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April 2001
Vol. 10, No. 04,
pp 99–100, 103–104.
Profiles in Chemistry
Pioneer, Reformer, Scientist for the Ages

Linus Pauling, one of “the 20 greatest scientists of all time”, was the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Linus Pauling with Goerge Kauffman
Linus Pauling (left, with trademark beret) and George B. Kauffman at Kauffman’s Coordination Chemistry Centennial Symposium, 205th National Meeting, American Chemical Society, Denver, March 29, 1993. (Photo courtesy of Ernest L. Carpenter, ACS News Service).
Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, OR, on February 28, 1901, and died at his Deer Flat Ranch near Big Sur, CA, on August 19, 1994, at the age of 93. In 1991, he was diagnosed with rectal and prostate cancer and underwent two surgeries. However, self-confident of his beliefs, he chose his still controversial regimen of vitamin C megadoses, which he had advocated for the common cold, cancer, and AIDS, as his primary form of therapy.

New Scientist magazine once characterized Pauling as one of “the 20 greatest scientists of all time, on a par with Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.” Pauling has also been called one of the two greatest scientists of the 20th century (the other being Einstein) and the greatest chemist since Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the 18th-century founder of modern chemistry. As we enter the new millennium, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, let’s reflect on some of his multifaceted activities and achievements, for his life spanned almost the entire 20th century. His life, both scientific and personal, was characterized by controversy, and almost everything about him was larger than life.

School Days
The first of three children of pharmacist Herman W. Pauling and Lucy Isabelle Pauling (née Darling), Pauling, as a child, was passionately curious about science in general and mathematics and optical phenomena in particular. When he was nine, his father died. They lost the family business, a drugstore, and his mother moved the family into a smaller house, where she took in boarders to make ends meet.

When high school friend Lloyd Jeffress showed him how sulfuric acid turns white sugar into a steaming mass of black carbon, Pauling became hooked on a career in “the central science”. He lacked the money to equip a home laboratory, so he “borrowed” chemicals from the shelves of a nearby abandoned smelter. He excelled academically and enrolled in all the science and mathematics courses offered by his high school, but in spite of that, he was refused permission to finish his graduation requirements early so that he could enter college early. He dropped out before his last term and entered Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) at Corvallis. In 1963, almost a half century later, his high school awarded its most famous alumnus, now an unprecedented two-time Nobel Prize winner, his missing diploma!

Higher Studies
At Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling majored in chemical engineering and developed the belief that guided his lifetime of research: Atomic arrangements are responsible for the chemical and physical properties of material substances. After completing two years of study, he dropped out to earn money to continue his education. When he returned, he became an instructor in qualitative analysis—a course that he had taken only the previous year. He also taught a chemistry course for home economics majors. One of his students, Ava Helen Miller, became his wife on June 17, 1923. Their marriage lasted 58 years and produced three sons (Linus Carl, Peter Jeffress, and Edward Crellin) and one daughter, Linda Helen (Mrs. Barclay James Kamb).

In 1922, Pauling received his B.S. degree and entered the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He worked with Roscoe G. Dickinson and used the relatively new technique of X-ray crystallography to explore the architecture of crystals. He received his Ph.D. in 1925 and was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to pursue postgraduate research in Europe with Arnold Sommerfeld, Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger. Pauling was the first to realize the implications of the new quantum mechanics for chemistry. He applied this field of physics to explain and predict the properties of atoms and ions and thus to revolutionize chemistry.

Bonding and Resonance
In 1927, Pauling returned to Pasadena to join the chemistry faculty at Caltech, an association that lasted until 1963, when he resigned. As Pauling told us in an interview on April 1, 1994, one of his last, “I was shown a copy of The Los Angeles Times where Caltech president Lee DuBridge said, ‘It’s really remarkable that any person should get two Nobel Prizes, but there is much difference of opinion about the value of the work that Professor Pauling has been doing.’ That’s the work for world peace, you know. Well, I thought, that’s a little too much, so I decided to resign” (1).

At Caltech, Pauling used X-ray diffraction to measure the distances and angles of atomic bonds in inorganic, and later, organic crystals. Crystallographers had previously tried to determine the atomic arrangements in crystals but did not analyze whether these arrangements were physically or chemically reasonable. Pauling developed rules to select the best atomic arrangement from among all the possibilities.

Pauling introduced the concept of resonance in 1931. Some ions and molecules cannot be represented by one classical structure but require what he called a “hybridization” of two or more canonical structures. He summarized these ideas in his magnum opus, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, one of the most influential and frequently cited scientific books of the 20th century. In less than a decade, Pauling had transformed the earlier, somewhat simplistic theory of the chemical bond into a powerful, highly sophisticated theory and research tool.

Biochemical Studies
Pauling began to attack biochemical problems in the mid-1930s. His interest in the bonding of oxygen in hemoglobin led to his more general interest in proteins, the nitrogen-containing organic compounds required for all the life processes in animal metabolism. In a typical pattern of his research, he then shifted his main attention to other subjects for several years only to resume his focus on proteins in the late 1940s.

In 1948, while in bed with influenza, Pauling occupied himself by making a paper model of linked amino acids, the basic building blocks of proteins. He thus discovered the -helix, a cylindrical, coil-like arrangement of amino acids connected by hydrogen bonds. In 1950, Pauling and Robert Corey published a description of the -helix, and the structure was soon experimentally verified. Pauling’s application of structural chemistry to protein molecules began a revolution in molecular biology that continues today, and his “lock and key” theory of the action of enzymes is yielding results in the study of genetic defects and immunology.

The -helix was a crucial concept that led James Watson and Francis Crick to make one of the major discoveries of the century, the structure of DNA. This led to the Human Genome Project and the current revolution in genetic engineering. Had Pauling made the discovery, he, not Watson and Crick, would undoubtedly have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—his third Nobel! To our question about this, Pauling replied, “My wife said, ‘If that was such an important problem, why didn’t you work harder at it?’” (1).

After World War II, Pauling theorized that sickle cell anemia was caused by a genetic defect in the hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells. In 1949, with Harvey Itano, he proved this theory and identified what they called a “molecular disease”—one that could be explained by a molecular abnormality. In 1954, Pauling received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, his first of two Nobel Prizes, “for his research on the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.”

Political Activities
Pauling’s evolution from an ivory tower scientist to an ardent and articulate public spokesman on technological issues and the social responsibility of scientists was encouraged by his wife. He made revolutionary discoveries and acquired world renown, but because of his political activities on behalf of civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and world peace, during the McCarthy era, he was denied research grants and his passport. He was persecuted by the FBI and other governmental agencies and was supported only halfheartedly by Caltech, to which he devoted almost four decades of his life, and he was snubbed by the American Chemical Society (ACS), which he had served as president in 1949.

Pauling’s battles with political and ideological enemies, although eventually resulting in his ultimate vindication, consumed a considerable amount of his time and energy. He considered these activities on behalf of peace among the most important of his contributions to humanity: “I have not regretted my peace activism, although this has damaged my reputation as a scientist among certain people and institutions.” In his book No More War! he linked his two favorite topics, science and pacifism: “Science is the search for truth—it is not a game in which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harm to others. We need the spirit of science in international affairs to make the conduct of international affairs the effort to find the solution.”

In 1963, Pauling became research professor at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, CA. He divided his time between chemistry and the pursuit of world peace and devoted himself to what he called “orthomolecular medicine”, in which large amounts of particular nutrients normally present in the body are used to treat or prevent disease. After professorships at the University of California–San Diego (1967–1969) and Stanford University (1969–1974), in 1973, he founded and became president of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. At the time of his death, he was still director of research there.

Pauling on the Internet
For further details on Linus Pauling’s work and life as well as the Pauling Centenary Celebration, which includes exhibitions, lectures, events, books, medals, models, and other items, check out the Linus Pauling Institute Web site at http://lpi.orst.edu.
Later Years
Pauling was the author of more than 1000 articles and several best-selling books and received almost every scientific award, as well as honorary doctorates from some 48 universities. During his waning years, many of the rifts healed between him and those with whom he had clashed. Despite a sometimes stormy relationship with ACS (during his presidency he had unsuccessfully urged it to take an activist position on his efforts to prevent war), in 1984, he was awarded the Priestley Medal, its highest honor, as well as its Award in Chemical Education in 1987. In the 1980s, Caltech re-embraced him as one of its most distinguished faculty and alumni.

Almost single-handedly, Pauling transformed the way in which chemists, biologists, and physicists view their sciences. He integrated physics, mathematics, and chemistry to study the structure and function of molecules involved in all living organisms. He led a long and controversial but extremely productive life. Because he never let a challenge go unanswered, he was admired by those who shared his views and vilified by those—both scientists and politicians—who opposed his views and philosophy.

However, Pauling never became embittered. Despite the attacks of his adversaries, he told us how he was able to retain his positive outlook on life: “I suppose it’s partially genetic ... actually the result of my having been pretty successful in my own career, and, of course, my feeling that we ought to be smart enough, we human beings, to solve our problems, whatever they are” (1).

Linus Pauling Month
February 2000 was proclaimed Linus Pauling Month by Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, who noted that
  • Pauling remains the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes, one for chemistry in 1954 and one for peace in 1962.
  • Pauling’s efforts to bring about world peace and the banning of nuclear weapons testing, carried out in spite of the disapproval of his own government, established a new base for world peace negotiations.
  • Pauling’s scientific genius established the basis of modern chemistry and helped found the discipline of molecular biology, therein setting the stage for major discoveries that have benefited humankind.
  • Pauling honored his alma mater, Oregon State University, and the people of Oregon with the gift of his papers, books, medals, research models, and memorabilia, a total of more than 500,000 items covering the years 1916–1994.

Further Reading

  • Goertzel, T.; Goertzel, B. Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics; Basic Books: New York, 1995.
  • Hager, T. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling; Simon & Schuster: New York, 1995; Linus Pauling and the Chemistry of Life; Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.
  • Pauling, L. No More War!; Dodd, Mead, & Co.: New York, 1958, 1983.
  • Serafini, A. Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science; Paragon House: New York, 1989.


  1. Kauffman, G. B.; Kauffman, L. M. Am. Scientist 1994, 82, 522–524; J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 29–32.

George B. Kauffman is a professor of chemistry at California State University–Fresno and recipient of the 2000 American Chemical Society Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution. Laurie M. Kauffman, his wife and frequent coauthor, is a retired schoolteacher with an interest in the humanistic aspects of science. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th st N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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