ava Helen’s opinion that a single world government would make war unnecessary, and thus safeguard against the use of nuclear weapons. He believed in the ability of basic human connections to overcome political disagreements, as can be seen in this excerpt from a speech that he gave to the Russian-American club in November 1945:

We must all strive for that great goal of world union – of perpetual unity between nations . . . all that remains now is for the final steps to be taken. The steps that lead to union of the great powers. And the world will be safe forever, and we shall see the beginning of a new era of continuing peace and happiness.

In the years following the end of the war, Pauling maintained a great faith in the possibility of world peace. As a result, he became involved with a number of organizations and issues that would later be subjects of  substantial controversy.

Early in his new-found political advocacy, Pauling enjoyed a minor victory in the form of the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill. According to its opponents, the bill would likely have given the military near-complete control over atomic weapons and technology, though ostensibly with the cooperation of scientists and civilian board members. The victory was short lived however. A fast-growing political movement that was both pro-nuclear and exceedingly anti-communist began to overwhelm members of organizations that valued peace and international cooperation. The following years would test Pauling’s commitment to the peace movement, as well as his personal and social convictions.

Dr. Paul Emmett, 1900-1985

Dr. Paul Emmett, 1970s

Dr. Paul Emmett, 1970s

The catalysis chemist Dr. Paul Emmett is one of many distinguished scientists to have attended Oregon State University. He was born in Portland, Oregon on September 22, 1900 to a railroad worker and his wife, and had two sisters. Historian Dr. Burt Davis, who is writing a biography of Emmett’s life, notes that much is unclear about Emmett’s early years. It is known, however, that the family moved a lot due to the demands of working for a railroad. For at least one year, his mother worked as a cook for the railroad and both of his parents lived on one of the train cars.

Dr. Emmett and another of OSU’s hometown science heroes, Dr. Linus Pauling, were classmates in their high school years as well as at Oregon Agricultural College (later to become Oregon State University) and the California Institute of Technology.  [Click here for video of Emmett recounting an early chemical experiment in which he and Pauling combined their duel interests in rail tracks and mischief.] In fact, for a year the two men lived together at Caltech, along with Emmett’s mother, and actually shared a bed, which they used sequentially. (Pauling would go to bed around 3 AM, right about the time that Emmett was usually waking up.) According to Dr. Davis, during his graduate study years at Caltech, Emmett suffered from extreme fatigue and was told by a doctor to take short naps after lunch, a practice that he followed for the remainder of his life.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett, 1920.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett, 1920.

After completing his graduate studies, Emmett taught chemistry at OAC for one year, before moving in 1926 to a research position at the Department of Agriculture’s Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory. There he sought out a better understanding of the mechanisms by which ammonia could be taken out of the air and turned into a fertilizer for plants. Emmett knew that the Germans had developed just such a mechanism during World War I, but scientists did not entirely understand how and why the process worked.

The result of this investigation was the Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) Method, which remains the second-most cited scientific paper on the process and a technique still in use worldwide. The BET Method provides scientists with the ability to measure a variety of properties of gas molecules on a solid surface: the surface area, the composition of the surface, and the amount of catalyst that is both on the surface and in the interior of the solid. Dr. Emmett’s work on the BET Method earned him a Nobel Prize nomination.

After this success and the widespread construction of ammonia plants around the world, the government lost interest in this line of research and, in 1937, Dr. Emmett moved to the Johns Hopkins University. Emmett stayed in the Johns Hopkins chemistry department until 1943, when he joined the Manhattan Project as a manager – not a researcher – and relocated to Columbia University.

The focus of the Columbia laboratory – which was the first of five labs to work on the atomic bomb – was the separation of uranium isotopes. In particular, the laboratory sought to convert uranium into a corrosive gas, uranium hexafluoride, but found that their methods required a material that would not be corroded by the gas. One of Emmett’s men developed a suitable substance, which eventually became the forerunner to today’s Teflon.

It is also worth noting that, while working on the Manhattan Project, Dr. Emmett frequently had lunch with Percival “Dobie” Keith, the Oak Ridge developer who spurred Emmett’s interest in the Fischer-Tropps process, a method used to create synthetic fuels.

In 1944 Dr. Emmett moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Mellon Institute but continued to consult for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, which kept him abreast of developments in nuclear reactions – including the isotopes made by such reactions – for the remainder of his career. At the Mellon Institute, Emmett’s research group further refined the Fischer-Tropps process and also introduced the use of carbon isotopes as a means for studying reaction mechanisms and pathways. The Emmett lab’s carbon isotope studies comprised an important contribution to the study of oxygen mechanisms and, in the process, supplanted a theory that had been in place for over thirty years.

Emmett in the laboratory, 1950s

Emmett in the laboratory, 1950s

In 1955 Emmett returned to the John Hopkins University, this time as a chemistry professor and the W.R. Grace Research Professor and Grace Advisory Board Member. (It was also during this time that his first wife, Lola, died after having become very ill at a doctor’s office in Pittsburgh and subsequently lapsing into a coma for eight months.) Emmett stayed at Johns Hopkins until his retirement in 1971, though he continued on as a consultant at W.R. Grace, visiting three or four times a year from the home that he shared with his sister in Oregon.

For the first year of his “retirement,” Emmett taught chemistry at Oregon State University, thus returning full circle to his first professional appointment. From the following year until his death, Dr. Emmett likewise worked as a research professor at Portland State University. In the mid-1970s, Dr. Emmett married Pauline Pauling, the sister of his old friend, Linus Pauling. Dr. Pauling often visited the couple in their home and Pauline, a very lively woman even in her later years, took care of Dr. Emmett until his death.

Pauline and Paul Emmett, 1980s.

Pauline and Paul Emmett, 1980s.

Paul Emmett died on April 22, 1985 after a gradual decline brought about by Parkinson’s disease and a brain tumor. Though he spent the final month of his life in a hospital, Emmett steadfastly refused to talk about his health, preferring to discuss fishing and golf instead.

In the estimation of Burt Davis, one “couldn’t find a better person” than Paul Emmett. He is uniformly remembered as a very pleasant and thoughtful man who tended to think the best of everyone.

For more, please visit the Paul Emmett Papers homepage.