Finding Resources for Basic Science and Medical Research

Linus Pauling, 1949

[Exploring Linus Pauling’s popular writings on the shape of post-war science, part 4 of 5.]

Our job ahead.” Chemical and Engineering News, January 1949

The onset of 1949 brought with it the beginning of Linus Pauling’s one-year term as president of the American Chemical Society, and Pauling’s article “Our job ahead” outlined the message that he wished to convey to the society. In it, Pauling specifically addressed the financial concerns being faced by the ACS as well as the scientific community at large.

The society’s problems centered on the need to manage operating costs and member remunerations in the midst of rising costs of living. More broadly though, Pauling saw for the society a responsibility to try to improve financial conditions for science as a whole. Pauling argued that the destruction of war, in tandem with the massive consumption of natural resources required by the war effort, had resulted in increasing levels of poverty throughout the world. Pauling encouraged the ACS to do its part to combat the problem by supporting and participating in global interdisciplinary scientific cooperation.

Pauling also pushed for ACS support of basic research, believing that work of this sort was most likely to lead to significant breakthroughs. Doing so would be made all the more effective by the creation of a National Science Foundation, which would issue and administer unrestricted grants on behalf of the federal government. It was Pauling’s ultimate vision that the majority of research dollars be provided by the federal government, with supplementary funding being made available by state governments, permanent endowments, private foundations, and industry.

Chemistry and the world of today.” Chemical and Engineering News, September 1949.

The themes put forth by Pauling in his initial message to the ACS – particularly the need for a National Science Foundation – were continued in his presidential address, delivered in fall 1949.

Pauling opened his talk with a broad question, “What can I say under the title ‘Chemistry and the World of Today?'” His answer was “that I can say anything, discuss any feature of modern life, because every aspect of the world today – even politics and international relations – is affected by chemistry.”

Pauling’s all-roads-lead-to-chemistry perspective informed his strong support of a potential National Science Foundation and his firm belief in the value of basic research. He lamented the ongoing struggle for funding faced by so many of his colleagues, and pressed the notion that even applied science was dependent on advances in basic science. Moreover, Pauling suggested that applied science often received the credit for ideas that had initially been discovered or cultivated by basic researchers.

Above all, Pauling believed that, in the post-war era, “…a nation’s strength will lie largely in the quality of its science and scientists.” That noted, Pauling emphasized that government funding for scientific research should not be funneled toward military channels. To this end, it was the responsibility of the ACS, as an organization representing American chemists, to make its voice heard in the fight for the creation of a National Science Foundation.

During Pauling’s presidential year, the concept of the NSF had been put forth in political circles but had not yet been acted upon. Looking forward to that day (which would, in fact, come the next year) Pauling put forth an ideal scenario where the NSF would fund $250 million a year in research, while science-dependent industries would fund an additional $75 million. Of this latter contribution, Pauling believed that private funding ought to be considered as a form of insurance rather than charity, since it was certain to fuel the scientific discoveries necessary to drive industrial development.

“Structural chemistry in relation to biology and medicine.” Second Bicentennial Science Lecture of the City College Chemistry Alumni Association, New York, December 7, 1949. Baskerville Chemical Journal, February 1950. 

At the end of 1949, Pauling gave another high profile public lecture, this time to the City College Chemistry Association in New York. In this talk, he focused on the relationships between structural chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular medicine.

Pauling began by citing the role that chemistry had played in catalyzing immense achievement in medicine over the preceding half-century, referencing in particular the discovery and refinement of chemotherapeutic agents including antibiotics. That said, Pauling was quick to point out that scientists still had a very poor understanding of the principles and structural attributes underlying chemotherapeutic functions. It was Pauling’s belief that “…if a detailed understanding of the molecular basis of chemotherapeutic activity were to be obtained, the advance of medicine would be greatly accelerated,” and that structural chemistry was fast approaching a point where it could produce this understanding. Once done, Pauling suggested that the decade or two that followed would surely offer significant advancements in the scientific understanding of medicine and the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Pauling then identified a collection of major areas where he thought biomedical research should be focused. The first involved developing a detailed molecular structure of 1) chemotherapeutic substances (i.e., antibiotics and other medications), 2) the organisms against which they are directed (bacteria, viruses, etc.), and 3) the human organism which they are meant to protect. A second major program of work should delve into the nature of the forces involved in the intermolecular interactions between the above substances and organisms.

Pauling pointed out that the last quarter century had seen great progress in the first goal – the science of organic chemistry had been developed and the structures of many organic compounds had been confirmed. But progress elsewhere, though promising, had not come about so quickly. For questions related to the physiology of disease-causing organisms and of the human body itself, advancements were fated to be slow simply due to the immensity of the task. In addition, structural chemistry was a fairly new field and, although it was growing quickly, the stock of previous discoveries upon which one might expand was finite (research thus far had mainly focused on the structures of amino acids and peptides).

The latter goal, an understanding of the intermolecular interactions between chemotherapeutic substances and the organisms they are meant to treat or defeat, had seen the least progress of all. It was a complicated task for sure, and though he had very little data in hand, Pauling offered a back of the envelope theory about what might be going on, speculating that

…some drugs operate by undergoing a chemical reaction with a constituent of the living organism, and that others operate by the formation of complexes involving only forces that are usually called intermolecular forces.

Regardless, Pauling felt that work in these areas would prove integral to the conduct of future medical research, and he put forth his own work on sickle cell anemia as an example of how other investigations might unfold. Specifically, Pauling and his team had discovered that the hemoglobin present in the red blood cells of afflicted individuals differed structurally from normal hemoglobin. Were other investigators able to develop a similar molecular understanding of a given disease, producing new treatments would be that much easier, since chemotherapeutic agents could be tailored to fit a particular molecular architecture. Work of this sort would

…represent the first time that a chemotherapeutic agent had been developed purely through the application of logical scientific argument, without the significant interference of the element of chance.

Similar to his call for an NSF, Pauling encouraged the creation of an institute for medical chemistry that would train a new generation of students to apply chemistry to medical problems. Doing so, in Pauling’s view, ought to be prioritized due to its potential significance to the health and happiness of all people.

The Palmer Committee

Vannevar Bush, 1940s.

Linus Pauling’s experimental work for the government came to an end with the closure of the oxypolygelatin program. Despite that, his association with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) continued. In late 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted Vannevar Bush, director of the OSRD, and requested a report on the future of science in the United States. In response, Bush organized his colleagues into committees and requested that they consider the problem of funding American science and, eventually, offer recommendations.

Pauling, along with dozens of others, was selected to serve as an adviser. A result of his experience with the Committee on Medical Research, oxypolygelatin, and the oxygen meter, Pauling was assigned to a medical advisory committee chaired by Walter W. Palmer, a professor of medicine at Columbia University.

Once the committees had been organized, Bush plied them with discussion topics, asking them to consider the implications of government support for the sciences. Pauling himself was an enthusiastic advocate of government-funded research. He believed that public dollars were the best way to promote scientific growth and allow scientists to make progress in fields that didn’t promise an immediate financial return.

Science leading up to World War II had been funded almost exclusively by universities and corporations, both vying for the prestige and monetary profit that would result from marketable discoveries. Because pure science couldn’t promise the same economic returns that commercial science could, funding for university labs was significantly lower, frequently leading researchers to abandon their professorships in favor of positions in the private sector. Pauling believed that the most efficient way to address this problem was through a governing body empowered with the ability to provide support according to a proposed project’s scientific merit. Funding would be provided with an eye toward the value of the research in relation to the general body of scientific knowledge rather than its potential commercial worth.

Ultimately, the Palmer Committee concluded that no existing federal agency would be able to assign grants without some degree of specialization bias creeping into its process. As a result, Palmer’s group advocated, for one, the creation of a new agency with specific focus on supporting scientists from different fields of medicine and governed by medical experts spanning multiple fields.

Bush was troubled by the committee’s assumption that a separate organization should be created to oversee and fund medical research. Bush’s career had been severely complicated by the lack of cooperation between Washington’s many bureaucracies, and he was loathe to support what he saw as a further bloating of the system. As a result, he took the best of the Palmer Committee’s ideas – the governing body of experienced researchers – and combined them with his own ideas and those of his other colleagues. In the summer of 1945, Bush delivered his treatise on post-war science, “Science: The Endless Frontier,” to Harry S. Truman, President Roosevelt’s successor. In it, Bush recommended the creation of a National Research Foundation (NRF) charged with providing monies to researchers, including medical researchers, according to scientific merit.

Presidential Medal for Merit. Awarded to Linus Pauling by President Harry S. Truman, February 2, 1948.

For nearly five years, politicians and lobbyists battled over the details of this so-called “National Research Foundation.” Funding, focus, and structure were all issues that kept the organization from taking shape. To further complicate matters, while Bush’s proposal was stymied by politicians, other national science organizations like the Atomic Energy Commission and National Institutes of Health became major contributors to the “big science” movement, thus reducing potential NRF jurisdiction.

After years of debate, a consensus was finally reached and on May 10, 1950 President Truman signed the National Science Foundation Act. This legislation created the National Science Foundation (NSF) which was directed by a 25-person National Science Board that included 24 part-time members and an executive officer as appointed by the President. For the first several years of its existence under the direction of the physicist Alan T. Waterman, the NSF was virtually destitute thanks to the expense of the Korean War. Nevertheless, the organization persevered and by the mid-1950s was equipped with a $100 million budget.

After his work with the Palmer committee, Pauling quietly left the OSRD and returned to his personal research agenda at Caltech. His contributions and departure did not go unnoticed by OSRD officials, however, and he was officially recognized by the War Manpower Commission, the NDRC and OSRD, the War Department, and the United States Navy Bureau of Ordnance. In 1948 he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit for his wartime contributions. The war chapter of his career concluded, Pauling continued on with his biochemical research and began a campaign against nuclear weapons, ultimately earning two Nobel prizes and becoming one of the most influential chemists and peace activists of the 20th century.

Linus Pauling: Movie Star Extraordinaire

Linus Pauling holding models of the structure of water. 1960s.

Linus Pauling holding models of the structure of water. 1960s.

In our search for a person to do a set of two or three filmed lectures in chemistry you have been suggested over and over again as the candidate of first choice.
– J. A. Campbell, National Science Foundation. Letter to Linus Pauling. 1956.

The National Science Foundation, founded in 1950, is an organization dedicated to providing federal aid for education and research in all non-medical fields of science. From its inception, Linus Pauling had been connected with the organization, providing reviews and suggestions regarding the dispersal of grants. He, along with many other scientists throughout the United States, donated their time and skill to the Foundation in the spirit of promoting science-based learning.

In late 1956, Pauling was contacted by J.A. Campbell, the NSF’s Program Director for Institutes. The Foundation was preparing 90 institutes across the U.S, directed at high school-level science teachers and scheduled to take place during the summer of 1957. The Foundation, recognizing the difficulty of providing instructors for all of these institutes, appealed to Pauling for aid.

The National Science Foundation had formulated a plan to film lectures given by notable scientists and educators, and then to distribute these films onward to the various summer institutes. (In many respects, this was to be the 1950s equivalent of today’s online classes and video conferencing.) The Foundation approached Pauling first because, after polling scientists around the country, he had been chosen as the top science lecturer in the nation. Flattered by the recommendation and always interested in conveying science to the masses, Pauling was more than happy to lend his talents to the organization.

Letter from Linus Pauling to J.A. Campbell, December 10, 1956.

Letter from Linus Pauling to J.A. Campbell, December 10, 1956.

In a letter to Campbell accepting the proposal, Pauling suggested a few potential lecture topics along the lines of those that he typically presented to his freshman students. The overall topic, “valence and molecular structure,” was quickly accepted by the NSF organizers, who were happy to rely on Pauling’s experience. Because of Pauling’s status as a much-lauded veteran lecturer, Campbell and his NSF associates gave him a free hand in planning the lectures, occasionally sending letters of gratitude and encouragement. They knew that with Pauling, a recent Nobel medalist, at the helm, the project was likely to succeed.

In the early spring of 1957, Pauling submitted a series of proposals and grant requests, officially launching the project. By the middle of the March, he had his funding and the venture was well on its way.

The actual lectures were filmed in a Los Angeles studio using two still cameras and a tertiary camera for close-up shots of models and demonstrations. By the time filming was complete, Pauling had produced three films, each approximately fifty minutes in length. In the films, Pauling explained the basics of molecular valence and bonding, detailed the properties of various elements in terms of their structure, and manipulated a host of examples, models and diagrams.

For Pauling, lecturing to a camera undoubtedly felt a little stiff and formal. He was used to engaging his students and interacting directly with his audience. For the sake of propriety, he was also forced to put his “classroom calisthenics” on hold. In a normal lecture he would have been in constant motion, first sitting on the lecture table, then swinging his body between chalk tray and table. He might, as he was known to do, even have wandered into the audience, still lecturing as he brought an atomic model, designed and possibly built by himself, to his students for closer inspection.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carl Anderson, February 1, 1957.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carl Anderson, February 1, 1957.

Nevertheless, Pauling’s controlled and formal lecturing style did not cover his sense of showmanship. The NSF lectures provided a wonderful example of Pauling’s abilities as both a teacher and a public speaker.

After reviewing the films, John Campbell wrote Pauling a letter expressing his pleasure with the project’s results. The films were a success with the National Science Foundation staff, which was comprised of some of the most knowledgeable scientists in the country. Moreover, before the films even debuted, copies had been ordered by more than fifty of the NSF’s summer institutions.

As it turned out, the films became quite popular among the science-education community. Pauling’s personal secretaries fielded dozens of requests for the content, as did Caltech and the National Science Foundation offices. Many high school and college instructors found the lecture series to be ideal and expressed interest in presenting the films to their students. Beginning in 1958 and continuing through the early 1960s, Pauling’s films, housed by the NSF, were in almost constant circulation around the country, making stops at schools from coast to coast.

With the creation and success of this work, Pauling was able to introduce a whole new medium for instruction to educators around the country. On a personal level, he was very pleased with his performance; so much so, in fact, that he sent copies to his oldest son, Linus Jr., as Christmas presents.

The entirety of the three Pauling NSF films, each divided into segments, can be found here and here, accompanied by full transcriptions.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s work as a scientist and educator, visit the website Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond.