Linus Pauling (1901–1994)

The number of people who have won a Nobel Prize is a very select group. When the field is limited to those who have won more than one Nobel Prize, the group narrows to four. Two people have won Nobel Prizes in different fields, but only one person has been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes in different fields. Those prizes—for Chemistry in 1954 and Peace in 1963—given to Linus Pauling were recognition for two of his passions. The awards, medals, and recognitions for his accomplishments came from around the world—the Davy Medal from the Royal Society (1947), the Pasteur Medal from the Biochemical Society of France (1952), Humanist of the Year from the American Humanist Association (1961), the Lenin Peace Prize (1968), and many, many more. He received honorary degrees from Cambridge (1947), London (1948), and Oxford (1948) and is the only chemist to be so honored by all three universities. Pauling is regarded as the founding father of molecular biology, and his textbook on The Nature of the Chemical Bond, published in 1954, is still cited as one of the most influential chemistry books ever published.

Considered by some to be one of the 20 greatest scientists of all time, Dr. Pauling’s intellect placed him in an exclusive group. He was friends with such intellectuals as Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, although when Oppenheimer made a pass at Dr. Pauling’s wife he terminated that friendship. But besides being a gifted scientist, Dr. Pauling was a gifted communicator. He wrote more than 600 scholarly articles, 200 political and social articles, as well as books—both mass market and textbooks. His chemistry textbook, published in 1947, was the industry standard for decades and translated into 13 languages. Dr. Pauling was also a gifted speaker. He had a knack for explaining complex scientific concepts in understandable terms. His stage presence made him sought after by scientific and popular audiences around the world.

Dr. Pauling’s mind took him in many directions—multiple aspects of chemistry, biochemistry, theoretical physics, metallurgy, mineralogy, medicine, and humanitarian issues. A student once asked him how he had so many good ideas. Dr. Pauling responded. “I have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” Controversy mattered little. When others held their opinions, Dr. Pauling thought nothing of stating what he believed to be right.

Dr. Pauling’s relations with family members were sometimes strained. His widowed mother wanted him to get a job and help support her after he graduated from high school. Her needs and his academic goals were at odds for the rest of her life. And when he did not return from a trip to Europe to attend her funeral, the extended family held it against him. Career took precedence over his immediate family as well. Raising children was left up to his wife, Ava Helen. Dr. Pauling and his wife, however, were inseparable. She supported him in every way possible, and Dr. Pauling recognized her accomplishments. “I have been especially fortunate for about 50 years in having two memory banks available—whenever I can’t remember something I ask my wife, and thus I am able to draw on this auxiliary memory bank.... I listen carefully to what my wife says, and in this way I often get a good idea.”

Chemist Linus Paulings work in molecular biology and on the nature of the chemical bond won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954.

Chemist Linus Pauling’s work in molecular biology and on the nature of the chemical bond won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. (Library of Congress)

Dr. Pauling’s accomplishments were not without controversy. His activism in pursuing a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing was at odds with the atomic establishment, but he was exonerated when the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Nevertheless, his role as a leading scientist and his loose connections with socialist organizations made him the focus of McCarthy-era witch hunts. For several years, the State Department refused to issue him a passport—a policy that prevented him from attending international scientific conferences. Dr. Pauling held his ground: “My own political beliefs are well known. I am not a Communist. I have never been a Communist. I have never been involved with the Communist Party. I am a Rooseveltian Democrat,” he told a congressional committee. He could not shake the political stigma attached to his name.

He did not mind taking an unpopular stand. When President Kennedy authorized aboveground nuclear testing, Dr. Pauling sent him a telegram asking, “are you to give orders that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all times and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?” And he took heat for his views. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, Life magazine referred to the award as a “Weird Insult from Norway.” Dr. Pauling was unswayed by criticism. Speaking of the effects of radioactive fallout just after the award, the New York Times quoted him saying, “I like people. I like animals, too—whales and quail, dinosaurs and dodos. But I like human beings especially, and I am unhappy that the pool of human germ plasm, which determines the nature of the human race, is deteriorating.”

Controversy followed him also later in life, when he turned his intellect to orthomolecular medicine. Convinced that megadoses of vitamin C could ward off the common cold as well as cancer, Dr. Pauling consumed massive doses daily, increasing the amount when he sensed symptoms of a cold. Vitamin C and the Common Cold and several sequels were best sellers, even if they were not accepted by the scientific community. Dr. Pauling could be obstinate, and when critics such as the Mayo Clinic questioned his findings, he became more entrenched in his beliefs.

Linus Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, on February 28, 1901 to Herman Henry William Pauling and Lucy Isabelle Darling. He was the oldest of three children. Although the family lived in the wealthiest part of town, they lived on the brink of poverty. His father was hardworking, but always seemed to struggle to earn money. When Linus was four, the family moved to Condon, Oregon, to live with his mother’s family, but the stay was brief. The Paulings were back in Portland by the time Linus entered school. The death of his father when he was nine compounded the family’s financial problems. A classmate who became a life-long friend, Lloyd A. Jeffries, introduced him to chemistry. Pauling quickly outgrew his friend’s chemistry supplies and set up his own lab in an abandoned building.

Pauling entered Washington High School when he was 12 and devoured his studies, but left school without graduating because he lacked credits in American history. He had enough credits to enter Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), and after working for a year to save money and help his mother, at the age of 16, he entered the freshman class in September 1916. There was no stopping Pauling and his thirst for knowledge. In his freshman year he took two math courses, two chemistry courses, and courses in mechanical drawing, mining and explosives, and English. After a successful sophomore year, he planned to take time off and help his family. The college, however, offered him a job teaching quantitative analysis—a course he had just completed—for $100 a month and he was able to continue his academic progress. One of his students at the college was Ava Helen Miller who later became his wife.

Pauling graduated from Oregon Agricultural College and enrolled at Caltech in 1922, never dreaming that he would spend the next 41 years there. His academic achievements began to accumulate. He earned his PhD in chemistry summa cum laude in 1925. A year later, he went to the University of Munich under a Guggenheim fellowship to study quantum mechanics with Arnold Sommerfeld, a theoretical physicist. He continued to publish papers in the next several years, applying quantum mechanics to chemical bonding and examining the nature of complicated crystals.

In 1931, he published an article, “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” which earned him the Langmuir Award from the American Chemical Society for “most noteworthy work in pure science by a man under 30 years of age.” MIT offered him a dual professorship in chemistry and physics, which he turned down. The following year, at the age of 32, Dr. Pauling became the youngest member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a prolific writer; by 1936 he had published 100 papers. The following year he published a chemistry textbook that was the academic standard for the next two decades.

Dr. Pauling turned his attention to molecular biology, and over the next several years he wrote multiple papers on oxygen bonding to hemoglobin, hydrogen bonding to polypeptide chains, and the nature of proteins. By now he had been promoted to the Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. In 1939, Dr. Pauling published The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Nature of Molecules and Crystals, considered to be one of the most important books of the 20th century. He continued his research, working out the alpha helix structure of polypeptides, chains of amino acids. In 1954, Dr. Pauling achieved the ultimate recognition—the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—but his accomplishment was complicated by his increasing involvement in controversy and politics.

During World War II, Dr. Pauling, like many scientists, worked on a variety of defense-related projects, although he did not work on the Manhattan Project. While he supported the war effort, he took exception to the internment of Japanese Americans. When the Paulings hired a Japanese American as a gardener, their house was defaced with graffiti and they received threatening phone calls. Heavily influenced by his wife’s political activism, Dr. Pauling became increasingly involved with political issues. Particularly concerned with the threats of nuclear war and the effects of fallout and radiation, he began to call for a ban on atmospheric testing as a first step toward nuclear disarmament. In spite of his political views, Dr. Pauling received a Medal of Merit from President Truman for his wartime contributions. Concerns over Dr. Pauling’s political views and affiliations continued to mount. In 1950, he was called to testify before California’s Senate Investigating Committee on Education where he testified for several hours, focusing mostly on loyalty oaths.

Dr. Pauling’s political activism impacted his academic career when the State Department refused to issue him a passport to attend a conference in England in 1952. Turned down by the State Department, he appealed to President Eisenhower who referred his request back to the State Department, which turned him down again. An appeal by Albert Einstein did not help either. The conference had special significance because attendees got to view X-ray diffraction photographs of the DNA structure, which led others to the discovery of DNA before Dr. Pauling. Dr. Pauling was still without a passport on November 11, 1953, when the Nobel Prize Committee announced that he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “research into the chemical bond and its application to the structure of complex substances.” He finally received the passport on November 27, just two weeks before the award ceremony.

In May 1957, Dr. Pauling made a speech, “Science in the Modern World,” at Washington University in St. Louis. Calling for a nuclear test ban, Dr. Pauling joined with Barry Commoner and Edward Condon in circulating a petition to like-minded scientists. When the 11,021 signatures on the petition were tallied, they included 36 Nobel Prize laureates, 35 members of the Royal Society of London, and 210 members of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Pauling’s political agenda took him away from Caltech. Although he was tenured, sentiment ran so high against him that he resigned his position in June 1958. His petition also earned him a subpoena before a Congressional committee investigating the extent of Communist infiltration into the peace movement. Dr. Pauling challenged his interrogators for an open hearing; he wanted to be sure that the public heard an accurate version of his testimony. Dr. Pauling continued his support for a test ban, taking it to the White House. On April 29, 1962, President Kennedy hosted a White House dinner for American Nobel Prize laureates. Dr. Pauling and his wife attended, but only after they had spent the day picketing outside the fence. His views were vindicated when on October 10, 1963, the same day that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty took effect, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced one year late that Dr. Pauling had won the Peace Prize for 1962.

After his departure from Caltech, Dr. Pauling joined the faculty at the University of California at San Diego in 1967. While there, he developed a new line of study in orthomolecular medicine, the science of how vitamins impact the body’s health. His work led him to believe that megadoses of vitamin C could prevent the common cold and even cancer. He was joined by a former student, Arthur B. Robinson, and the two founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine at Menlo Park, California. Renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, the institute became a center for the study of megavitamins. Meanwhile, Dr. Pauling had moved on to Stanford University. In 1970, he wrote Vitamin C and the Common Cold, which was followed by Vitamin C and the Common Cold and Flu in 1976 and How to Live Longer and Feel Better in 1979. The books were hugely popular, but the scientific community did not accept his conclusions. Tests were done by the University of Toronto, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute with mixed results. Then three double-blind tests of vitamin C’s effectiveness with cancer conducted by the Mayo Clinic showed that it was no more effective than a placebo.

The real challenge to the vitamin C protocol came from Dr. Pauling’s own associate, Dr. Robinson, who found evidence that vitamin C actually increased the incidence of cancer in mice. Dr. Pauling responded by firing Robinson, killing his experimental animals, and destroying and impounding his research. Robinson filed suit and won $575,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

In his later years, Dr. Pauling continued to write and defend his ideas, spending his time between his Big Sur ranch and the Linus Pauling Institute. Dr. Pauling passed away on August 19, 1994, at his ranch, succumbing to prostrate cancer, leaving his vast collection of papers, books, and writings to his undergraduate alma mater, Oregon State University.

—Tom and Gena Metcalf


Goertzel, Ted and Ben Goertzel. Linus Pauling: A Life of Science and Politics. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Serafini, Anthony. Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science. New York: Paragon House, 1989.