Peter Pauling and the Discovery of the Double Helix, 1952-1953

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Peter Pauling, 1954.

[The life of Peter Pauling: Part 4 of 9]

With Winter break coming fast and Linus Pauling having apparently solved the structure of DNA, Jim Watson and Francis Crick extinguished any hope of modeling their own structure. Eager to take advantage of a few days off, their Cavendish office mate, Peter Pauling, headed for the continent in the company of a friend whom he described as “a mad Rhodes scholar” who had “wooed” him with his “insane plan” for exploring Europe.

On this trip, which was indeed ambitious, Peter visited Munich, Vienna, Linz, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Bavaria, hitchhiking his way from location to location. Crossing Germany, Peter saw neighborhoods still littered with the rubble of the Second World War, alongside industrious people struggling to rebuild. His mode of travel, he confessed to his mother in a letter, had seemed a better idea when its low cost was his only consideration. In person, however, spending several hours standing in or walking through the snow had a way of changing one’s priorities.

Nonetheless, the whole escapade proved a romantic adventure for the young Peter Pauling. He spent Christmas Eve in a gas house belonging to the director of an iron company somewhere in Leoben, Austria. Resting there and watching the snow fall, he wrote again to his mother:

I look out the window to the lovely white mountains. It is grand. Considering the possibilities, Christmas and your birthday [Ava Helen was born on December 24, 1903] could hardly have been spent in a nicer place. Considering impossibilities, I can think of places where I would much prefer to be. Sometimes it is sad to grow up.


 

[Triple Helix animation and narration created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory]

With the arrival of the new year, the Cavendish researchers put their skis away, shook the snow from their coats, and resumed their work.  It wasn’t long into the term before Peter learned, from two letters received in February, that his father was, in fact, having difficulty with some of the van der Waals distances hypothesized to be near the center of his DNA model. In response – and almost as an afterthought – Peter casually asked his father for a manuscript of the DNA proposal, mentioning that his coworkers in Max Perutz’ unit would like to give it a read. Upon receiving the paper, Peter promptly revealed to Watson and Crick that the Pauling-Corey model was a triple helix, a concept similar to one that Watson and Crick had developed themselves – and rejected – back in 1951.

This moment was a major turning point for Watson and Crick, who only then realized that they still had a chance to discover the structure before Linus Pauling. That said, what followed may not have been quite the race as it was made out to be after the fact. At least, Peter Pauling did not see it that way, and the casual manner in which his father interacted with him (and with others at the Cavendish) seems also to belie such a dramatization.


 

[Jim Watson recalls learning of the Pauling-Corey triple helical model. Video created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.]

Near the end of February 1953, while wishing his father a happy birthday, Peter noted that his office still felt that Linus’ structure required sodium to be located somewhere near the oxygens, whose negative charges would have to cancel out to hold the molecule together. “We agree that everything is a little tight,” he said, referring to the small atomic distances between Pauling’s three polynucleotide chains with phosphate groups in the middle.

As communicated in an earlier letter to his son, Linus Pauling had already identified these structural arrangements as a weakness of the model, and he was in the midst of attempting to correct the issue. Peter confided to his father that, at that time, the Cambridge office had nothing better to offer. He added simply that “We were all excited about the nucleic acid structure,” and concluded with his many thanks for the paper.

In response, Linus Pauling asked for updates on any progress that Watson and Crick were making with their own model, and casually requested that Peter also remind Watson that he should arrive for a scheduled protein conference at Caltech by September 20th. Peter clarified only that the Cavendish group had successfully built the Pauling-Corey model and that Watson and Crick had then discarded it, becoming very involved in their own efforts and “losing objectivity.” It would be up to them, Peter said, to communicate the details of their structure. Shortly thereafter, Watson and Crick sent a letter to Linus Pauling, outlining their structure and including the short article that they had submitted for publication in Nature.


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Crystallographic photo of Sodium Thymonucleate, Type B. “Photo 51.” Taken by Rosalind Franklin, May 1952.

It has been well-established that Pauling and Corey made basic errors in their own modeling  of the structure of DNA. But in March 1953, having no knowledge of the x-ray crystallographic photographs of DNA that had been taken by Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, Pauling felt bewildered by the certainty with which Watson and Crick had rejected his triple helical model. Upon learning its details, Pauling agreed that the double helix model was at least as likely, and he considered it to be a beautiful molecular structure, but he could not understand why his own structure was being ruled out entirely.

At the heart of his confusion lay the fact that he did not believe that any x-ray evidence existed that proved that the phosphate groups might somehow be located on the outside, rather than in the core, of the DNA molecule. Pauling did not believe that this evidence existed because he hadn’t seen it yet; crucially, Watson and Crick had. Indeed, from the point of their realization that Pauling had modeled the structure incorrectly, Watson and Crick worked fervently to once again convince Maurice Wilkins to provide them with Rosalind Franklin’s data.

(On one occasion, they met with Wilkins for lunch at the Crick home, where Peter could often be found for brunch on the weekends. On certain of these earlier brunch occasions, while in the home’s basement dining room, Watson and Crick discussed the feasibility of redoubling their efforts to model DNA while Peter, casually eating biscuits and sipping tea at the table, offered that if they didn’t do it soon, his father would take another shot at it. After the embarrassment of a failed attempt, he assured them, Linus Pauling was a strong bet to get it right the second time around.)

Within a month’s time, and with Rosalind Franklin having left his lab, Wilkins finally consented to providing Watson and Crick with all of the relevant data that he had requested. This proved to be the final piece that the duo needed in building their correct structural model of DNA.


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Pauling en route to Europe, 1953.

While all of this went on, Linus himself was seemingly unconcerned by any “race” for the structure of DNA. In fact, the only racing on his mind was a jaunt across Western Europe in a new sports car.

While Watson and Crick frantically worked to unravel the secrets of DNA before Linus Pauling beat them to it, Linus Pauling himself was debating the virtues of British, German, and Italian motor vehicles. Preparing for multiple trips overseas and in the market for some new wheels, Pauling’s plan was to select a car while in Europe during the Spring for the Solvay Conference, and then to actually pick it up in August, when he and Ava Helen would return to Europe for the International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry in Stockholm and Uppsala. The couple would then tour the continent in style before returning to the United States on a Scandinavian freighter and driving across the country from either New York or New Orleans to their California home.

While Peter advised his father that a Jaguar Mark VII was absolutely the best buy of the season, Linus expressed a preference for the slightly more modest convertible Sunbeam-Talbot. Peter countered with the possibility of an Austin A-40 Sports 4-Seater, and Linus finally agreed to have Peter look into purchasing the car on his behalf and scheduling a delivery of sorts. Seeing that his father was finally taking the bait, Peter attempted to spring a trap: “Might you be in need of a chauffeur, mechanic, linguist, travelling companion, navigator, break repairer, tire changer, witty conversationalist etc. on your trip next summer?” he wondered. “I know just the fellow. Good friend of mine.”


 

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A segment of the original Watson and Crick DNA model. 1953.

As the end of March rolled around and the Solvay Conference approached, Linus Pauling alerted his son to the fact that he had not made hotel reservations or, really, any plans for his visit to Cambridge. This responsibility he delegated wholly to Peter, who was somewhat distracted at the time, writing to his father about the blue sky and sun that had finally begun to break up the English winter gloom, and announcing with pride that he had gone to two balls in one week, getting along quite well with the Scandinavian girls. “As a sensible young American, I stand out in this town of pansy Englishmen,” he declared with impunity.

When Linus finally arrived at Cambridge in April, however, he found his son’s sensibilities to be somewhat lacking. Peter had in fact not made the requested hotel reservations, and while campus accommodations were fine for the son, they were not so wonderful for the elder Pauling. Watson later joked that, “the presence of foreign girls at breakfast did not compensate for the lack of hot water in his room.”

When the moment of truth finally came, Peter and his father strode into the Cavendish offices to see the model that Watson and Crick had constructed. Upon inspection, Linus reiterated the interpretation that he had given to his son earlier: the structure was certainly possible, but to be certain, Pauling would first need to see the quantitative measurements that Wilkins had provided. By way of response, Watson and Crick produced “Photo 51,” Rosalind Franklin’s now-famous image that enabled crucial measurements concerning the structure of the B-form of DNA.

Presented with this evidence, Linus Pauling quickly conceded that Watson and Crick had solved the problem. Later that night, the Paulings, together with Watson, had dinner with the Cricks at their home at Portugal Place to celebrate. To quote Watson, each “drank their share of burgundy.”


 

So was it a race? And if so, what was Peter Pauling’s role? Was he a double agent or an informant? Or merely an unwitting accomplice, ignorant of the full implications of his actions?

In trying to answer these questions, it is important to emphasize that, for Peter, the “race for DNA” had never been a race at all. His father, he believed, was only interested in the nucleic acids as an interesting chemical compound. Linus Pauling clearly didn’t attack the structure with the same tenacity as Watson, in particular, who regarded the genetic material as the holy grail of biology, the secret of life. As Peter would write two decades later in New Scientist 

The only person who could conceivably have been racing was Jim Watson. Maurice Wilkins has never raced anyone anywhere. Francis Crick likes to pitch his brains against difficult problems… For Jim, however…the gene was the only thing in life worth bothering about and the structure of DNA was the only real problem worth solving.

In 1966, Jim Watson, then in the process of writing his book on the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix, sent Peter Pauling an early draft. His concern, he explained, was that he accurately portray Peter’s role in the entire affair; that, and he didn’t want Peter to sue him for defamation.

Peter laughed and told his old office mate that he thought it was a very good book; certainly very exciting. However, he pointed out that Watson should ask Linus Pauling for an agreement not to sue him, too. After all, Peter said, “He has more experience than I do.”

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Peter Pauling: The Race that Wasn’t, 1952

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Peter Pauling with his parents, ca. 1950s.

[The life story of Peter Pauling. Part 3 of 9]

“This tub moves steadily but slowly along.” So wrote Peter Pauling in a letter to his mother, Ava Helen Pauling, riding somewhere in the Atlantic in the hull of a cargo ship that had been built in 1926. “It took us two and a half days to reach the open sea.”

Having said goodbye to the nightlife of Montreal, and having entrusted his brother Crellin with the needle to his old turntable, Peter took to the sea without much to his name save a bottle of duty free Canadian Rye Whiskey; which, he lamented, did not keep him as warm onboard the cold ship as a good overcoat might have done. (Ava Helen, ever concerned for her son’s well-being, would see to it that he would have money to pick up some warmer clothes once he had arrived in Cambridge, paid for in matured war bonds.) Onboard the ship, Peter shared his cramped cabin space with three roommates: a Scot, a “very pleasant and hard-working” Englishman, and an 18 year old “pipsqueak” just out of rugby. Ever the charismatic socialite, Peter must have been excited to spend his days at sea with such an assortment of characters.

Arriving in England in the fall of 1952, Peter began his studies at Cambridge University, working under John Kendrew, a Peterhouse Fellow in Max Perutz’ Molecular Biology Unit at the Cavendish laboratory for physics. Although the Cavendish traditionally had not extended its focus beyond physics and physical chemistry to questions of biology, Sir Lawrence Bragg – director of the Cavendish and chair of the university’s Physics department – had recently supported an expansion of the lab’s scope to include the mapping of biological molecular structures.

This new Molecular Biology Unit would spearhead several important discoveries, among them Kendrew’s and Perutz’ work on the atomic structure of proteins, the program of research that Peter was brought on to support and an accomplishment significant enough to garner the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That same year, two other former Cavendish researchers – James Watson and Francis Crick – would receive their shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, a breakthrough that Peter Pauling certainly observed from a front row seat, and even, perhaps, helped to make possible.


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Francis Crick and James Watson, walking along the the Backs, Cambridge, England. 1953. (Image Credit: The James D. Watson Collection, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Archives.)

When Peter Pauling first moved into the office that he shared with James Watson, Francis Crick, and Jerry Donahue, Watson noted that Peter was “more interested in the structure of Nina, Perutz’s Danish au pair girl, than in the structure of myoglobin.” Crick, too, felt that the young Pauling was “slightly wild,” but still the office mates hit it off immediately. According to Watson, Peter’s presence meant that, “whenever more science was pointless, the conversation could dwell on the comparative virtues of girls from England, the Continent, and California.” Watson and the young Pauling even made a point of visiting The Rex art house cinema together to watch the 1933 romantic film Ecstasy, which Watson referred to affectionately as, “Hedy Lemarr’s romps in the nude.”

Women aside, Peter was most concerned by the day-to-day troubles that were typical of English life in the early 1950s. He wrote to his mother about the lack of a bathtub in the small, cold, damp room that he now inhabited, and complained about the space’s perpetual lack of sunlight. He did praise his fortune at having scoured London and finding a suitable teapot, and he requested that Ava Helen kindly make him a pair of curtains for his window (which she happily obliged).

In letters to his father, Peter preferred to talk about cars, or his recent dinners with the Braggs and their daughter Margaret, rather than his own research pursuits. Linus, on the other hand, was immediately curious about the intellectual climate at the Cavendish and was especially interested in the work of Francis Crick, who a year earlier had been part of a collaborative effort to develop a theory of mathematical representation for x-ray diffraction that was fast becoming a standard in the field.


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Linus Pauling and Robert Corey examining models of protein structure molecules. approx. 1951. (Image credit: The Archives, California Institute of Technology)

The previous year, 1951, Linus Pauling had bested Bragg and the physical chemists at Cambridge in becoming the first to publish the alpha helical structure of many proteins. Despite the desire prevailing at the Cavendish to eventually beat Linus Pauling at his own game, Watson and Crick had been warned to keep away from the study of DNA by the head of the lab. Bragg knew that Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, of King’s College London, were already working on the problem using Franklin’s photos and crystallographic calculations of the A and B forms (low and high hydration levels, respectively) of DNA.

Wilkins’ and Franklin’s work was proceeding slowly, however, and Peter Pauling and Jerry Donahue – another Caltech graduate now stationed overseas as a post-doc – were both in regular communication with Linus Pauling. These contacts provided Watson and Crick with insight into what was going on in Pasadena. In his correspondence, Peter joked about the mounting competition between Caltech and the researchers at the Cavendish and King’s College. “I was told a story today,” he said to his father. “You know how children are threatened ‘You had better be good or the bad ogre will come get you?’ Well, for more than a year, Francis and others have been saying to the nucleic acid people at King’s, ‘You had better work hard or Pauling will get interested in nucleic acids.'”

While Watson and Crick urged Wilkins to provide them with Franklin’s images and calculations so that they might model the structure themselves, Peter stoked the fires of their urgency, assuring them that his father was no doubt only moments away from solving the problem. Donahue was equally convinced: for him, Linus Pauling was the only scientist likely to produce the right structure.

By December, the fate that Jerry Donahue and Peter Pauling had been predicting seemed to come true: a letter from Linus to his son claimed that he had indeed determined the structure of DNA. The letter gave no details, simply confirming for Watson and Crick that Pauling and his Caltech partner Robert Corey had somehow solved the problem. Watson later recounted his colleague’s distress in hearing this news, recalling that Crick “began pacing up and down the room thinking aloud, hoping that in a great intellectual fervor he could reconstruct what Linus might have done.” But it seemed to be too late. Pauling’s DNA paper was set to appear in the February 1953 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In all likelihood, it would be time to move on to new projects.

Peter Pauling: Leaving Home, 1945-1952

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The Pauling family in 1946. From left: Peter, Ava Helen, Linus, Crellin, Linda and Linus Jr.

[The life story of Peter Pauling, part 2 of 9]

In April 1945, while German forces were surrendering to the Allies in Europe, Peter Pauling was completing his education at Flintridge Prep and moving on to McKinley Junior High, where he would enter the 10th grade. He continued to do well in most subjects, with the exception of a few poor marks in Latin. Now fourteen years of age, Peter went outside of the Pauling family home in Pasadena one day to discover a message painted on their garage door; it read: “AMERICANS DIE BUT WE LOVE JAPS. JAPS WORK HERE, PAULING.” Peter quickly called for his parents, who surmised that the hate message had been written by misguided individuals angered by Ava Helen’s work with the American Civil Liberties Union to prevent the internment of many Japanese-American citizens during the war.

Within the year, Linus Jr., now twenty-one years old, had returned home from his time in the Army Air Corps. He promptly came into possession of a 1932 Ford V8 roadster that had belonged to the Mt. Wilson astronomer Ted Dunham, Jr. The car would become something of an heirloom of burgeoning adulthood for the Pauling boys, passing to Peter when Linus Jr. went off to medical school, and then again to Crellin when Peter finished college in California and went off to Cambridge.

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Peter Pauling sitting in the frame of a converted 1932 Model-B Ford, 1947.

In 1947, Linus and Ava Helen returned from a scientific congress in Scandinavia to find their three youngest children growing somewhat depressed by, and resentful of, their frequent long absences. Knowing that they were about to spend six months in England, where Linus would lecture as a visiting professor at Oxford, the Paulings decided it best to take the entire family abroad with them. They traveled by train to New York City in December, where they then boarded The Queen Mary and crossed the Atlantic.

The voyage would prove to be an extraordinary missed opportunity for Linus. Onboard was Erwin Chagraff, who was excited to talk with Pauling about his discovery that DNA nucleotide base pairs obeyed a set rule – a 1:1 ratio of adenine to thymine and cytosine to guanine. As Crellin Pauling later recounted

Chargaff had a reputation as a, well how do you put it politely, as a difficult personality. And what Daddy said to me was that he found Chargaff so unpleasant to be trapped on the Queen Mary with, that he dismissed his work.

In doing so, Pauling overlooked the importance of a critical piece of knowledge that would help lead Watson and Crick to the discovery of the structure of DNA – a discovery with which both Linus Pauling and his son Peter would be intimately involved.


 

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The Paulings at sea, 1948. Peter stands at right.

After the family returned from England,  Peter made the fateful decision to follow in his father’s footsteps, enrolling at Caltech as an undergraduate and assuring his father that his “chief purpose in life” was to be a physicist. Unlike the elder Pauling, however, Peter gravitated almost immediately to those new freedoms that a young man no longer under his parents’ roof might be expected to find suddenly and inescapably important: cars, girls, and parties.

With respect to the former, Peter wrote to his father from Caltech, asking whether or not Linus might be interested in helping to pay for a new engine for the roadster. Peter had already been putting some work into the car since it had passed from Linus Jr.’s hands into his own. Now off at college and free to pursue his own interests, he was eager to get under the hood.

Peter likewise wrote to his mother asking her for advice on different perfumes, listing the names of four different girls, all of whom were apparently familiar to Ava Helen, and asking which scents she thought that each would prefer (he then added a fifth young lady to the list as an afterthought).

While Peter was at Caltech, the Pauling home in Pasadena became something of a social hotspot for young, aspiring scientists, many of them graduate students and postdocs who coveted the opportunity to hobnob with the great Linus Pauling. By right of birth and strength of personality, Peter emerged as both gatekeeper and VIP at such events, and he thrived in this atmosphere. In his biography of Pauling’s life, Force of Nature, author Thomas Hager paints a scene of pilgrims making their way up into the hills on warm afternoons for, “a beer, a dip in the pool, some jokes with Peter, and a chance to flirt with tall, slim, blond, teenaged Linda Pauling.”

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Peter Pauling, ca. late 1940s.

Peter, now nineteen and cruising the streets of Pasadena at night in the modified “hand me down” roadster, was the life of many of these parties. His undergraduate years were accordingly marked by the ecstasies, despairs, and calamities – including a long and somewhat severe case of infectious mononucleosis – familiar to many college students. His father, observing from the middle distance, sent him a stern letter during this period, noting that he had opened some mail at the house intended for his son and that it was from the Bank of America, alerting Peter that his account was overdrawn by 50 cents. Pauling then advised his son, in great detail, as to how he should best manage his finances to avoid such a problem in the future.

Though they lived in the same city and worked at the same institution, Peter corresponded often with his father, expressing relatively little concern about his finances and far more with the prospect of being called up for the draft. In June 1950, North Korea, aided by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, where United States troops had been stationed since the ousting of Japanese occupation at the close of the Second World War. As hostilities in the Korean peninsula ramped up, Peter grew increasingly fearful of being called upon to serve.

The elder Pauling advised that his son request a deferment as a student of physics, which Peter sought and successfully attained. Part of Peter’s later motivation to spend some of his time as an undergraduate in London likewise emerged from his desire to avoid the draft for as long as possible. Peter felt that his enrollment as a student overseas would at least prolong his recruitment, whereas, if he remained at Caltech, he might he pulled in any day and waste his final undergraduate months in military training.


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Peter Pauling with his parents, 1949.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1951, Peter was involved in a serious car accident. The Pasadena Star News reported that, “While driving his father’s expensive 1949 sedan, Peter J. Pauling, 20, son of Linus Pauling, world-famed Caltech physicist, was injured in a spectacular traffic crash at Fair Oaks Avenue and Washington street.” The police report indicated that the Pauling car had been sideswiped by a Harry L. Nottingham, a 30-year old welder, at 2:11 AM.

The police jailed Nottingham overnight on a drunk driving charge, and Peter was treated at the emergency hospital for mild injuries to his head that had been sustained when his car flipped onto its roof after the impact. The accident happened less than a month before Peter was to leave California to spend his summer at a laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His eventual departure back east left his parents quite literally picking up the pieces in his absence, as Peter had requested that they keep what remained of the vehicle to see what he could salvage.

His father later wrote to Peter while he was at Woods Hole, explaining that, even with compensation paid out by insurance and the drunk driver involved, the family would still, after legal fees, “come out a little bit in the hole from your use of the Lincoln that night.” Peter responded through his mother, writing “Please tell Daddy that I am sorry I ruined his car,” and asking that she remind him that, of the cars he could have wrecked that night, at least he chose the one that offered a barrier between his head and the road. The old Ford roadster was, after all, a convertible.


 

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Crellin, Linda, and Peter Pauling, 1952.

Peter’s stint at Woods Hole was both formative and crucial to his next steps. While there, he studied ion movement in nerves using sodium and potassium tracers in squid axons.  At the same time, Peter began seriously considering what institution to go to for graduate school, looking at Cambridge, among others. Fortuitously, John Kendrew, of Cambridge’s Cavendish Lab, was serving as a lecturer at Woods Hole and, unbeknownst to Peter, was recruiting for his protein structure research group.

Years later, Peter would recount that when Kendrew told Peter’s Woods Hole boss, David Nachmanson, that he had recruited him, Nachmanson replied, “What? That sex maniac?” Kendrew reportedly replied, “What does that matter?” In typical good humor, Peter offered that Kendrew had replied in this manner because he knew that being a “sex maniac” was an advantage at Cambridge. He later confessed, however, that his reputation was not well earned, admitting that he was likely “the most unsuccessful Don Juan in Woods Hole.”

While in Massachusetts, Peter was, in fact, pretty clearly agonizing over how to resolve his relationship with his college girlfriend, who remained in Pasadena. In his correspondence, Peter sometimes indicates a deep affection for his sweetheart, and at other times reveals significant doubt about any chance of a shared future.

It is entirely possible that the hot and cold nature of Peter’s feelings towards this woman were merely a reflection of a young man’s whimsies. It might also be argued that this was an early sign of a lifelong struggle with manic-depression that would come to plague Peter by the later stages of his graduate career at Cambridge. In any case, Peter’s beau was equally unsure. At times she seemed to favor the appraisal of her father, a high-ranking scientific adviser to the American military who was stationed in Europe. The father believed that marriage would prematurely end his daughter’s own academic ambitions and that, more broadly, Peter was bad news.

However, by the following summer of 1952 – just before Peter left for Cambridge – she had warmed to her boyfriend again. It was a summer of exploration; the two crossed the nation prior to the beginning of graduate school for Peter, travelling together to New York, Washington D.C., Princeton, and Long Island. Their romance seemed to burn brightly, if briefly, as Peter’s life in America drew to a close.

In the last few months before leaving the states, Peter and Crellin visited Hawaii, staying with their older brother Linus Jr, who lived there. Meanwhile, Linus and Ava Helen were engaged in world travels of their own, making lengthy stops in France and England. Peter wondered aloud if he would get the chance to see his parents upon his brief return to Pasadena, or if, instead, he would be gathering his belongings from an empty house, departing with the well wishes of Linda and Crellin, and setting out alone for Montreal, where he would board a ship to cross the Atlantic.

The exact circumstances of Peter’s bon voyage from southern California are unknown, but by September 1952, Peter was on his way to a new life in England.

 

Peter Pauling: The Early Years, 1931-1945

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Linus Pauling with his second-born son, Peter. 1931.

[Ed Note: Today we begin an in-depth examination of the life of Peter Pauling, the second child born to Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. This is part 1 of 9.]

Peter Jeffress Pauling was born on February 10, 1931. His middle name was given in honor of Lloyd Jeffress, his father’s childhood friend, fellow undergraduate at Oregon State (then the Oregon Agricultural College), and best man on his wedding day. Peter was the second born of the Pauling children. His older brother, Linus Pauling, Jr., was born in 1925, and Peter was joined swiftly by his younger sister Linda Helen in 1932 and, finally, by the baby of the bunch, Edward Crellin Pauling, in 1937.

In the early 1930s, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Pauling family. The same year that Peter was born, his father was promoted to full professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, where Linus had been since 1922, completing his doctorate the same year that Linus Jr. was born.

The growing family moved into a new home on Arden Road shortly before Peter’s birth, a transition that provided more space for the children and for their dog, Tyl Eulenspiegel, a cocker spaniel named after a German comic character. The year 1931 also marked Linus’ first published article on the nature of the chemical bond – work that would ultimately result in a Nobel Prize.

In the decade following Peter’s birth, his father was incredibly busy, giving fourteen guest lectures at Berkeley alone before Peter turned three. He also publishing his revolutionary structural chemistry research in a groundbreaking book, 1939’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond, a text authored while Pauling was in the midst of a series of nineteen non-resident lectures at Cornell.

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Ava Helen Pauling with her infant son, Peter. 1931.

By the time of the book’s publication, Linus Pauling was becoming a meteoric scientific figure, and as he began to travel more frequently, his wife Ava Helen would increasingly accompany him. During this period, the three youngest children – especially Linda and Crellin – were often in left in the care of a woman named Arletta Townsend, who became something of a second mother to them in their youth. The oldest child, Linus Jr., also shared in the care of his younger siblings from time to time, frequently trundling little Peter around the front yard in a child’s red wagon (perhaps an early indicator the boys’ shared love of automobiles that would bring them together later in life).

The older children also cared for the family rabbits, which their father raised at home for future use in his research. What was, for the children, a chore was also a reflection of Linus Pauling’s growing fascination with serology, hemoglobin, and the formation of antibodies and their interaction with antigens. As his investigations moved forward in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Pauling found it either impractical or inconvenient to arrange for his study animals to be housed and tended at Caltech. He opted instead to build roughly fifty rabbit hutches on his own property. While the elder Pauling inoculated the rabbits and carefully recorded physiological data, his boys were charged with feeding, watering, and keeping the hutches clean.

At this time, Peter seemed to have little in common with his older brother, outside of their shared chores around the house. Looking back, Linus Jr. would remember that most of their interaction was restricted to fighting over the bathroom. An argument over this space once became so heated, that it resulted in Linus Jr. splintering a door frame in the scrum.


 

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Peter Pauling with his father, 1937.

The United States’ entry into the Second World War touched the lives of all the Pauling children in different ways. In 1937, when Peter was six, an Army rifle range appeared on the other side of a canyon near the Pauling’s new home on Fairpoint Street. With this facility came a small group of Army guards, who would stand vigil near the Pauling’s property. Over time, the soldiers emerged as a social outlet for young Peter, who even as a child seemed to have a natural charm that often brought him rewards. For several years, Peter used the sentries as a means for procuring souvenirs and even stray military equipment. Many years later, much of this treasure could still be found in storage at the family ranch near Big Sur, California.

Not only was Peter charming, he was quite intelligent as well. From 1936 to 1941, Peter attended Polytechnic Elementary, a private school in Pasadena. A 1937 report on his performance included the comment that he was, “Not only a superior child in intelligence, but one of the cutest children we ever took into the school.” Two years later, the praise had only grown – one educator wrote that Peter “seems to be his Daddy’s own boy, and that is saying a great deal.”

From early on in her children’s lives, Ava Helen harbored ambitious ideas for the pursuits that they should entertain, and Peter was identified as the child most likely to succeed in a career in science, thus following in his father’s massive footsteps. Later in life, Linus himself would make passing insinuations about their potential as a father and son scientific duo, referencing the notable case of William and Lawrence Bragg, who shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on x-ray crystallography. Peter would later become well acquainted with Lawrence Bragg and his wife during his stint at Cambridge, a time period during which Peter had begun actively pursuing his own career in physics and chemistry.


 

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The Pauling family with their rabbits, 1941. Peter stands at left.

In 1941, after Peter had completed his fifth year at Polytechnic, Linus and Ava Helen concluded that their gifted son had started to lag academically. To provide for a more effective learning environment, the Paulings had Peter – now ten years old – enrolled at Flintridge Preparatory School in Pasadena. Flintridge was a school for boys where Peter would live in a dormitory, his days closely supervised and specifically structured according to a daily schedule that ran from 7 am to ‘lights out.’

At Flintridge, pupils were allotted one hour and forty five minutes of leisure time per day, with any other time not spent in class devoted to eating, completing chores, playing supervised sports or performing other physical exercises, or studying (also supervised).The school tailored its curriculum to the expectations of a student’s desired college or university, all with an eye toward insuring that the student would be best prepared to pass entrance exams or to enter a university without taking the exams at all. 

The school’s all encompassing tutelage embraced a three-fold training style that aimed to educate the mind, body, and the spirit, as evidenced by its motto, Vires Corpore Mente Spiritique. To chart the progress of the body, Peter’s performances in a range of physical activities – from running and high jump to shot put – were recorded and graphed over the course of the year. These data were then charted against an average representing the capacity of most boys his age, a practice referred to as a Physical Quotient plan. According to an informational pamphlet published by the school in 1941, Flintridge was the only school for young men in existence at the time that adhered to such a plan. The outcome, it promised, would be young men driven to develop their posture and muscle skills.

Once Peter was enrolled, his parents were issued monthly reports on their son’s progress, and to their pleasure, Peter’s schoolwork showed measurable improvement. Unfortunately, the decision to move Peter to Flintridge caused Polytechnic to withdraw its provision of scholarships for the remaining Pauling children. These scholarships had been provided with the contingency that the three eldest Pauling children attend the school, but with Linus Jr. completing his education at Polytechnic and Peter moving on to a different school, it was no longer deemed appropriate to provide a scholarship for Linda alone. As a result, young Linda Pauling was no longer able to attend private school at Polytechnic.


 

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Peter Pauling, 1943.

The summer months following Peter’s first year at Flintridge were spent, by Linus and Ava Helen, mostly abroad. As a result, the three youngest children were sent off to Camp Arcadia at Big Pines Park, California, while Linus Jr., now 16, was allowed to remain at home. While at camp, Linda became ill and had to be sent home a month early, leaving Peter and Crellin – from their perspective – stranded at the camp and feeling homesick. Linus Jr. wrote to Peter at this time, urging him to appreciate the time away from the mundane concerns of the Pauling home, including the return of parental discipline. “They’ve found all the things I didn’t do and should have done, and all the things I did do and shouldn’t have done,” Linus Jr. wryly confessed to his younger brother.

In 1943, when Peter was 12, Linus and Ava Helen received letters from his teachers at Flintridge explaining that Peter’s ability to excel seemed increasingly beset by an inability to focus on his work. The staff believed that Peter, like many intelligent children, was not being challenged enough academically, and that in his boredom he preferred to spend his time socializing rather than studying.

Perhaps only coincidentally, this was the same year that Peter’s older brother turned eighteen and left home for Berkeley. While Peter was being groomed in hopes that he might emerge as the next genius of the family, his older brother, Linus Jr., deliberately turned away from any such prospect as he entered adulthood, eventually abandoning college aspirations altogether and joining the Army Air Corps during World War II.

The Paulings Go to England, 1947-1948

Crellin Pauling on the Queen Mary, 1948.

[Ed Note: Throughout 2011 the Pauling Blog will be featuring stories of the Paulings’ travels around the world.  This is part 1 of 5 in a series exploring the Paulings’ time in England, where they lived and worked for parts of two years after the close of World War II.]

The Second World War had come to a close and Linus Pauling was in transition from his war-time work back to the regular goings-on at the California Institute of Technology when he received an enticing invitation. Frank Aydelotte, American Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (academic home of such greats as Albert Einstein), wrote Pauling in January of 1946 proposing his appointment as the George Eastman Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford for the coming academic year.

The appointment would include a Professorial Fellowship at Balliol College – among the oldest of Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges. It was an attractive offer; with only two or three lectures a week required of him, Pauling would have ample time to visit other European universities and steep in the vibrant culture of international chemistry.

Pauling felt deeply honored by the invitation and was anxious to return to Europe once more after his last visit in 1930. But the appointment would have to wait a year while he remained in Pasadena to develop the chemistry and biology programs at CIT and finish his freshman text, General Chemistry, published in 1947. After much correspondence between Aydelotte and Pauling it was decided in early 1947 that he would serve as Eastman Professor for the winter and spring terms of 1948.

Though the professorship was postponed, Linus and Ava Helen managed to squeeze in a visit to England and Switzerland in June and July of 1947 for a mix of vacation and conferences. As was typical, the Paulings were kept busy with a multitude of social affairs. But after much hustle and bustle in Cambridge, where Pauling received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Cambridge, and Oxford, where he made preparations for his coming professorship, some quiet days in London and Stockholm were found, which the couple “devoted exclusively to resting and sight-seeing.”

Pauling receiving an honorary doctorate of science from the Earl of Athlone, University of London. July 1947.

Pauling’s role at the forefront of American chemistry (he would learn right before embarking on his voyage in December 1947 that he had been chosen as President-Elect of the American Chemical Society) also garnered him a key place in chemical matters abroad, and his July was filled to the brim with meetings and conferences. After three days at the International Congress of Experimental Cytology in Stockholm, he returned to England for the International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry. This event coincided with the International Union of Chemistry, where Pauling presided as Congress Lecturer, as well as the Centenary Celebration of The Chemical Society at the University of London.

At the latter event, Pauling received another honorary degree and delivered an after-dinner speech on behalf of his fellow honorary graduates.  In it, he called scientists to action and leadership in ending war and expressed hope that soon there would be a “supra-national world government, and that we shall all be fellow citizens, citizens of the world.”


Their two-month escape primed the Paulings’ excitement for their extended stay the coming year. However, the planning for the upcoming trip proved to be almost as difficult as the initial decision of when to go.

With England in the beginning stages of recovery from the war, travel in the UK was less than ideal. Securing a house for the five Paulings proved such a difficult task that the entire trip was on the verge of being canceled a month before departure. Ultimately the family decided to make the sacrifice of staying in a hotel – Linton Lodge – for several weeks until a small flat was finally procured for them.

The strict food rationing implemented in England during wartime carried over into the post-war years and presented a challenge for Ava Helen in preparing the very strict low protein diet necessary for keeping the effects of her husband’s nephritis at bay. Linus Pauling’s doctor, Thomas Addis, even wrote to The Ration Board to ensure that the visiting scientist would be able to receive the forty grams of protein (from eggs, milk, cheese, cereals, vegetables and fruits – not meat, chicken or fish) required by his unique 2,500-3,000 calorie diet.

Indeed, Pauling left no stone unturned in his planning, even writing to a doctor friend for advice on preventing seasickness. Despite initial skepticism that schools would be found for the children over in England, Ava Helen managed to enroll nine-year-old Crellin in the Dragon School – where he was the best man in his form – and fifteen-year-old Linda in the Oxford High School for girls, of which she maintained fond memories of the navy blue uniforms and fit in quite well, aside from her difficult Latin classes. Peter Pauling had just started his first term at Caltech, but was able to keep up with his studies overseas by studying independently with tutoring from an American Rhodes Scholar. Linus Pauling, Jr had just married Anita Oser – the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller and Cyrus Hall McCormick – and the young couple remained in the States while the family embarked on their adventure.

Linus, Peter, Crellin, Linda and Ava Helen Pauling, 1947.

The excitement started for the Pauling children before they even boarded the Queen Mary and set sail for England on December 26.  During the holiday period, New York City was experiencing its worst snowstorm in years and it was the first time the three sunny California natives had seen the snow. Despite the marvels of the winter wonderland, the family really was stuck, and it was only by a stroke of luck (and some extra cash up front) that the Paulings were able to convince a taxi driver to push his way through to the docks and get them to their ship on time. They celebrated New Year’s Eve on the boat and in an interview Linda recalled that the members of the Canadian Ski Team, who were also on the same Atlantic voyage, were dancing with her all night – that is, until they found out that she was only 14!

Linus Pauling must have spent some time during the journey across the sea in introspective thought, for it was during this trip that he wrote his famous pledge, on the back of a piece of cardboard announcing one of his lectures: “I hereby make avowal that from this day henceforth I shall include mention of world peace in every lecture and address that I give.”  This pledge was just the first of many important moments in Pauling’s life that would occur as a result of his time in England.

Around the House

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling with Tyl Eulenspiegel, Pasadena, 1957.

I recall…Linus Pauling on a Sunday morning reading all of the ‘funny papers’ published in the Los Angeles area.  I suspect that he follows all of the comic strips published in America.

-W. H. Latimer, 1951


[In his later years] my father would go to bed after watching the news, about 6:30 or 7:00, [and] read until 9:00.  When he woke up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning he’d get up and cook his breakfast and get to work.  I asked him, how did he go to sleep?  And he said he’d take the cube root of some number between 8 and 27.  The first digit is obviously 2….I never asked him whether he had a snazzy way or some algorithm; I’d do it by trial and error, but it doesn’t work for me.

-Peter Pauling, 1997


Usually I eat two eggs in the morning, sometimes bacon, but I happen to be lazy enough not to cook more than one thing for a meal.  The last two days I was eating oxtail soup with vegetables.  I don’t know what I’ll have today.  Perhaps some fish.  In my book [How to Live Longer and Feel Better] I say you shouldn’t eat sweet desserts, but I also quote a professor who says that this doesn’t mean that if your hostess has made this wonderful dessert you should turn it down.  My wife used to say that I always looked for that hostess.

-Linus Pauling, 1987

Linus Pauling at Deer Flat Ranch, 1987.

Letters to Peter

Linus and Peter Pauling at Warwick Castle, England. 1948.

Linus and Peter Pauling at Warwick Castle, England. 1948.

“You know how children are threatened ‘You had better be good or the bad ogre will come get you.’ Well, for more than a year, Francis and others have been saying to the nucleic acid people at King’s ‘You had better work hard or Pauling will get interested in nucleic acids.’”

Peter Pauling. Letter to Linus Pauling, January 13, 1953.

Normally, when Linus Pauling became interested in something, he would dive headlong into it. Hours and hours of his time, over weekdays and weekends, would be committed to research in pursuit of fleshing out every last useful detail. This arduous process is best illustrated by his work on the nature of the chemical bond, work which would later win him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Pauling’s experience with DNA, however, was not an example of this typical approach.

First, it should be noted that Pauling did not have years to spend working on DNA. Its importance was fully realized in the summer of 1952, less than a year before Watson and Crick elucidated its structure, and although Pauling actually began studying nucleic acids as early as 1933, he wasn’t able, or willing, to spend a significant amount of time on a molecule that was perceived to be relatively unimportant.

Even after learning of the importance of DNA, Pauling still didn’t make time for it. As emphasized in earlier posts on Linus Pauling and DNA, Pauling remained very much preoccupied with his work on the nature of proteins.

An examination of Pauling’s correspondence with his son Peter – a man uniquely positioned in the middle of the DNA story – reveals that other matters, many of them trivial, also took precedence over Pauling’s pursuit of the structure of DNA.

In the fall of 1952, Peter Pauling, an aspiring crystallographer and the second oldest of the four Pauling children, began his graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. Coincidentally, James Watson and Francis Crick were also at Cambridge at this time, and not long after his arrival, Peter had met them, become an office-mate, and was spending off-hours time with the duo.

Because Linus Pauling and the Watson-Crick tandem were both attempting to solve the structure of DNA, Peter’s arrival at Cambridge gave his father an excellent opportunity to keep tabs on the work being done by his competitors in England. A close examination of the voluminous father-son correspondence from this era suggests, however, that DNA was far from a pressing topic in Pasadena.

Also, as to your curtains: will you check the dimensions and let us know. You say in your letter two windows 6’ 6” high, 50” and 37” wide respectively, in other words four curtains each 48” wide. Mama thinks that you probably mean four curtains each 36” wide. It would be hard to get the wider material.

Also, would you write us as to the exact points between which the vertical dimensions are measured. What is the distance from, say, the top of the window frame (or some other exactly specified locus) to the floor, and also to the bottom of the window frame? Mama thinks that probably the curtains should reach all the way to the floor, but in any case they should extend from the top of the window frame to the bottom of the window frame (if you have window frames), or from a point a little below the opening at the bottom. She suggests that one of your old curtains might serve for one of the windows, and that she would then have to make only a pair for the larger window.

I sympathize with you about the bed. I remember sleeping on a bed which had a two by four across under my ear; it was not very comfortable.

-Linus Pauling, letter to Peter Pauling, October 22, 1952.

Linus first wrote to Peter in England on October 22, 1952. By this time, the elder Pauling was well aware of the importance of DNA, but had not yet devised a structure. Watson and Crick, on the other hand, had developed a structure for DNA a year earlier. Although their model turned out to be incorrect, the two men continued their work with nucleic acids. Clearly, for Watson and Crick, DNA was becoming extremely important. For Pauling this did not appear to be the case – although Watson and Crick were both mentioned in this first letter, DNA was not.

As it turns out, other subjects – including, but not limited to, curtains for Peter’s new apartment, recent travels and upcoming travel plans, finances, and, of course, cars – were much more prevalent than was DNA in the Paulings’ early correspondence.

As time went on, nucleic acids naturally became a slightly larger topic, though never did they assume center stage. Take, for example, this letter sent from Linus to Peter on February 4, 1953. By the time of its authoring, Linus Pauling had completely developed his structure, and had also sent off his manuscript for publication, a development which merited one paragraph worth of description. The rest of the letter is used to discuss, in great detail, Pauling’s plans to travel to England and also his keen interest in purchasing a new Riley from the U.K.-based International Motors. (Being something of a family obsession, cars were a very popular subject in many of the letters between Linus and Peter.)

In another letter from Pauling to Peter written on March 10, 1953, DNA plays a much larger role. This time, about half of the three-page document is dedicated to discussing various aspects DNA; the remainder focuses on travel plans and automobiles.

Peter Pauling, December 1954.

Peter Pauling, December 1954.

The other letters follow this same trend. Clearly, Linus and Peter’s lengthy discussions on subjects such as cars, traveling, curtains, and other aspects of science suggest that Pauling wasn’t interested in DNA on the level of certain other scientific pursuits.

Another interesting aspect of the correspondence between Linus and Peter Pauling is the opportunity that it provides for tracking the evolution of the consensus response to Pauling’s structure.

As might be expected, Peter’s reaction stayed upbeat throughout all of their letters. However, as time progressed, it is clear that Peter became less-confident that his father had solved DNA. For example, in a few of the earlier letters, Peter mentions that Watson and Crick earlier devised and discarded a structure similar to the Pauling-Corey triple helix, but that the opinion at the Cavendish Laboratory is that Pauling’s structure is a good one, albeit “pretty tight.”

From that point on though, Peter begins talking less about Pauling’s structure, and more about work being done by Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin. One might deduce that, although Peter didn’t specifically issue a disagreement with his father’s structure, he did develop a certain degree of skepticism as time progressed. Peter also does not often mention other opinions of his father’s structure, most likely because, upon further examination, it was not well-received by the English contingent.

Peter Pauling Discusses His Father’s Strengths and Personality

For more information on DNA, please visit the Race for DNA website. For more information on Linus Pauling, check out the Linus Pauling Online portal.