Linus Pauling. Lecturing at the Concepts of Chemical Bonding Seminar, Oslo University, Oslo, Norway. 1982.

Today marks the 110th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth, which occurred in Portland, Oregon on February 28, 1901. As has become tradition on the Pauling Blog, we are celebrating this occasion by looking back at Pauling’s life in increments of twenty-five years.


At the tender age of ten, young Linus was already at a crossroads in his life. First and foremost, his father Herman had died of a perforated ulcer the previous summer, thus throwing the Pauling family into something akin to chaos. Herman was a pharmacist and businessman of middling success, and his death was a source of major financial concern for his widow Isabelle and their three children, Linus, Pauline (age 9) and Lucile (age 7). From this point on, Linus’s childhood was certainly informed, if not dominated, by the continual need to contribute to the household income. His mother’s only asset of consequence was the family home, which she boarded out on a regular basis in an attempt to make ends meet. But as time passed and Belle’s own health faded, her only son was frequently called upon to assist with the family finances, leading Linus to assume any number of odd jobs, from delivery boy to film projectionist to grocery clerk.

Young Linus, ca. 1910s.

It was at this same time that the boy’s interest in science was beginning to flower. The previous year Herman had written a letter to the Portland Oregonian newspaper indicating that his son was a “great reader” keenly interested in ancient history and the natural sciences. In 1911 Pauling’s scientific impulses continued to flourish in the form of an insect collection that he maintained and classified using books checked out from the Portland library. Not long after, as with many scientists of his generation, Linus would develop an interest in minerals and begin compiling a personal collection of classified stones that he found.


By the age of thirty-five, Pauling had already established himself as among the world’s pre-eminent structural chemists and was well on his way to making a major impact in the biological sciences. In 1936 Pauling met Karl Landsteiner of the Rockefeller Institute, a Nobel laureate researcher best known at the time for having determined the existence of different blood types in human beings. In their initial meeting, Pauling and Landsteiner discussed Landsteiner’s program of research in immunology, a conversation that would lead to a fruitful collaboration between the two scientists. Importantly, his interactions with Landsteiner would lead Pauling to think about and publish important work on the specificity of serological reactions, in particular the relationship between antibodies and antigens in the human body.

Linus Pauling, 1936.

The year also bore witness to a major change at the California Institute of Technology: in June, Arthur Amos Noyes died. Noyes had served as chairman of the Caltech Chemistry Division for some twenty-seven years and was among the best known chemists of his era. His death ushered a power vacuum within the academic administration at Caltech, by then an emerging force in scientific research. Three of Pauling’s colleagues cautiously recommended to Caltech president Robert Millikan that Pauling be installed as interim chair of the department. Millikan agreed and offered the position to Pauling, but was met with refusal. At the time of the proposal,  Pauling was the object of some degree of criticism within the ranks at Caltech – certain of his peers felt him to be overly ambitious and even reckless in his pursuit of scientific advance – and the suggestion that Pauling assume division leadership was hardly unanimous. Millikan’s terms likewise did not meet with Pauling’s approval; in essence he felt that he would be burdened with more responsibility but would not gain in authority. The impasse would not last long however, as Pauling would eventually accept a new offer in April 1937 and begin a twenty-one year tenure as division chief.


A busy year started off with a bang when the sixty-year-old Pauling was chosen alongside a cache of other U.S. scientists as “Men of the Year” by Time magazine. By this period in Pauling’s life his peace activism was a topic of international conversation and early in the year Linus and Ava Helen followed up their famous 1958 United Nations Bomb Test Petition with a second “Appeal to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” issued in the wake of nuclear tests carried out by France. As a follow-up, the Paulings organized and attended a May conference held in Oslo Norway, at which the attendees (35 physical and biological scientists and 25 social scientists from around the world) issued the “Oslo Statement,” decrying nuclear proliferation and the continuation of nuclear tests.

Group photo of participants in the Oslo Conference, 1961.

While Pauling’s attentions during this period were increasingly drawn to his peace work, he did make time for innovative scientific research. Of particular note was his theory of anesthesia, published in July in the journal Science. Pauling’s idea was that anesthetic agents formed hydrate “cages” with properties similar to ice crystals. Owing to the nature of their molecular structure, these cages would impede electrical impulses in the brain, thus leading to unconsciousness. In a review article published one year later, the pharmacologist Chauncey Leake described the theory as “spectacular,” though for reasons that are still unclear it failed to gain traction with the larger scientific community.


By age eighty-five, Pauling’s interests centered largely upon his continuing fascination with vitamin C. Having already published monographs focusing upon ascorbic acid’s capacity to ward of the common cold and the flu, Pauling was ready to put his thinking together into a general audience book that would discuss the path to happier and healthier lives. The result was How to Live Longer and Feel Better, a modest critical and commercial success that helped bolster the reputation and the finances of the struggling Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

Pauling at 85.

Many of the recommendations that Pauling made in How to Live Longer… were fairly typical of most health promotion books: a sensible diet, regular exercise and no smoking. The major exception to this moderate approach was the famed author’s stance on vitamin supplementation. In biographer Thomas Hager‘s words

Pauling was now advising between 6 and 18 grams of vitamin C per day, plus 400-16,000 IU of vitamin E (40-160 times the RDA), 25,000 IU of vitamin A (five times the RDA), and one or two ‘super B’ tablets for the B vitamins, along with a basic mineral supplement.

This staunch belief in the value of megavitamins would stay with Pauling until his death eight years later, in August 1994.


Fred Allen’s Notebook

Cover of the Fred Allen Notebook

During his time at Oregon Agricultural College, Linus Pauling quickly built a reputation as being the smartest man on campus. This reputation would eventually evolve into international considerations of Pauling as one of the top scientists in all of history. Understandably, because of his abilities in the classroom and the laboratory, he made significant impressions on his classmates and teachers alike. However, it is unlikely that Pauling impressed many of his early mentors as much as he did Fred Allen.

Allen was Pauling’s physical chemistry professor during his senior year at O.A.C. For this course, Allen kept a data notebook that can now be found in the biographical section of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. The notebook, simply titled “Phy Chem Data Book,” contains not only results compiled from the experiments that his students completed, but also annotations and short biographical notes made by Allen in his later life. While the data aren’t of any particular interest, the annotations, made in 1962, do provide some interesting details on the class in general, and also on Pauling in particular. On one of the first pages, Allen writes:

The 14 men named on next page were in a Phy. Chem. Course under FJ Allen the school year 1921-22. It was a remarkable group.

Pauling is obviously the most notable person among the list of students, but another familiar name is Paul Emmett. Emmett, who, along with Pauling, would go on to receive his Ph.D. from Caltech, was one of the best in the class. However, according to Allen, Pauling was in a league entirely his own.

Except for Pauling, Emmett would have been top man in the class. No censure is intended when I say that the gap from Pauling to the others in the class is akin to the hardness gap from diamond to corundum.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett, 1920.

Allen’s praise for Pauling, however, does not stop there.

Pauling is the only student I have encountered who showed definite qualities of genius as an undergraduate.

A number of other interesting tidbits pertaining to Pauling’s life can also be gleaned from Allen’s short note about him. For example, an anecdote suggesting that Pauling was coveted by more than just the Caltech chemistry department.

Robt. A Millikan, visiting at Purdue in the early twenties told me with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Linus is too good a man to waste on chemistry. I’m going to make a physicist out of him.’ In 1956, I told this to Linus who said, ‘He tried. He offered me the headship at Cal Tech.’ I said ‘Why didn’t you take him up?’ Linus replied, ‘Chemistry made me a better offer.’

Allen also makes a point to address his sympathy for Pauling’s political problems.

In my opinion the persecution that Pauling has undergone would be ridiculous if it were not so tragic. He had to get a Nobel Prize to obtain a passport to leave the U.S.A.

Allen likewise mentions a recent visit with Pauling, during which their student and teacher roles from O.A.C. appear to have been reversed, at least for a short time.

I saw him last in 1956 when as a research associate I attended some of his lectures and did a very small piece of research under his direction. The courtesies extended to me at that time by Ava Helen, Linus and Crellin (younger son) will live long in my memory.

Interestingly enough, Allen is also the professor that triggered the meeting between Linus and Ava Helen. As Pauling was traveling home to Portland for Christmas vacation his senior year, Allen approached him and asked him to teach his general chemistry class for home economic majors. Enrolled in this class just happened to be Ava Helen Miller, who almost immediately caught Pauling’s eye. In due time, the two would be married.


Linus Pauling to Fred Allen, September 20, 1956, pg. 1


Pauling to Allen, September 20, 1956, pg. 2.

Over the years, Allen and Pauling stayed in contact, discussing many matters, both scientific and otherwise, such as writing textbooks, Pauling’s passport troubles, their families, and visiting one another. As their correspondence continued, what began merely as a student-professor relationship became a friendship that lasted until Allen passed away in 1968.

Excerpts from the Fred Allen diary are available here. For more information on Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Oregon 150

The Messenger Lectures

Linus Pauling, 1958

Linus Pauling, 1958

[Ed note: October 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. This is part one of a four post series discussing participation in the Messenger series.]

The Messenger Lectures on the Evolution of Civilization, better know simply as the Messenger Lectures, is a prestigious lectureship hosted by Cornell University.  Upon the 1924 death of Hiram Messenger, a Travelers’ Insurance Company actuary and graduate of Cornell University, a portion of his fortune was bequeathed to Cornell, his alma mater.  The following year, Cornell began its now famous Messenger Lecture series, defining it as “a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business, and social life.”

In 1925, James Henry Breasted, a historian-archaeologist made famous by his work in the Middle East, delivered the first Messenger lecture.  In his talk, he explored the implications of moral growth in the human race through a study of ancient European and Egyptian societies.  His scholarly, introspective lectures which married the history of science and philosophy, set the tone for future speakers.

Since 1925, a great number of intellectuals have served as Messenger lecturers.  Over the course of the lectureship’s history, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Robert A. Millikan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have all taken the position.  Perhaps the most famous of the Messenger Lectures are those by Richard Feynman, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.  In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures on “The Character of Physical Law.”  In 2009, Bill Gates purchased the rights to the BBC recordings of Feynman’s seven talks and made them available to the public as part of Project Tuva, giving Feynman, Microsoft, and the Messenger Lectures a great deal of publicity.

The lectureship has been particularly famous among academicians because it allows researchers and scholars to approach the human experience through the lens of their own field of study.  The series encourages scientists, historians, writers, political theorists, etc. to meaningfully apply their life’s work to problems of philosophical thought, resulting in unique and often striking conclusions about the human condition.

Because of their prestige, only the best known intellectuals of the day were invited to serve as Messenger lecturers.  In fact, it took Pauling more than twenty years of work as an internationally-known chemist to be given the honor.

In 1936, Linus spent four months in Ithaca as the George Fischer Baker Lecturer.  During his stay, he established lasting friendships with the Cornell chemistry department faculty and became something of a campus celebrity.  At that time, however, he was deeply immersed in the sciences and was of only minimal interest to the non-scientific community at Cornell.

Two decades later, however, Pauling was much more than just a chemist; he was a Nobel Prize winner, a peace advocate, and a household name.  What’s more, by the late 1950s, Pauling’s interests had fallen in line with the core focus of the Messenger Lectures.  Pauling was deeply concerned with the molecular basis of individuality, community, free will and, of course, peace and violence.  Where sociologists, anthropologists, and biologists were all looking at human civilization on a macroscopic scale, Pauling was examining the very particles of life and extracting astounding theories from the molecules of the human body.

When the Cornell faculty was asked to nominate a speaker for the 1959 Messenger Lectures, chemistry department members remembered the success of Pauling’s previous stay at Cornell.  In April 1957, Linus Pauling received a letter from A. W. Laubengayer, the acting chairman for Cornell’s chemistry department.  Laubengayer asked that Pauling hold six lectures in the Fall Term of 1959.  As was traditional, the university would provide only the broad topic, the evolution of civilization, leaving Pauling to interpret as he wished.

Pauling readily accepted the appointment, citing his fond memories of serving as Baker Lecturer.  His topic, he declared, would be “The Molecular Basis of Life.”  The concept was one that Pauling had lectured on several times before.  For a lectureship as significant and the Messenger series, Pauling needed to introduce a new and unique concept rather than rehash established ideas.

Over the course of the next two years, Pauling set about refining his theories on the influence of molecular evolution in individual and group behavior.  In February of 1959, he began his work on the lectures themselves.  The series was to be divided into six parts: Science and Philosophy, Molecules and Life, The Molecular Basis of Disease, Molecules and Heredity, Molecules and Evolution, and The World of the Future.  Lectures three, four, and five relied heavily on the material Pauling had presented in various publications and talks over the past five years.  Lectures one, two, and six, however, were unique.  It is on these three lectures, the focus of which were Pauling’s philosophical interests, that we will discuss over the course of our series Pauling and the Messenger Lectures.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.