Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling; drawing by David Levine

Sometime in the 1970s I began wondering whether Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes, for chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962, had become a crank. In 1970 he had published a best-selling monograph entitled Vitamin C and the Common Cold, whose thesis was that daily megadoses of vitamin C could prevent or help to cure many diseases—the common cold being the prime example. But Pauling was not content simply to publish his views, which were seen as unsound by many authorities. One could often find him on television with his somewhat high-pitched voice, his aureole of white hair, and his faintly rictal grin, promoting the virtues of vitamin C. He was also giving interviews to publications like the National Enquirer and Midnight, and he was suing various other publications that disagreed with him. In short, he appeared to many people to have become unhinged.

It was at about this time that I began an odd correspondence with Pauling. He started sending me reprints of his papers and monographs along with requests for commentaries. I invariably responded that I had none, since I did not know enough about the subject—the simple truth. This lasted until close to the time of his death, when I received yet another packet of papers having to do with his conviction that a state of matter which had recently been discovered—it was called “quasi-crystals”—did not really exist. The scientists who claimed to discover it had, he said, misread the data. Here, at least, I was able to ask the opinion of physicists who were working in the field. They assured me that, in this instance, Pauling was simply wrong.

I found this behavior of Pauling’s puzzling. Why was so brilliant a scientist acting in this way? I had never met Pauling and, indeed, had never seen a serious biographical study of him. I’m glad now to have read Force of Nature by Thomas Hager, an Oregon-based journalist who first met Pauling in 1984 when he was a correspondent for the Journal of the American Medical Association. From then on, until Pauling’s death a decade later, he interviewed him extensively, keeping a certain distance from him at the same time. Pauling was a great man and a great scientist, but he also had flaws both personally and scientifically and Mr. Hager describes them candidly and perceptively.1 Although, Mr. Hager tells us, Pauling read just the first third of the book before his death, and apparently approved of it, I doubt that he would have been happy about the rest.


“When I was eleven, with no outside inspiration—just library books—I started collecting insects. Not only did I collect insects, I also read about insects….At the time, I was interested only in insects! Which is why, before I got interested in chemistry itself, I began to need chemicals.”2

The career of Linus Pauling, in which he rose by his own efforts from a childhood of emotional and economic deprivation, is a peculiarly American story of success, although from the time of the Second World War almost to his death Pauling was absurdly accused of being “un-American.” He was persecuted by the FBI. His passport was confiscated and, in 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee named him one of the foremost Americans involved in a “Campaign to Disarm and Defeat the United States.”

Pauling’s father, Herman Henry William Pauling, whose parents were German immigrants, had come by stage coach to Condon, Oregon, in 1899. A year later, he married Belle, the beautiful daughter of the town’s founding father, Linus Wilson Darling. Pauling’s maternal grandmother, Alcy Delilah Neal, could trace her roots back to the Revolutionary War.

Pauling’s father was a pharmacist, but after the pharmacy he tended was sold, he moved to Portland to find work, and it was there that Pauling was born on February 28, 1901. His father, who appears to have realized that his young son had special intellectual gifts, died suddenly when Pauling was nine. By this time, Pauling had two younger sisters, and his mother became desperate, both financially and emotionally. Pauling seems to have had two reactions. He simply blocked out any overt emotional response to the loss of his father, and he apparently decided that his distraught and demanding mother would have no further relevance to his life. One can understand why Pauling, at least as Hager describes him, had difficulty dealing with emotional situations for the rest of his life and why he seemed so single-minded about any subject he concentrated on. From his childhood on, Pauling tried to shut out anything that threatened to upset his equilibrium.

Science became the refuge from the emotional chaos that surrounded him. First he collected insects and read about them; then a former business acquaintance of his father supplied chemicals, including potassium cyanide, for killing and preserving them. Next he turned to the study of minerals. When he was twelve he visited a friend who had a homemade chemistry set in his basement; after seeing how two substances could be turned into a third in a chemical reaction, he decided that chemistry was going to be his life’s work.


He also realized that somehow he had to go to college, although his family had no money to spend on tuition and his mother wanted him to take a job and help support her and her two other children. Pauling simply ignored her and, by working at all sorts of menial jobs and living on next to nothing, he managed, in the fall of 1917, to enter the only college he could possibly afford, the Oregon Agricultural College—now Oregon State University—in Corvallis.

Fortunately for Pauling, the school had just expanded its chemistry program, and before long perhaps the most knowledgeable instructor in the program was Pauling himself. When he was eighteen, in his junior year, Pauling accepted a job as a part-time instructor in courses he had taken the previous year. By this time, he was reading more in the contemporary chemistry journal literature than any one else on the faculty. The teaching job made it possible for Pauling to earn his way through college and also to meet his future wife, Ava Helen Miller, who was a freshman taking his chemistry class. In addition to being beautiful she was, Pauling later recalled, “in some ways more intelligent than I—as a test we both took, early in our marriage, proved her to be. Not only was she quicker, but she had more correct answers.” Both their parents objected to their getting married, so they put it off while Pauling went to graduate school—something also opposed by his mother. He borrowed a thousand dollars from an uncle to give to his mother so that he would not have to support her.

Pauling was accepted at Harvard but was told that if he also accepted the chemistry department’s offer of a half-time instructorship, it would take him six years to get his Ph.D. For Pauling, that left Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, which had recently changed its name from the Throop Institute. Each had a great chemist on its faculty: G. N. Lewis at Berkeley and A.A. Noyes at Cal Tech. Many years later Pauling explained why he didn’t go to Berkeley. He wrote,

I heard a story—probably it’s apocryphal—that when Lewis had looked over the several dozen graduate applications to the Berkeley chemistry department in early 1922, he came to one, looked at it, and said, “Linus Pauling, Oregon Agricultural College. I have never heard of that place.” So my application went into the discard pile.

In any event, before he heard from Berkeley he got an offer of a fellowship from the California Institute that would pay his tuition, plus $350 a month as a teaching assistant. He accepted it and remained, in one form or another, at Cal Tech until he resigned, under rather unhappy circumstances, in 1964.

For Pauling, the California Institute turned out to be an excellent choice. He was able to rapidly fill the gaps in his education in mathematics and physics. Moreover, Noyes had brought to the United States from Europe the new experimental subject of x-ray crystallography—the use of x-rays to study the structure of crystals. Noyes assigned Pauling to a newly created x-ray laboratory run by Roscoe Dickinson, one of the younger professors. The two of them used x-rays to determine the structure of molybdenite, the first of Pauling’s many scientific discoveries. He must have made a considerable impression on Noyes since Noyes began a campaign to keep Pauling out of the clutches of G. N. Lewis at Berkeley. One of the strings that he pulled was to arrange for a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow Pauling, and Ava Helen, now Pauling’s wife, to go to Europe to learn about the newly developing quantum theory. They departed Portland by train for the east coast and Europe in 1926. One of the curious things about their departure is that they left behind their not-quite-one-year-old son, Linus Jr., in the care of Pauling’s maternal grandmother. They would not see him for a year and a half. Ava Helen felt that bringing the boy to Europe might, in Mr. Hager’s words, be a “strain” and Pauling felt that caring for his son might take time away from his work.


“In the 1860s, about fifty years before I went away to college, chemists in Germany, England, and France had decided that the atoms in substances generally can be described as forming bonds with one another. It was accepted that the hydrogen atom can form one bond, the oxygen atom can form two bonds, the carbon atom can form four bonds, and the silicon atom can form four bonds. For fifty years after 1865 chemists had made great progress in understanding the properties of substances by discussing various ways in which atoms can be attached to one another by these chemical bonds.”

While chemists had made progress in discovering and classifying chemical compounds, until the first decades of this century they had made essentially no progress in learning about the nature of the chemical bond—what actually held the components of a molecule together. Until Ernest Rutherford and his students discovered the atomic nucleus in 1911, it was not clear that the atomic electrons were located on the outside of the atom and thus could participate in the chemical bonding process. In 1913, after a stay with Rutherford in Manchester, Niels Bohr returned to Copenhagen where he created his own model of the atom in which the electrons are assigned special orbits—“Bohr orbits”—around the positively charged nucleus. Scientists could now begin to build up the periodic table of elements by filling up the possible orbits with electrons.


The electrons in the orbits farthest away from the nucleus—the so-called valence electrons—are the ones that are responsible for chemical bonding. For example, the valence electrons can be shared—see the diagram above—by the various component parts of the molecule, something that is called covalent bonding. In the “old quantum theory” these electrons were supposed to follow Bohr orbits, which in Bohr’s original work were taken to be circular. The distinguished German theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, who was the director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, showed how to extend this model to include orbits of more complicated shapes which, in fact, could interpenetrate each other.

The diagram above shows how these orbits were supposed to penetrate each other for the methane molecule. Methane is a compound, the simplest so-called hydrocarbon, that consists of one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms, so its chemical symbol is CH4. The carbon nucleus has an electric charge of plus six; so to balance this in order to make a neutral carbon atom, there must be six negatively charged electrons circulating the nucleus. These are shown in the figure as small spheres circulating in their dotted-line orbits. (The numbers in the figure refer to the positive electric charges of the hydrogen and carbon nuclei.) But the two inner electrons don’t take part in the chemical bonding. It is only the four outer electrons—the so-called valence electrons. Each hydrogen atom has a single electron that circulates around its positively charged nucleus to neutralize it. It is the interaction of the valence electrons of carbon with those of hydrogen that results in the methane molecule.

Pauling had decided to use his Guggenheim Fellowship to study with Sommerfeld—a wonderful choice. Not only was Sommerfeld one of the greatest teachers of theoretical physics, but he was in an excellent position to teach the “new” quantum mechanics which was being created, among others, by his former students Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli at just about the time when Pauling arrived in Munich. In the new theory, waves of probability replaced the classical Bohr orbits. Pauling was made quickly aware that his work based on the old quantum theory was—as Pauli informed him—“not interesting.” Pauling soaked up the new theory and for the next decade he became a master at applying it to chemistry. This work culminated in the text he wrote in 1939 entitled The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals. It turned out to be one of the most influential scientific monographs of this century. When the members of the Nobel Prize committee cited Pauling in 1954 for “studies of the nature of the chemical bond,” they must have had this book in mind.


“My wife [Ava Helen] once said to me, ‘If that was such an important problem, why didn’t you work harder at it?’ ”

A puzzle that any biographer of Pauling must deal with is why Pauling failed to discover the structure of DNA—the double helix of James Watson and Francis Crick. Ava Helen’s notion that Pauling should have worked harder on the problem scarcely seems adequate. As we shall see, it was not a lack of industry that kept Pauling from making this discovery. It was, among other things, a lack of flexibility. When he returned to Cal Tech in 1927 he was made an assistant professor of “theoretical chemistry,” which meant applying quantum mechanics to chemical processes. He rapidly moved upward. In 1933 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences—an extraordinary honor for someone so young. In the meantime Cal Tech had begun building up its biology department, above all by hiring the prominent geneticist T. H. Morgan and his group from Columbia University. But the presence of people like Morgan was not what turned Pauling toward biology. It was money.

During the 1930s there was only meager government support for science—a condition we may now be revisiting. Funds for research came largely from private foundations, the most important of which was the Rockefeller Foundation. In charge of distributing the Rockefeller money for the sciences was Warren Weaver, a physicist and statistician who was, by his own admission, a second-rate scientist. But he had an exceptional ability to recognize promising research, and, when he did so, he was liberal in awarding Rockefeller grants. In the early 1930s, Weaver believed that the techniques of physics and modern chemistry could be used to investigate biological processes; he invented the name “molecular biology” to describe this new activity and between 1932 and 1959 he managed to direct into it a large fraction of the ninety million dollars that the Foundation spent on the sciences. One of his first grants was to Pauling—twenty thousand dollars for two years—to continue the non-biological research he had been doing on the structure of molecules.

But then the grant ran out and Pauling asked to have it renewed. Weaver made it clear that unless Pauling was prepared to switch his interest to biological molecules there wouldn’t be one. Pauling then decided to study hemogloblin—to try to determine its structure and, more generally, to determine the structure of proteins. It was a problem he worked on for much of the next fifteen years. His first great breakthough finally came in 1948, when Pauling, then a visiting professor at Oxford University, caught a cold. He was lying in bed recuperating when it struck him that complex molecules, like proteins, must very likely have a helical structure. This was based on a mathematical idea he had learned in a course he had taken from the mathematician Harry Bateman twenty-five years earlier at Cal Tech.3 (One of Pauling’s great strengths was a prodigious memory.) To illustrate the idea I have sketched the figure to the right, which looks like a spiral made out of a succession of rectangles.

The effect of the drawing is to extend the spiral out of the paper so it looks like a helix. Now we can imagine that this necklace has arisen by a single rectangle propagating itself, all the while preserving its integrity as a rectangle. We can imagine displacing the original rectangle in space in such a way as never to distort it. What Bateman showed is that the most general way one can do this is to successively displace and then rotate the rectangle. In Pauling’s words, Bateman’s

theorem states that the most general operation that converts an asymmetric object [our rectangle being a simple example] into an equivalent asymmetric object…is a rotation-translation—that is, a rotation around an axis combined with a translation along the axis—and that repetition of this operation produces a helix.

Thus if a large biological molecule is constructed by joining together a number of identical sub-units, such as our rectangles, in such a way as to conserve the integrity of the sub-units, then this molecule is very likely—if it has any periodic structure at all—to have the structure of a helix. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this idea in studying the structure of these molecules. Among other things, it gave an immediate clue about what to look for in the x-ray diffraction pictures of various molecules that Pauling and other researchers were using in their attempts to understand the structure of proteins and DNA.

Knowing that one is dealing with a helix does not tell one what kind of helix one is dealing with. It might be a helix with a single strand as shown in my drawing, or it might have two strands—a double helix—or three—a triple helix—or even more. Nonetheless, once he had this insight Pauling immediately used it to analyze keratin—the protein found in nails, hoofs, and horns. Pauling made a model with a triple helix that seemed to have all the right chemical properties. But when he tried to fit it with the crude x-ray data it didn’t quite work. So he didn’t publish anything for two years—until he became worried that a group of British researchers was about to publish the same idea. At about the same time new x-ray data showed that Pauling’s fit had been right all along. This was the first great breakthough in the determination of the structure of proteins.

But DNA is not a protein and, unlike keratin, it has a double helix structure—and not a triple one. Pauling, however, was so enamored of his three-stranded helix that he could not give it up. He was trapped in his own model. Indeed, in 1953, the same year that Watson and Crick published their note, Pauling produced an entirely wrong paper in which he claimed that DNA was a triple helix. I think that it is fair to say that this was his last attempt to deal with a major scientific problem. The episode apparently took the heart out of him. Watson and Crick won the race, not only because they were smart but also because of the flexibility of their minds. They were not committed to any a priori hypothesis or model.


“Before World War II, my wife hired a Japanese gardener. When the war started, all Japanese were transported to detention camps. As a consequence we lost our gardener. But before long, someone telephoned my wife to inform her of a young Japanese American Nisei who, though already inducted into the American army. had two weeks’ leave to settle family affairs and would like to take care of our garden during the interim. My wife and I belonged to a group that was protesting the treatment of Japanese people in California. Perhaps a member of that group suggested that my wife hire the young man.

“She did hire him. But he worked for only one day, because on the night of his having been hired, a rising sun and the words ‘Americans die, but Pauling loves Japs’ appeared painted on our garage and mailbox.

“We were threatened, and the threats grew worse after word of the incident appeared in the newspapers. I had to go to Washington D. C., on some war work; and while I was away, the local sheriff was compelled to put a guard around our house to protect my wife.”

Until this incident Pauling does not seem to have had much interest in political and social questions. His wife, it is true, came from a very active and liberal political family. Her mother had been a suffragist. During the war Pauling was deeply engaged in war work of various kinds. It was only after the war, inspired, he reports, by his wife’s statement that “the most important of all activities is that of keeping the world from being destroyed in a nuclear war,” that he began to put his energies into political activism. Like many scientists of this period, Pauling was much concerned that the control of nuclear energy be kept in civilian hands. He spoke widely at public meetings and he also joined any number of left-wing political groups, some of which probably had Communist members. He was not a Communist, but these activities soon brought him under the scrutiny of the FBI; and this, in turn, came to the attention of some of the very conservative trustees of Cal Tech, who began to put pressure on the president, Lee DuBridge, to do something to restrict these activities—if necessary, to fire him. Even though these activities were beginning to cost Pauling, and Cal Tech, government funding, DuBridge was willing to defend Pauling so long as Pauling would testify under oath, which he did, that he was not a Communist. And so long as he continued to do his job—which at this stage was serving as chairman of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering as well as the director of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry.

From 1952 until the time of his first Nobel Prize award in 1954, the US government restricted Pauling’s travel abroad, denying him a passport. (He stated, on occasion, that a significant reason why he had not found the correct structure of DNA was that he was not allowed to travel to a conference in London in 1952, where some new x-ray data was shown. As I have mentioned before, I do not think that this was the basic reason.) Soon after Pauling got his first Nobel Prize he began devoting himself almost fulltime to political causes. In 1958 he was told he had to resign his administrative positions in the chemical division at Cal Tech. Many of Pauling’s beliefs seem to me admirable but his methods of advocating them were sometimes open to question. For example, he argued, and certainly he was right, that nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere posed grave dangers and should be stopped. In April of 1962 Pauling was invited, along with forty-eight other Nobel Prize winners, to a dinner at the White House. He insisted, before going to the dinner, in joining pickets in front to protest atmospheric testing. It did not seem to occur to him that he might have made a more effective protest by refusing the invitation as a matter of principle. He also began a series of widely publicized libel suits, including one against the National Review, which had called him a “megaphone for Soviet policy.” He lost on grounds that he was a public figure.

By 1961 Pauling was threatening to bring suit against the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—a magazine that he had helped found. The issue was an article by the physicist Bentley Glass, who took the position that both Pauling and Edward Teller were—although on opposite sides—coloring the debate on weapons testing by misrepresenting the data for political reasons. Teller, in Glass’s view, was wrong in failing to admit the dangers of atmospheric testing. Pauling, he wrote, was essentially right about those dangers, but his account of them was exaggerated and therefore vulnerable. In retrospect, Bentley Glass’s analysis seems correct.

There was some surprise when Pauling was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 for his activities on nuclear disarmament. The mixed feelings among his colleagues were clearly evident in the statement issued by Lee DuBridge, the president of Cal Tech: “The Nobel Peace Prize is a spectacular recognition of Dr. Pauling’s long and strenuous efforts to bring before the people of the world the dangers of nuclear war and the importance of a test ban agreement. Though many people have disapproved of some of his methods and activities, he has, nevertheless, made a substantial impact on world opinion, as this award clearly proves.” Pauling was deeply hurt by the last part of DuBridge’s statement and it convinced him to leave the institute, something he had been contemplating for many years.

For a decade, Pauling was a sort of intellectual nomad—serving as visiting professor at the University of California at San Diego, among other positions—until, in 1973, he created the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Menlo Park, near Stanford University. He used his institute to promote his ideas on what he called “orthomolecular” medicine—attempting, among other things, to treat cancer with huge doses of vitamin C, a treatment that conspicuously failed when his wife died of cancer in 1981. He never succeeded in getting most other scientists to accept his claims for vitamin C. Pauling spent the rest of his life partly at his institute and partly at the ranch he and Ava Helen had bought in 1956 on the California coast south of Big Sur with the proceeds of his first Nobel Prize. This is where he died on August 19, 1994. He combined scientific brilliance, political courage, and a stubborn, quirky single-mindedness in ways that Hager skillfully describes and that will probably always resist simple explanation.

This Issue

November 16, 1995