Pauling v. Wrinch

“Report on the work of Dr. Dorothy Wrinch.” Written by Linus Pauling and submitted to the Rockefeller Institute. March 31, 1938.

[Part 3 of 4]

Dorothy Wrinch’s 1937 American tour brought her, and her highly controversial cyclol hypothesis, into the public consciousness. She attracted a lot of attention, but mistook that attention for firm support. Thus buoyed, she began making outsized claims as to the importance of her theory and, more importantly, false claims that it had already been scientifically proven. Wrinch’s rhetoric caused many of her friends and colleagues to distance themselves from her and her ideas. And when Pauling ultimately agreed to meet with Wrinch in Ithaca, New York, the gloves came off: Pauling slammed her ideas as plainly ridiculous, more fancy than fact.

The critical reaction to Wrinch’s ideas soon built into an onslaught. When she returned to the U.K., a group of British x-ray crystallographers argued that her suggestions were false. While Wrinch claimed that x-ray crystallography proved her theory, these scientists pointed out that, to the contrary, crystallographic results actively disproved her cyclols.

Stateside, Linus Pauling and Carl Niemann officially got in on the act with their publication of “The Structure of Proteins” in the July 1939 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In it, the authors declared that Wrinch’s cyclol cage was so thermodynamically unstable that it couldn’t even be produced in a lab intentionally, let alone be found in nature. From the article:

[We] draw the rigorous conclusion that the cyclol structure cannot be of primary importance for proteins; if it occurs at all…not more than about three percent of the amino acid residues could possess this configuration. [emphasis theirs]

Wrinch, who was looking for work in the U.S., was forced to respond to Pauling’s article with one of her own. In it she publicly questioned his competency and stated that “opponents of the cyclol hypothesis have felt compelled to fall back upon arguments which are specious (due to errors in logic), and upon experiments which are irrelevant…or incompetent to decide the issue.” (Although it wouldn’t be known until 1952, the last part of her accusation was correct – Pauling’s hypothesis was also partially inaccurate.) In an effort to keep the peace, JACS refused to publish her rebuttal until Pauling had been given a chance to review it. Once done, Pauling and Niemann wrote another response to Wrinch’s piece – one equally acidic as Wrinch’s – rebutting her response point-by-point, just as “The Structure of Proteins” had done to cyclol theory.

Their battle, played out in the pages of newspapers and among the referees of major scientific journals, was defined by vitriol for it duration. Wrinch would attack Pauling, even going after his earlier theories on chemical bond resonance; Pauling would respond, calling Wrinch’s theories unworthy of serious scientific debate. At one point, 13-year old Pam, Dorothy’s daughter, wrote a letter to Pauling, which suggested

Your attacks on my mother have been made rather too frequently. If you both think each other is wrong, it is best to prove it instead of writing disagreeable things about each other in papers. I think it would be best to have it out and see which one of you is really right.

As time passed, evidence continued to grow that Wrinch’s cylol theory was wrong. Nonetheless, she continued to defend the work with vigor. In her 1987 book on women in science, historian Pnina Abir-am wrote that Wrinch developed a “lifelong obsessive defense of her theory and refusal to follow the shifting scientific frontier.” Additionally, her counterattacks on Pauling were full of shaky logic and bad science, which reduced her credibility far more than it reduced his.

Wrinch gathered little support in the scientific community by going after Pauling, by then known to many as a major scientific figure. Frustrated, her ego again got the best of her, and she accused her colleagues of being “cowards” who were too scared of Pauling to see the truth of her theories. This strategy bore little fruit and the remainder of her support had largely vanished by the end of 1939.  By 1941 Pauling had emerged victorious and Wrinch was largely ostracized from the scientific community.

An uncommonly vitriolic letter from Pauling to David Harker concerning his role in the Wrinch affair. July 6, 1940.

Victory aside, Pauling did not cloak himself in glory with his actions. In the estimation of Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, the saga managed to “illuminate less appealing sides of Pauling’s character,” his strong-arm tactics “a demonstration of his new power.” Clearly a rising star within the scientific world, Pauling’s

prestige and acclaim brought out negative factors in his personality that became more evident as his power grew: a tendency toward self-righteousness, a desire to control situations and frame debates, and a willingness to silence those with aberrant ideas.

The aftermath of the drama found Wrinch in a severely compromised position. For starters, the Rockefeller Foundation terminated Wrinch’s fellowship, rendering her without funding as a result of her having failed to find more solid support for the cyclol theory in the five years allocated to her.

Wrinch spent the years 1939–1941 searching for jobs in the US and Canada. She lamented to her close friend, Otto Charles Glaser: “I am notoriously poor at institutions about people.” Glaser was a frequent correspondent and a big supporter of her work. Finally, in 1941, Glaser engineered a deal for Wrinch and she was offered a position as a joint visiting research professor at Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges.

Not long after she had moved to her new position in western Massachusetts, a mutual friend approached Wrinch and told her that Glaser was wildly in love with her. Wrinch was caught completely off guard by this news and was even more surprised when, shortly afterward, Glaser proposed to her. Wrinch asked for time to think about it before answering; she was still a bit nervous, seeing as how her first marriage had been so unhappy and ended poorly.

As she deliberated, Wrinch drew up a table of pros and cons on the topic of marrying Glaser, using terms including “net losses” and “net gains” in her contemplation. She asked Pam what she thought and her daughter told her to be careful, since her first marriage had been so awful. But on the same token, Pam thought, Glaser was a good man and Dorothy was clearly close to him. Ultimately Wrinch and Glaser were married on August 20, 1941, in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The wedding was a private affair, but still highly photographed and publicized. The couple permanently settled down in Massachusetts. As always, Dorothy was dedicated to maintaining her career, marriage, and her motherhood.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

Dr. Pnina Abir-Am, Resident Scholar

Pnina Abir-Am

Dr. Pnina Abir-Am, historian of science at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, is the first individual to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries for the 2012-13 school year.  An accomplished scholar, Abir-Am has authored and edited a number of noteworthy publications, including the influential book Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789-1989 (Rutgers University Press, 1987, 1989) co-edited with Dorinda Outram.

Abir-Am traveled across the country to conduct research in support of another book, DNA at 50: A Revisionist History of the Discovery of DNA Structure, scheduled for publication in 2013.  Delving into the Pauling Papers, the Jack Dunitz Papers, the David and Clara Shoemaker Papers and the History of Science Oral History Collection, Abir-Am sought “to better explain Pauling’s failure with solving the structure of DNA by examining in greater detail his deployment of a group known as ‘Pauling’s boys.'”

In her Resident Scholar presentation, Abir-Am argued – as have many others – that Pauling was ideally positioned to solve the DNA structure, given his great successes in protein research from 1936-1951 and culminating in his elucidation of the alpha-helix.  The question then, is why did he fail to discover the double helix?  Why did he lose the “race” to James Watson and Francis Crick?

The reasons for the failure are manifold, and Abir-Am acknowledges many that have been pointed out by other researchers.  For one, Pauling was very casual in his approach, believing protein structures to be of more importance than DNA.  He also underestimated the research being conducted by certain of his peers, including Erwin Chargaff, J.T. Randall and Rosalind Franklin.

In particular, Abir-Am argues that Pauling disregarded the work being conducted at Kings College, London, believing that physicists like J.T. Randall and Maurice Wilkins could not be expected to solve a complex biological structure like DNA, as their training left them ill-equipped for the task.  By the time Pauling did get serious about the DNA structure, he was too far behind the competition, using poor quality data and rushing a structure to print. Indeed, in the end, Pauling’s attitude toward DNA could be summed up as “too little too late,” a situation further reinforced by the political problems – culminating in the revoking of his passport – that he faced throughout 1952.

Abir-Am sheds new perspective by focusing on the social structure surrounding Pauling at Caltech during the early 1950s. In examining the story from this perspective, Abir-Am wonders what “Pauling’s boys” – understudies, peers and other colleagues including Alexander Rich, Robert Corey, Eddie Hughes, Verner Schomaker, Jerry Donohue, David Harker and Pauling’s second-born son, Peter – could have done to render Pauling’s attempt at DNA more successful.

Abir-Am posits that “the boys” could have done plenty: collect x-ray crystallographic data, collaborate on model building, make calculations, serve as delegates at conferences and even collect intelligence on rivals.  To some extent all of this did occur, but never to the point where Pauling shied away from his manifestly wrong triple-helical structure.

In thinking about what could have gone differently, Abir-Am offers three possible conjectures as to why “the boys,” all hugely talented, didn’t steer Pauling down a more productive path:

  1. They did voice their objections but Pauling ignored them since, after the success of the alpha-helix, he was no longer seeking advice;
  2. Long accustomed to accepting Pauling’s ways, “the boys” lost the ability to criticize his work;
  3. Pauling did not inform “the boys” of his interest in DNA because he wanted to surprise them.

By the conclusion of her stay, Abir-Am was still wrestling with these questions and evaluating her conjectures.  An entire chapter of her DNA book will be devoted to Pauling’s failed structure – we’ll be very excited to read it!

The OSU Libraries Resident Scholar Program offers stipends of up to $2,500 per month to support research using the collections of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  For more on the program, check out its homepage. And to read of the work done by past Resident Scholars, see this link.


After seeing this post, Dr. Abir-Am asked that we add some comments of her own, which are included here.

My initial reaction to OSU-SCARC’s (Oregon State University, Special Collections and Archive Research Center) Paulingblog’s entry of 11-21-12, reporting on my lecture “‘Pauling’s Boys’ and the Mystery of DNA Sructure” was “Wow, they did a better job than I might have done on my own!” Indeed, OSU-SCARC’s Program for Resident Scholars is a scholar’s paradise: a spacious reading room flooded by sunlight provides a superb “room with a view” of gorgeous Oregon trees. State of the art equipment scans archival documents straight into your flash drive. Rare, as well as recent, books that scholars might need to complement one’s ongoing archival research, line the reading room’s walls forming tasteful panels. The entrance is flanked by two glass cases for archival exhibits that rotate periodically and give the foyer a museum look.

But above all, SCARC is a paradise because of its angelic people, all eager to help resident scholars make the best of their precious stay. I was amazed at how readily the SCARC personnel not only guided me through the maze of archival documents in their care, but also helped me in preparing essential visuals. By displaying photomontages of Pauling and his associates, I was better able to convey his enigmatic predicament, as a leading molecular structurist who missed the solution of DNA structure, even though he was surrounded by many gifted and loyal associates, or “boys” in his era’s jargon. Along these lines, a slide of attendees at the Pasadena international conference on “Protein and Nucleic Acid Structure” which Pauling organized in September 1953, captured by photo 2 above, (click for enlargement) distinguished between “boys” from rival groups by color circles around their heads. These graphical devices were critical for my new argument that the outcome of competition over DNA structure was a matter of group rather than individual action.

Having spent considerable time in many archives on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, I have to conclude that OSU-SCARC, situated in the remote splendor of the Pacific Northwest, provides greater scholar-friendly opportunities than anything I have seen, including my prior favorite CCAC. (Churchill College Archive Center in Cambridge, UK) I now count SCARC scholars among my cherished colleagues and consider their work to be a valuable resource for my own chapter on Pauling & Co.’s effort with DNA structure. Last but not least, SCARC’s interest in this chapter, as well as in my forthcoming book DNA at 50 proved invigorating in propelling me toward a speedier revision of both chapter and book.

The Paulingblog’s Photo 2 conveys the civilized environment of OSU Libraries’ Willamette Lecture Room. For the sake of completeness, I wish to remind future applicants that the environment outside OSU’s library can also become a much cherished memory, especially the wild rapids of the McKenzie River which we survived during the Labor Day weekend preceding my 9-5-12 talk. Hopefully, the treasures I left untouched, whether in the archive or in the nearby Oregonian wild nature (e.g. Upper Klamath – I signed a petition to open it for rafting – Crater Lake, Sunset Bay) will soon cheer additional beneficiaries of SCARC’s Program for Resident Scholars.

Rafting on the McKenzie River, Labor Day weekend, 2012.

Rafting on the McKenzie River, Labor Day weekend, 2012.