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National Science Foundation

Linus Carl Pauling (1901-1994)

Linus Carl Pauling
Linus Pauling holding a scientific model in October 1975.
Credit: Jose Mercado, Stanford News Service

National Medal of Science recipient in 1974 "for the extraordinary scope and power of his imagination, which has led to basic contributions in such diverse fields as structural chemistry and the nature of chemical bonding, molecular biology, immunology and the nature of genetic diseases."

"It is sometimes said that science has nothing to do with morality. This is wrong. Science is the search for truth, the effort to understand the world; it involves the rejection of bias, of dogma, of revelation, but not the rejection of morality."

Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Ore., to Herman Henry William Pauling, a druggist, and Belle Pauling, a homemaker. Herman Pauling passed away at the age of 33, leaving the rest of the family in shock and near poverty. While his mother ran a boarding house to support the family, Pauling took comfort in books and hobbies, and set up a chemistry laboratory in his basement as a young teenager.

Pauling dropped out of Washington High School at age 16 in protest against classes he viewed as pointless (though the school later presented him with an honorary diploma in recognition of his achievements).

He was admitted to Oregon Agricultural College--now Oregon State University--where he excelled as a chemical engineering major, developed an interest in molecular structure and chemical bonds, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1922. The following year he married Ava Helen Miller, with whom he went on to have four children, and he received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1925.

"It is sometimes said that science has nothing to do with morality. This is wrong. Science is the search for truth, the effort to understand the world; it involves the rejection of bias, of dogma, of revelation, but not the rejection of morality."

--Linus Pauling

As a faculty member at Caltech, Pauling quickly made a name for himself as a talented and prolific researcher. Albert Einstein said in 1931 that he would need to "brush up on" chemical bonds before discussing the subject with the young scientist.

Pauling published a number of landmark chemistry books, including "The Nature of the Chemical Bond" in 1939 and "General Chemistry," a textbook first published in 1947 that was based on the same approach Pauling used to teach freshman chemistry.

His work identifying sickle cell anemia as molecular in origin catalyzed the search for similar molecular disorders, and his proposal of the helical structure of proteins was the basis for James Watson and Francis Crick's determination of DNA as a double helix. Watson and Crick, who knew that Pauling was pursuing the same goal of identifying the structure of DNA, were both impressed and intimidated by the caliber of his research and his larger-than-life persona.

On Pauling's theatrical presentation style, Watson wrote, "There was no one like Linus in all the world. The combination of his prodigious mind and his infectious grin was unbeatable." Pauling received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954, in recognition of his research on chemical bonds.

During World War II, Pauling served as a research consultant and participated in a presidential commission regarding the future of government-funded programs for scientific and medical research. Out of the commission's recommendations came the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. After the war, Pauling grew concerned about the deleterious effects of radioactive fallout and began to voice his apprehension about further development and testing of nuclear arms.

Largely as a result of Pauling's protests, the three main nuclear powers at the time--the U.S., Great Britain and the U.S.S.R--ultimately signed a nuclear test ban treaty. For his efforts, Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. He was the first person to ever be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes. In characteristic nature, when Pauling and his wife were invited to a party for Nobel Laureates at the White House, he spent the day protesting atmospheric nuclear testing outside the gates before entering the building to dine with the Kennedys.

Though he had many supporters, Pauling's status as a peace activist also earned him a reputation among detractors as a radical. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy accused Pauling of being a Communist, and he was denied a passport to travel to international conferences after being deemed a threat to national security. In 1964, Pauling left Caltech due to pressure from conservative administrators and trustees who were displeased with his political activism. He briefly held professorships at the University of California, San Diego, and Stanford University before retiring in 1974.

In later years, Pauling turned his efforts toward investigating how the presence of certain molecules in certain amounts might result in optimal health, a field he named "orthomolecular medicine."

He co-founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine (later the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine) in 1973, where he focused his research on the health effects of vitamin C and other nutrients.

Pauling's advocacy of large doses of vitamin C was controversial within the scientific and medical communities. His book "Vitamin C and the Common Cold," however, has had a lasting influence on the general public. Pauling passed away in 1994.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.