Linus Pauling Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Pauling is the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes, and these prizes, in chemistry and in peace, symbolize his contributions. In the 1930’s and 1940’s his scientific discoveries helped to make the United States an important center for structural chemistry and molecular biology. In the 1950’s and 1960’s his activities in the peace movement helped to mobilize the American public against the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

Early Life

Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, on February 28, 1901, the son of Herman William Pauling and Lucy Isabelle (Darling). His mother was a daughter of Oregon pioneers who could trace their ancestry in America to the seventeenth century. His father’s family was German and had come to the United States after the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 in Europe. During childhood, Pauling and his two younger sisters led a peripatetic existence as their father, a traveling drug salesman, tried to find a position that suited him. The family eventually settled in Condon, Oregon, where, in a two-room schoolhouse, Linus’ education began. Life in Condon proved to be financially unrewarding, however, and in 1909, the Paulings moved back to Portland. Shortly after settling in a new drugstore, Herman died suddenly of a perforated gastric ulcer. He was only thirty-two years old.

Herman’s death created severe difficulties for the family. Linus became a shy adolescent who spent most of his time reading. His intellectual energies also found an outlet in schoolwork, and he moved at an accelerated pace through Portland’s individualized grammar-school system and through Washington High School. The most important event of this period occurred when Lloyd Jeffress, a friend, showed him how sulfuric acid could turn white sugar into a steaming mass of black carbon. So excited was Linus by what he saw that he decided then and there to become a chemist.

Pauling was able to pursue a career as a chemical engineer at Oregon Agricultural College by working at various jobs during the school year and in the summer. Because of the need to support his mother, he was forced to interrupt his education for a year and teach quantitative analysis. This hiatus gave him time to read science journals, and he came across papers on the chemical bond by Irving Langmuir and Gilbert Newton Lewis. These papers provoked his lifelong interest in chemical bonding and structure. In his senior year, he met Ava Helen Miller, a freshman in the general chemistry class he was teaching. At first she was not attracted to this curly-haired, blue-eyed young man who was “so full of himself,” and Pauling, though attracted to her, was reluctant to show it because of his position as a teacher. After the course was over, and by the time of Pauling’s graduation from college in 1922, they were very much in love.

Pauling’s graduate career took place at the California Institute of Technology (CIT) in Pasadena, where three professors, Arthur A. Noyes, Roscoe G. Dickinson, and Richard C. Tolman, helped to shape his career. Noyes acted as Pauling’s father figure, and behind the scenes he made sure that his protégé remained a chemist (Pauling was being tempted by theoretical physics). Dickinson trained Pauling in X-ray diffraction, a technique for discovering the three-dimensional structures of crystals. Tolman was Pauling’s mentor in theoretical physics. After a successful year at CIT, Pauling returned to Oregon to marry Ava Miller. She returned with him to Pasadena, where they began a close relationship that continued until her death fifty-seven years later.

After receiving his Ph.D. from CIT in 1925, Pauling spent a brief period as a National Research Fellow in Pasadena. He was then awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study quantum mechanics in Europe. He spent most of his year and a half abroad at Arnold Sommerfeld’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, but he also spent a month at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen and a few months in Zurich. Upon his return to California in 1927, Pauling began a career as teacher and researcher at CIT that would last for thirty-six years.

Life’s Work

Structure was the central theme of Pauling’s scientific work. Most of his early research focused on the determination of the structures of molecules, first by directing X-rays at crystals, later by directing electron beams at gas molecules. As these X-rays and electron techniques provided Pauling with experimental tools for discovering molecular structures, so quantum mechanics gave him a theoretical tool. For example, he used quantum mechanics to explain why the carbon atom forms equivalent bonds. In 1939, he wrote about many of his structural discoveries in The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals, one of the most influential scientific books of the twentieth century.

Pauling’s interest in biological molecules began in the 1930’s with his studies of the hemoglobin molecule, whose striking red color and property of combining with oxygen appealed to him. Interest in hemoglobin led naturally to an interest in proteins, and with Alfred Mirsky he published a paper on the general theory of protein structure in which they suggested that proteins had coiled configurations that were stabilized by weak intermolecular forces and hydrogen bonds.

On one of Pauling’s visits to the Rockefeller Institute to visit Mirsky, he met Karl Landsteiner, the discoverer of blood types, who introduced him to another field—antibodies. Pauling’s first paper on antibody structure appeared in 1940. During World War II, his work shifted toward practical problems, for example, the discovery of an artificial substitute for blood serum. This was only part of the extensive work that he did for the government. He also invented an oxygen detector, a device that depended on oxygen’s special magnetic properties and that found wide use in airplanes and submarines. He also spent much time studying explosives and rocket propellants. At...

(The entire section is 2502 words.)