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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1984: Linus C. Pauling (1901–1994)

In his Priestley Medal address, Linus C. Pauling said that he was pleased that those who nominated him likened him to Joseph Priestley, who also had interests including “not only science but also morality.”

Pauling leaves a vast legacy not only as one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century and one of the most prominent scientists of all time, but also as a peace activist. He is also the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes, the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

Born and raised in Oregon, Pauling was only nine years old when his father died, spurring the youngster to escape into books and hobbies. A few years later, entranced with a friend’s toy chemistry set, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his basement at home so that he could conduct experiments throughout his teen years.

Born and raised in Oregon, Pauling left high school at age 16, one course short of receiving his diploma, and enrolled in Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). Before earning a degree in chemical engineering there, the scientifically gifted student was asked to teach chemistry courses, including one for home economics majors. One of his students, Ava Helen Miller, later became his wife.

After graduation in 1922, Pauling enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, where he hoped to answer the question of how atoms bonded to form molecules. While there, he was able to work with X-ray crystallography, then a new experimental technique.

After earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Caltech in 1925, Pauling accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the basics of atomic structure. During this time, he met European physicists who taught him quantum mechanics theory. In 1927, Pauling brought this important advance back to Caltech and applied it to problems of chemical structure and function in his new position as an assistant professor of theoretical chemistry.

Over the next five years, Pauling published almost 50 papers and was awarded the Langmuir Prize by ACS for outstanding interdisciplinary research in chemistry and physics. He was also named full professor of chemistry at Caltech. In 1939, Pauling summarized his ideas in the book “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” still considered an important work in modern chemistry.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, Pauling shifted his focus from inorganic molecules to organic molecules, including proteins. In the course of his research, Pauling’s team gained insight into the cause of sickle cell anemia. Furthermore, his work on the molecular structure of amino acids laid the groundwork for the eventual discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule by other scientists.

Reflecting his many accomplishments, Pauling was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.”

In addition to his work on molecular structure and function, Pauling also developed explosives and rocket propellants during World War II. He was invited to head the chemistry program of the Manhattan Project, but he declined the offer simply because he did not want to uproot his wife and four children.

After the war, Pauling’s feelings about weapons development changed, having been influenced by his pacifist wife. Concerned about development and use of atomic weapons and the consequences of nuclear fallout, Pauling joined with other scientists to call for limitations on nuclear testing. In recognition of this work, Pauling was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his humanitarian goals, Pauling’s efforts were controversial in that they advocated for changes that were not consistent with the official policy of the U.S. government.

When Caltech failed to congratulate him on the peace prize, Pauling resigned after more than three decades with the institution. He continued to conduct research in numerous places, including the University of California, San Diego, and Stanford University.

During that time, Pauling delved into the unconventional field of orthomolecular medicine, which aims to optimize health by fine-tuning the mix of certain molecules in the human body. He also became an advocate for increased consumption of vitamin C and other nutrients. In 1973, Pauling founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine, which was later renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science & Medicine. He summarized his research and insights on nutrition and health in several controversial books, including the best-seller “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” in 1986.

Pauling wrote more than 500 papers and 11 books, won numerous scientific awards and prizes, and served as president of ACS in 1949. He died of prostate cancer in 1994 at age 93.

Throughout his career, Pauling moved from physics to chemistry to biology to medicine to meet his goals, often refusing to be deterred by controversy or convention. According to the Academy of Achievement, Pauling once noted, “I have always liked working in some scientific direction that nobody else is working in.”—Susan Ainsworth

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award