A Flamboyant Scientist’s Legacy : Scholar: Linus C. Pauling’s supporters and detractors join in calling the two-time Nobel winner one of the most significant figures of this century.
He was both revered and reviled as he divided his long and productive life between the science of chemistry and the concerns of humanity.
But when Linus C. Pauling died Friday of prostate cancer at age 93 at his beloved home in Big Sur, he was remembered around the world with unanimity as one of the most imposing and significant figures of the 20th Century.
Through seven decades, two Nobel Prizes and countless scientific and governmental honors, he made singular contributions to science, and his influence on several generations of students at three California universities was immeasurable. Then there were his untiring efforts on behalf of world peace and his colorful and controversial advocacy of the usefulness of Vitamin C.
“He earned the respect of other scientists,” said Prof. James F. Bonner, a retired Caltech biologist, a former Pauling student and one of his lifelong friends, “by being incredibly smart, incredibly inventive and mostly right. Not always right, but mostly.”
Ahmed H. Zewail, another longtime friend who is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics at Caltech, said Saturday that Pauling had an unusual combination of flamboyance and scholarship.
“Linus was one of those people who enjoyed being in the limelight but who also brought the world many new thoughts and ideas. He was just a real creative human being and a man of great talent,” said Zewail, who brought Pauling back to the Caltech campus for the Nobel laureate’s 85th and 90th birthday celebrations.
The man who was to become the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes displayed his intellectual gifts at an early age. His father, Herman Henry William Pauling, a Portland, Ore., pharmacist, wrote a letter to the editor of the Portland Oregonian in 1910, asking for a list of books that might be suitable for his 9-year-old son who had an “extraordinary interest and ability in reading.”
The younger Pauling attended Portland schools and enrolled at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University), graduating in 1922 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He transferred to Caltech and three years later earned a doctorate in chemistry.
The 1920s were a heady decade for science. Physicists were busy revealing all manner of new properties and workings of the atom, largely as a result of the then-new theory of quantum mechanics.
The theory, which began with the work of Max Planck and was continued, modified and elaborated upon by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and many others, is essentially mathematical and probabilistic in character. Its central premise, greatly oversimplified, is that atoms and other basic particles absorb and emit energy in very specific amounts, called quanta.
Pauling was one of the first to see that the theory could also be applied in chemistry. He studied under Bohr in Copenhagen and became very familiar with the great Danish scientist’s model for the structure of the hydrogen atom and its electron.
Pauling returned to the United States and Caltech in 1927 as an assistant professor of chemistry, and was later promoted to full professor. He focused his brilliant, intuitive mind on questions that fascinated him and many other scientists of that era: the structure of molecules and the properties of the bonds that hold the atoms of a molecule together.
He brought to this work his recently acquired knowledge of quantum mechanics and his expertise in X-ray diffraction, a technique he had by then been using for several years in chemical experiments.
In this technique, X-rays are beamed through a crystalline form of a molecule under study. The X-rays are deflected whenever they strike an atom, like waves striking the pilings of a dock, and so form an interference pattern on special film recorders. By analyzing these interference patterns, Pauling and his colleagues were able to determine where different atoms were located within the structure of the overall molecule, the angles at which they were joined, and so on.
This research led Pauling to a consideration of the chemical bond itself. What was it that held single atoms of sodium and chlorine together as a molecule of salt? Or two hydrogens and an oxygen to form water? How did crystals of iron and other metals stick together?
By means of a series of careful experiments done over a period of a few years, Pauling, often called the “St. Paul of quantum mechanics,” emerged with several major findings.
His discoveries had major, if somewhat generalized, impact on chemistry and chemical engineering.
The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences regarded Pauling’s elucidation into the nature of the chemical bond and the structure of complex substances to be such a profound addition to scientific knowledge that it awarded him the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
In 1949, Pauling had attended a lecture on sickle cell anemia presented by Dr. William B. Castle of the Harvard University Medical School. During his talk, Castle mentioned that sickle cells took on their characteristic crescent shape only in the venous, or deoxygenated, side of the body’s circulatory system. On the arterial, or oxygenated, side, these cells had a normal shape.
Something clicked in Pauling’s brain and, as he had done many times before and after, he immediately saw the answer to the problem: Sickle cell anemia was caused by a genetic defect in the structure of the red blood cells’ hemoglobin molecule.
Certain that he was correct in his insight--an unshakable self-confidence was another hallmark of Pauling’s personality--he began a series of experiments that lasted from 1949 to 1952 and proved that sickling was the result of a faulty gene.
In the early 1950s, encouraged by his success with his insights into sickle cell anemia, Pauling turned his thoughts and energies to a number of other diseases that originated, or so he was convinced, in flawed genetic molecules. He became particularly interested in several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.
By then, Pauling wielded considerable power over his Caltech fiefdom--he had become chairman of the chemistry and chemical engineering division, as well as director of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry (in 1936)--and so could direct, pretty much as he pleased, the thrust of those research activities under his aegis.
He began bringing into Caltech’s chemistry division a number of researchers with a chemical-biomedical approach to mental illness. Within a fairly short time, according to Bonner, Pauling had converted about one-third of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories’ space and resources for investigating the molecular bases of different mental illnesses.
It was a move that was to cost Pauling dearly a few years later. Although some of the newcomers were good scientists who produced useful findings, many were regarded by the established Caltech chemists as inadequate, unproductive or incompetent. Tensions quickly developed between the two factions.
The problem was exacerbated because Pauling was frequently absent from the chemistry laboratories and the Caltech campus during that period.
He was always in demand as a guest lecturer and winning the Nobel Prize only enhanced his desirability in the eyes of other universities and organizations; the invitations to speak started rolling into his office by the score. Pauling accepted many of them.
On top of this, he had begun to speak out about the hazards of nuclear weapons and the atmospheric tests of nuclear fission bombs. In 1958 he wrote an impassioned book on the threat of these weapons to world peace, titled “No More War!” and he spearheaded a petition campaign against atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons that was signed by more than 11,000 scientists from around the world.
Pauling presented this impressive document to the United Nations in 1958. His efforts were widely credited as having contributed importantly to the test ban treaty that the major nuclear nations signed in 1963; those efforts won him the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.
Pauling was the second person to ever win two Nobel Prizes, but the first to win two by himself. Marie Curie won two Nobels, for physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911; however, she shared the physics prize with two others.
Because of his outspoken anti-war feelings, Pauling became a target of the stridently anti-Communist political conservatives of the Joseph McCarthy era. Pauling was accused of being a Communist by McCarthy and was badgered by “red-hunting” congressional and state Senate investigative committees.
Pauling declined to answer the questions put to him by a California Senate committee on education, but in a Nov. 16, 1950, letter to Caltech President Lee A. DuBridge, he flatly declared: “I am not a Communist. I am not a member of the Communist Party now or at any time in the past.” DuBridge made the letter public and avoided a head-on clash with the committee.
By 1958, Pauling was in trouble on several grounds--his absenteeism from the school, his continued advocacy of biomedical research in the chemical laboratories, and his disdain for compromise. The Caltech Board of Trustees demanded that he step down from the chairmanship of the division that he had held for 22 years.
It was a bitter blow for Pauling, who discovered that he had very little support above himself in the Caltech organization and not much more, if any, below. He remained at Caltech, holding tenure as a full professor, but when he could no longer endure watching his successor dismantle the mental illness program he had set up, he resigned in 1963 and joined the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
He quickly came to regard many of his colleagues at the Santa Barbara-based center as “windbags,” according to a friend, and left to join the faculty of UC San Diego in 1967 as a professor of chemistry. But there were conservatives on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s Board of Regents who disliked Pauling and everything he stood for; they began questioning his yearly reappointment to the UC San Diego faculty, just as they questioned the status of professors Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis, both avowed Communists.
Pauling refused to be baited by Reagan’s regents and he quit UC San Diego in 1969 to accept a professorial seat with Stanford University. He remained there until 1974, when he established the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in nearby Menlo Park.
Pauling began taking Vitamin C on a regular, if moderate, basis in 1941 as part of his recovery regimen from a bout of nephritis (a kidney inflammation). In the 1950s, when he was greatly interested in the molecular roots of mental illness, he learned that two Canadian researchers had been treating schizophrenic patients with large doses of the vitamin and, according to Pauling, achieving positive results.
Intrigued by those findings, he began to build a collection of reports on the beneficial aspects of Vitamin C. Then, in 1966, he became acquainted with professor Irwin Stone, a New York City biochemist who had long been advocating large doses--3 grams a day--of the vitamin to promote general health and prevent illness. Belief was soon transformed into conviction.
Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, started taking that much Vitamin C every day and both reported that not only did they feel better as a consequence, but they also no longer suffered the miseries of common colds. Pauling was convinced that there was a causal link between his vigorous good health and his huge intake of Vitamin C--he increased it to 18,000 milligrams a day in the mid-1970s--and thus began promoting it for a broad range of ailments.
Although never officially recognized by the medical community for his research, in 1981, Pauling enjoyed one small public triumph when the National Cancer Institute granted his small institute $204,000 for a two-year study on the effectiveness of Vitamin C on cancer.
Pauling and his wife, whom he met during his Oregon days, enjoyed a close and warm relationship until her death in 1981. They had four children.
He was unusually successful at making money throughout his distinguished career. The Nobel Prizes brought him handsome sums at the times they were bestowed, but so did the chemistry textbooks he wrote.
Pauling was a very compassionate individual, by all accounts, and his sympathies instantly sprang to those who had been made to suffer for their political beliefs. “He once hired a lab director,” Bonner said, “whose sole credential for the job was the fact that he had been fired from his previous post for citing the 5th Amendment on his own behalf during some anti-Communist hearings. The man was not a good choice for the job, but still Linus stuck by him.”
Pauling’s greatest strength, said many who knew him through the years, was also his Achilles’ heel: a supreme, unshakable confidence in the correctness of his own judgments. “When he was right, which was more often than not,” said one longtime friend, “he was very, very right. But when he was wrong, which he also was from time to time, there was no way to get him to see it, or to compromise, or to make any kind of concession. This attitude frankly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
In the end, such foibles amount to little when compared to the achievements of Pauling’s remarkable contributions to science and society.
“He had one of the most original, creative minds of any scientist in the 20th Century,” said Norman Davidson, a longtime colleague. “There is no doubt that he will be the preeminent chemist of this century.”