Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
Anne K. Lohrey
A master and maker in many fields, Linus Pauling lived a very long and productive life spanning nearly the entire twentieth century. By the time he was in his twenties, he had made a name for himself as a scientist. After many significant contributions including his work on the nature of the chemical bond, he turned to chemical biology and is generally accepted as the founder of molecular biology. Later in his life he became very involved in issues of politics and peace for which he is somewhat less well known. In his later years, he became interested in health and medicine and specifically in the use of vitamin C to prevent ailments from the common cold to cancer.
In Pauling’s own words he was “…a physicist with an interest in chemistry. [His] scientific work, however, has not been restricted to chemistry and physics, but has extended over X-ray crystallography, mineralogy, biochemistry, nuclear science, genetics, and molecular biology; also nutrition and various aspects of research in medicine, such as serology, immunology, and psychiatry” (Marinacci Ed., 1995, p. 26). Pauling received two Nobel Prizes acknowledging his contributions, one in Chemistry in 1954 and one for Peace in 1962.
Gardner describes the creative individual as follows: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (Gardner, 1993, p. 35). As I understand this, a creative individual is one who seeks out problems and states or solves them in a way that no one else has previously. Such innovation is then eventually attributed value by others and accepted and embraced. In this case, the meaning of the word problem is very open, so that it may be used with regard to art, music, science, etc. Linus Pauling had an amazing ability to locate interesting problems and to think of various novel solutions, eventually discarding some to arrive at the most satisfactory answer. He used to say that it was easy to think of answers, but that the difficult part was deciding which were worth anything. The questions that Pauling examined and the answers that he posited changed the way that we see the world and the way that chemistry is taught and learned.
Linus Pauling’s life and work are, to me, a source of inspiration. I have, for some time now, been determined to become a scientist. I have always pursued my goals with tenacity and single-mindedness and can relate well with another who has done the same and with such great success. Linus Pauling’s work as well as his ability to convey his thoughts to large groups of people is exemplary of the level to which I aspire. It is said that he was an exceptional lecturer “with a gift for communicating complex ideas” (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1995, xiv). Additionally, his work on the chemical bond is most important to me because he wanted to understand something fundamental about the world and was able to do this and to change the way that people for years to come will learn chemistry and physics. I admire Pauling’s versatility and ability to become interested in very diverse areas of science and even other domains.
Linus Pauling was born to Herman Henry William and Lucy Isabelle “Belle” (Darling) Pauling on February 28, 1901 in Portland, Oregon. They later gave Linus two sisters, Pauline and Lucile, to whom he was never very close. For most of his youth, the family lived in his mother’s hometown, the small town of Condon, Oregon. Herman was a druggist who owned his own store. However, he died when Linus was only nine years old. Pauling has said that his father was probably fairly interested in him prior to his death and cited an example as evidence supporting this. He said that soon before his father died, he wrote a letter to the Oregonian asking for reading suggestions for his precocious son who had by this time already read the Bible and Darwin’s The Origin of Species (Marinacci Ed., 1995, p. 27).
Linus’s relationship with his mother was average at least until after his father’s death. The trouble began when Linus started to consider going to college after graduation from high school instead of immediately getting a job in order to support his mother and sisters. However, he was determined to go to college and applied to the Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) in Corvallis, planning to work his way through financially on his own. The conflict between mother and son is a recurrent theme in Pauling’s life. When he graduated from OAC and decided to continue with graduate study, his mother was again upset. She had expected him proceed to teach high school chemistry, become a state civil servant or work as an industrial chemist and begin to make some money. Belle had been sick for some time, the severity of which Pauling was probably not fully aware, when she died during his trip to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship from 1926-1927. She was never able to see him obtain a regular job, which he had waiting for him at Caltech upon his return.
For a period of time during Linus’s youth, his family lived in Oswego where his father had grown up. There he had the opportunity to become close to his grandparents. This was a very positive experience for young Linus; his grandparents were very affectionate and his grandfather used to tell him stories of his boyhood in Missouri. He learned many German jingles from his grandfather, which may have played a role in his ability to learn languages relatively easily as an adult.
Besides the short time that he spent near his grandparents in Oswego and possibly while his father was living, Linus was distanced from his family. After his father’s death, he made a point of separating himself emotionally from his mother and sisters and becoming quite solitary and independent.
As alluded to earlier, Linus was an avid young reader. He became interested in learning at a very young age and was always very busy with his own hobbies and endeavors. He said that even as a child he had wanted to understand the world around him. Specifically, he mentions one instance when while walking in the rain in Portland, he looked up at an arc light through his umbrella and saw what he knew at the time was called a spectrum. What he wanted to understand was what caused the phenomenon he had observed. He recalled thinking to himself that he would probably learn the answer to this in school one day.
When around the age of eleven, he began collecting and studying insects. However, this eventually lost its appeal and he then became interested in rocks and minerals. This led him toward the study of chemistry, as he wanted increasingly to understand such things on smaller and smaller levels.
One day, a high school friend of Linus’s, Lloyd Alexander Jeffress, invited him to his home to watch some chemical experiments. After watching several “intensely interesting” demonstrations, Linus declared, “I am going to be a chemist!” After this experience, he went home and found his father’s old chemistry book and began to read it. He eventually began to carry out his own experiments at home, creating a laboratory and stocking it with chemicals from a druggist that had been a friend of his father’s as well as from an old abandoned smelter to which he occasionally had access.
When he was sixteen years old, in September of 1917, Pauling went away to college at OAC to become a chemical engineer. Initially, he was apprehensive about the challenges that he might face with the coursework and by being somewhat young. However, he excelled through hard work and determination combined with a brilliant mind. He had to work at various odd jobs all through college to afford living expenses (tuition was free) as well as summertime jobs in order to save for the school year.
The first summer he and his cousin, Mervin, worked at a shipyard. The next summer, Pauling worked for Oregon’s highway department as a paving engineer. He sent home most of the money that he made during this job, as was the custom. However, his mother ended up needing money and spending most of what he had made that summer. Because of this he decided he would be unable to take classes at OAC the next semester so that he could continue his job with the highway department. However, some of his professors at OAC heard about his trouble and decided to offer him a position teaching a sophomore class in quantitative chemical analysis. This earned him some money as well as the nickname of Boy Professor.
As his instructor’s desk was located in the chemistry library, he began to spend time reading chemical journals. It was at this time that he first became interested in the nature of the chemical bond. He continued to read the chemical literature and became interested in various chemical problems. By his junior year at OAC, his previous goal of a career in chemical engineering seemed less and less appealing. He realized that what interested him were ideas and theories and began to consider graduate school. He was encouraged in this by a chemical engineering professor at CIT, Floyd E. Rowland. Pauling applied to Harvard, Berkely and the new California Institute of Technology (CIT). He was accepted at Harvard, but because they told him that it would take six years to obtain a Ph. D., he turned the offer down. He didn’t hear back from Berkely. However, he did receive word from A. A. Noyes at CIT that he had been offered a fellowship there, which he decided to accept.
Linus and Ava Helen.
A Lifelong Bond:
When Pauling was a senior at OAC he was given the opportunity to teach introductory chemistry to a class of freshman women majoring in home economics. He didn’t know it at the time, but his future wife was enrolled in that course. During the first class, he called on her to answer a question about the chemistry of baking soda. He said that he chose her because her last name, Miller, was easy to pronounce and there would be no laughing at him on the first day. She answered his question both quickly and correctly, and he fell in love. To prove that he was not showing her any favoritism due to his feelings for her, he gave her lower grades than she deserved, which upset her, not surprisingly. Pauling was attracted to her from the start and though it took a little while to persuade her to go out with him, she eventually did.
That year, Pauling graduated and then went on to CIT while Ava Helen Miller stayed at OAC as a second-year student. They vowed to write to each other every night. They found their separation unbearable, however, and arranged to be married the following summer. His relationship with Ava Helen was very close, though centered on him and his work. When Pauling received the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Europe, Ava Helen went along, leaving their son, Linus Jr., with family. She was very supportive of him and he admired her and said that he considered her at times more intelligent than himself.
From CIT to the Chemical Bond:
In the fall of 1922, Pauling became a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (CIT), where he would spend forty-one years of his life. Often, he would register for sixty hours of classes and twenty hours of research because there were no strict limitations. Still, despite all of his classes, he did extensive work on his own and attended many seminars outside of the requirements.
At CIT Pauling worked with Roscoe Dickenson who used X-ray diffraction to study the molecular structure of crystals. He went on to publish a paper on the crystal structure of molybdenite as elucidated by these means.
During his second year of graduate study, Pauling became concerned with establishing himself as a productive scholar and began to read the scientific journals looking for mistakes in others’ work or thought processes. He published many critiques during this period.
By 1925 he had received his Ph.D. in chemistry and mathematical physics from CIT and soon after traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study quantum mechanical physics. Then, in the fall of 1927, he became a faculty member at CIT. In 1931 came Pauling’s first paper on the nature of the chemical bond, which he considered his favorite scientific paper. This is a landmark in his career and life, generally considered to be his first great contribution.
Pauling also became increasingly interested in biological chemistry and is usually considered the founder of molecular biology. His extensive successful work on protein structure and his somewhat less successful work on the structure of DNA are some common examples of this.
Politics and Peace:
Now, we’ll delve into a side of Linus Pauling that became more prominent in his later years. Pauling was, throughout his life and especially in his middle to later years, interested in issues of war and peace. He grew worried by the threat of nuclear warfare and very actively opposed it making such statement as, “Only mass protest can achieve the goal. I believe in non-violence, but the Establishment believes in violence, in force – in mace, napalm, police power, aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, war. So long as the selfishness of the Establishment remains determinative, our hope that the coming revolution will be non-violent has little basis in reality” (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1995, p. 142). In 1963 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1962) for efforts to halt nuclear tests and promote world peace. Some were not always supportive of his endeavors in this area, however. When Franklin and Wilkins were to present their X-ray studies of the structure of DNA in Europe, Pauling was denied a passport as a result of his political ideas. This could have been a deciding factor in the race to discover the structure of DNA.
Medicine and Vitamin C:
In his later years, Linus Pauling became an advocate of the use of vitamin C to combat ailments from the common cold to cancer. Many have harshly criticized him for his work in this area. They argue that his research is biased because he was already convinced of the benefits of vitamin C before testing the hypotheses. In fact, he was so convinced that he recommended that healthy people take 6 to 18 grams of vitamin C every day!
Later Years at Big Sur:
In the later years of his life, after the death of Ava Helen, Pauling continued to be very productive in the three major areas that he had made the focus of his intellectual and public life: science, political activism and medical advocacy. During this time, living at his ranch near Big Sur, his routine was to go to bed at eight o’clock and then to get up at three or four in the morning, build a fire, eat breakfast and begin to work. Even in his old age he was able to be very productive, though not in such an influential way as before. At the age of 93, in 1994, he died of cancer on August 19 at his home.
A Life That Spanned the Century:
Linus Pauling, who was born in 1901 and died in 1994, lived a long life that extended over nearly an entire century. This was the twentieth century, that to which the examples of creative individuals that Gardner examines belong. In this aspect, the life and works of Linus Pauling fit well with Gardner’s model as expanded through the lives that he studied. This makes the model even more applicable to an examination of Pauling’s life and creative works.
Although his work on the chemical bond in 1931 was considered his greatest achievement, Linus Pauling was able to continue to make significant contributions scientifically and in other areas for a very long time. He thought that “changing the direction of his scientific work approximately every ten years had helped to keep him fresh and productive” (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1995, p. 239). He also thought that when a person knows a lot in many different areas, he can apply knowledge from one to another to generate novel approaches. He is not the only creator that we have seen shifting focus in order to remain creatively fresh. This also supports the ten-year rule that Gardner discusses in Creating Minds. It could be that the average amount of time that it takes to become somewhat stale or entrenched in one domain is ten years and that in order to continue to contribute, one must modify their method or area of focus.
Pauling was highly intrinsically motivated as can be seen early in his life from the example of his insect collecting initially to his fascination with chemistry and the experiments that he did in his homemade laboratory at about the age of twelve or so. He held high intellectual standards for himself in the areas he was interested in, math and science, throughout his education. But the key to his self-motivation and success were that he truly enjoyed intellectual pursuits and his work. He had always had a strong desire to understand the physical world better and his work was fulfilling to him in this way. He worked very long and late on manuscripts and various other endeavors, not to test his will power, but for the sheer joy of the work.
The Seven+ Intelligences:
As I have already discussed, Linus Pauling was somewhat of a polymath. He made scientific contributions ranging from physics to chemistry to biology to medicine and health as well as contributions in the areas of politics and peace. It is interesting to consider his life and work in the context of Gardner’s 7+ intelligences.
The seven intelligences include: the intrapersonal, the logical/mathematical, the visual/spatial, the musical, the verbal/linguistic, the bodily/kinesthetic and the interpersonal. Also, the gustatory/olfactory and the naturalist/existentialist intelligences may be included. Pauling exhibited strengths in a wide range of the intelligences and this is part of what made him so successful.
Most obvious are his abilities with regard to the logical/mathematical intelligence. This is exemplified by his scientific research in physics, chemistry and biology. It is clear that he was a giant in this realm. Also important was his interpersonal intelligence, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963 for his efforts to stop nuclear testing and to promote peace. He also had to be quite adept in the verbal/linguistic intelligence in order to be able to so effectively communicate his thoughts and ideas. He was known to be a great lecturer in addition to publishing hundreds of works including books as well as articles.
Pauling also had impressive abilities in other intelligences including the intrapersonal and the visual/spatial. From his intense intrinsic motivation, we can see that he understood himself and what he wished to achieve and was able to pursue these goals relentlessly. Additionally, the nature of his work in chemistry and biology called for visual/spatial abilities. Often the problems that he encountered in his work on structural chemistry and protein structure had many potential answers and the correct one could often not be found by means other than trial and error. In Goertzel & Goertzel’s Linus Pauling, they state, “His early work on crystal structure is a classic example of geometrical intuition applied to physicochemical structure, one of the most beautiful such examples in the history of science” (1995, p. 249). Pauling’s intuition in this sense often led him to a correct answer ahead of others in an area in which many possibilities could be tried before the best one was reached. It is clear that Pauling had remarkable strengths in a number of the intelligences and that this could have played a role in allowing him to reach the levels of achievement that he did.
The Exemplary Creator:
Gardner paints a portrait of the exemplary creator (EC) in his Creating Minds (1993, p. 360-363). Linus Pauling fits this portrait fairly well. He was born in Portland, Oregon and was raised mainly in the small town of Condon, Oregon. His parents were not wealthy, but were reasonably successful and were able to make a decent living for the family at least until the death of his father. The atmosphere at home was not very warm and Linus was not close to his immediate family. However, it does seem that he was fairly close with his grandfather. His family was not very highly educated, but valued learning and achievement exemplified by his father’s attempts to get reading suggestions for young Linus. His mother was definitely ambivalent about a career outside of the usual employment for young men in his town, largely for financial reasons.
Eventually a time came when Linus seemed to “outgrow his home environment” and began to make plans for college. Eventually, he gravitated toward important centers such as Harvard, Berkely and the emerging California Institute of Technology (CIT) eventually landing at CIT. There, he became interested in the nature of the chemical bond, a central area of interest and uncertainty in chemistry at the time, perhaps seeing an opportunity to grasp something new before anyone else. Throughout his most creatively significant periods of work he had the support of his wife, Ava Helen, to whom he was very close.
One aspect of the EC that does not fit Pauling well is the supposed period of intense religiosity. He never experienced this, having always rejected religion. However, the traits listed by Gardner to be associated with the EC: self-confidence, ability to deal with false starts, pride and stubbornness and reluctance to admit mistakes, all fit with Pauling’s personality. In general, he is quite compatible with Gardner’s notion of the exemplary creator.
Linus Pauling was a master and maker with extensive abilities and a wide range of intellectual strengths in the different intelligences. This may have better enabled him to do the work that culminated in two unshared Nobel Prizes and a host of other awards and honors. He was not content to rest on his laurels, however. He continued active work up to his death, although most would probably agree that his best work was done throughout his early and middle adulthood. Pauling seems to fit Gardner’s model well in his relationships and activities as a child as well as in his personality. Additionally, he seems to provide evidence for the ten-year pattern among highly creative individuals. He also fits Gardner’s description of the Exemplary Creator fairly well.
Linus Pauling was a creator with astounding intellectual abilities who was also active in many other areas as dictated by his interest and passion. His ideas and research into the nature of chemical bonds significantly changed the way that we understand the world.
Gardner, H. (1993). Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books.
Goertzel, T., & Goertzel, B. (1995). Linus Pauling. New York: Basic Books.
Hargittai, I., & Hargittai, M. (2000). Conversations with Famous Chemists. London: Imperial College Press.
Marinacci, B. (Ed.). (1995). Linus Pauling in His Own Words. New York: Simon & Schuster.