Brian Dixon

Linus Pauling: The Man Behind the Science

Brian M. Dixon
LPI Graduate Fellow

One opportunity available to LPI Graduate Fellows is a two-week sabbatical in the Special Collections, located in Oregon State University's Valley Library, to study the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. This collection contains over 500,000 of Linus Pauling's personal and professional items, including his laboratory notebooks, correspondence, diaries, books, and his two Nobel Prizes (Chemistry 1954 and Peace 1962). This is truly a unique opportunity to intimately study the life of Linus Pauling and see firsthand why he was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.

I was most curious to learn why Linus Pauling was so driven to pursue science. Most of us are familiar with Pauling's many great contributions to science, modern medicine, and society, which include, for example, discoveries of molecular bonding and protein structures, and, along with his wife Ava Helen, relentless lobbying for peace. In fact, Linus Pauling had no fewer than 23 distinct areas of scientific interest in which he published over 1,050 articles.

I was particularly struck by Pauling's insatiable curiosity about the world around him and his persistent quest for answers. From a very early age, he sought to seek order in the world. He later remarked:

"I think that scientists are people...who are curious about the nature of the world. ...Now this quality of being curious about the world and of wanting to understand things can be fostered, or be nurtured by associations, by teachers. I can remember when I was ten, eleven, thirteen years old, noticing something in the world about me and asking, 'now why is that? Why do I see such a peculiar phenomenon? I would like to understand that.' I suppose all children do this to some extent, but I think that this feeling of curiosity was especially strong in me."

Linus PaulingLinus Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon. His father, Herman, was an ambitious druggist preoccupied with providing a good life for his wife, Isabel, their son, and two daughters. The family often moved between Isabel's hometown of Condon, Oregon, a small bustling agricultural community in Eastern Oregon, and Portland. While Condon was the epitome of the "Wild West"—full of possibilities for adventure—young Linus preferred to spend his free time at his father's drug store watching him prepare medicinal tonics, or reading every book he could find. Pauling's early intellect is apparent in a letter Herman wrote to the state's newspaper:

"I am a father and have an only son who is aged 9 years, in the fifth grade, a great reader and is deeply interested in ancient history.

In my desire to encourage and assist him in his prematurely developed inclinations, I ask some of The Oregonian's interested readers to advise me regarding the proper or at least the most comprehensive works to procure for him.

I have obtained both public and high school books used in our schools, besides numerous other publications relating to this subject, but they all seem more or less incomplete. In order to avoid the possibility, or probability rather, of having some one advise me to have him read the Bible, I will state that it was through reading this and Darwin's theory of evolution that my son became so interested in both history and natural sciences."

Tragically, fire destroyed the drug store Herman had worked so hard to establish. In an attempt to get the family back on its feet, Herman moved back to Portland with the hope of establishing a new store and continued to work various druggist- related jobs. Isabel, becoming increasingly homesick, would often take the children back to Condon for long periods while Herman stayed in Portland. Herman died suddenly when Linus was only nine years old, an event that may have stimulated his desire to find order and structure in his life—exactly the order and structure science offered.

Linus's first scientific endeavor involved insects. First collecting and mounting insects, he then identified them from library books, teaching himself taxonomic hierarchies. Linus's focus soon shifted from insects to rocks and minerals, and again he taught himself to identify specimens. However, it wasn't these endeavors that made a lasting impression on his scientific career—it was a single experiment performed by his lifelong friend, Lloyd Jeffress. One day Lloyd asked Linus if he would like to see a chemical experiment. Lloyd mixed together two chemicals, added a third, and in a life-changing pyrotechnical instant, Linus decided, at the age of 13, that he would become a chemist. He even built a laboratory in the basement of his mother's boarding house in Portland. With the help of his parents' local friends and by scavenging from an abandoned smelter, Linus amassed chemicals and equipment and performed his own scientific experiments. He would even carry liters of various acids back to his home laboratory on the municipal train.

Linus often recounted his amazement that two completely different chemical compounds could react to form a third compound that possessed none of the properties of the original reactants. These surprising observations stimulated Pauling to think about how the structure of substances determines their chemical behavior. Ultimately, this led to his transformation of chemistry from a purely descriptive science to a predictive science grounded in theory.

Besides his obvious genius and remarkable memory, Linus Pauling possessed another quality—objective self-appraisal. Because he was conscious of his inadequacies, he was able to overcome them through self-education. Linus spent his entire life acquiring new tools to answer bigger and bigger questions. For example, after earning a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and realizing his physics was weak, Pauling went to Germany on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study theoretical physics. By learning the new quantum theory and applying it to chemistry, he was able to elucidate chemical bonding and atomic structure. In a way, he had sought this answer since he was 13 years old.

Throughout his long life, Linus Pauling recorded almost everything, usually in laboratory notebooks or small pocket diaries. This ensured that a good idea was never lost. When asked how he was able to make so many discoveries, he replied: "You must have lots of ideas and just throw away the bad ones."

When Pauling was in his late forties, he and his wife, Ava Helen, passionately advocated restrictions on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and promoted world peace. They were devoted humanitarians, and Pauling often used his scientific knowledge and clout to get their message across. In 1983, his old friend, Lloyd Jeffress, wrote to him:

"I hope that a lot of people will read your book [No More War], and that maybe the human race will find some way of sharing our planet without destroying it. Men have done such wonderful things, created such beauty in science, art, and music, that the idea that they will now, somehow, resolve the problems of war—is almost, but unhappily, not quite, unthinkable."

Linus Pauling educated his fellow citizens through his scientific achievements and political activism, and we have much more to learn from the man behind the science. Why was Linus Pauling one of the most important and influential scientists of the 20th century? It wasn't luck or special opportunities, but rather hard work and application. As has been said, "what a person thinks about most insistently and loves most passionately, that he becomes." I would like to thank the Linus Pauling Institute and its dedicated donors for providing me with the opportunity to study the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. I would also very much like to thank Clifford Mead and the staff at Special Collections for their hospitality and forbearance. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling by Thomas Hager served as an excellent resource.


Special Collections Special Collections
The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers in Special Collections

Last updated May, 2004

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