Linus Pauling Biography

Chemist, Scientist (1901–1994)
Linus Pauling was a theoretical physical chemist who became the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes.


Linus Pauling was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.” He was awarded another Nobel in 1962, for peace, for his crusade to stop the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons; it was awarded on October 10, 1963, the date that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect.

Prematurely Developed Inclinations

Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, on February 28, 1901. His father, Herman, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Lucy, was the daughter of a pharmacist. Shortly after Pauling’s birth, his family moved to the nearby farming town of Condon, and Pauling attended the local schools. Noting his son’s advanced intellect and inquisitive nature, Herman Pauling wrote to a newspaper to ask for advice on how he could help a boy with such “prematurely developed inclinations.” Shortly thereafter, however, Herman died of an ulcer and the family had to return to Portland, where they lived in relative poverty. As a result, Pauling had to work various odd jobs to help make ends meet and eventually had to drop out of high school.

But Pauling was soon able to save enough money to attend the Oregon Agricultural College, where he became deeply interested in chemistry, mathematics and physics. He was such a bright student that he took time off from his own education to teach an introductory chemistry course at the institution, an experience that would influence more than just his studies, as he met and eventually married one of his students, Ava Helen Miller, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. The couple would have four children together.

After returning to his own studies, Pauling received a bachelor of science degree summa cum laude in chemical engineering in 1922. He then attended the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, where he used X-ray diffraction to explain the structures of chemical bonds and their role in the formation of molecules, completing his dissertation on crystal structures, for which he was awarded a doctorate in chemistry and mathematical physics in 1925.

The Founding Father

In 1926, a Guggenheim Fellowship sent Pauling to Europe for 18 months, during which time he studied quantum mechanics. Armed with this new theoretical tool, he returned to Caltech the following year and both taught chemistry and continued his own research into structural chemistry. His findings, which he published in his 1939 book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, are considered to be the foundation of modern chemistry as well as the basis for what is now known as molecular biology.

In the early 1940s, however, Pauling set aside his theoretical work in favor of more practical applications, volunteering his services to the U.S. government during World War II. His two most important contributions were the development of oxypolygelatin, a synthetic blood plasma to be used for emergency transfusions during combat situations, and the invention of an oxygen detector for use in submarines and airplanes—the device would remain in use after the war, in incubators for premature births and for anesthetized surgery patients. For his wartime service and patriotism, in 1948 Pauling was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit by Harry Truman.

Prizes and Persecution

Immediately after the war, Pauling set out on a path of activism that he would follow for the rest of his life. He joined a group co-founded by Albert Einstein called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and began to speak publicly about the potential dangers of nuclear war. Despite his contributions to the war effort, this new activism earned him the negative attention of the U.S. government and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and from 1951 to 1954 he was denied a passport that would allow him to travel abroad for his work.

Despite this antagonism, Pauling persevered in his research and during this time made several important discoveries, publishing a paper on the structural nature of sickle-cell anemia and also discovering the alpha helix, which he theorized was the basic structure of DNA. Although James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 publication on the double helix ultimately proved Pauling’s model incorrect, in 1954 Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into the nature of chemical bonds and its applications. Pauling’s passport was reinstated later that year.

Taking advantage of his newly won notoriety, Pauling continued his campaign against the testing and proliferation of nuclear arms. In 1958 he was part of a group of scientists who sued the U.S. Department of Defense to prevent it from testing nuclear weapons, and he also presented an appeal for a test ban to the United Nations, which was signed by nearly 10,000 scientists from around the world. His book No More War! in which he elaborated on his ideas, was published that year as well. These efforts, however, earned him more negative attention from the government, and in 1960 he was called to appear before a congressional committee to defend his actions. Ultimately acquitted of any wrongdoing, two years later Pauling was again awarded the Nobel Prize, this time for his work to ban the testing of nuclear weapons. He received the award on October 10, 1963, the same day that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect.

How to Live Longer and Feel Better

In the Cold War atmosphere of the times, despite his important work in both science and activism, Pauling was considered by many to be something of a traitor. In 1964 he left Caltech to work at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, before accepting a research professorship at the University of California, San Diego in 1967. While working there, and later at Stanford University, over the next decade he developed a new field called orthomolecular medicine, which was based on the idea that large amounts of certain chemical compounds could be administered to help treat or prevent diseases in the human body. Focusing much of his research on vitamin C, he theorized that taking megadoses of vitamins could help treat everything from the common cold to cancer and AIDS.

After leaving Stanford in 1973, Pauling founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine (later renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine) to continue his research into a nontoxic alternative to medications, but much of his subsequent work was dismissed as quackery by the medical community. With funding for his institute waning, in 1986 Pauling published the book How to Live Longer and Feel Better, but it achieved little success. As time went on, Pauling began to work less, choosing instead to spend much of his time on his ranch in Big Sur, California. In 1991 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent two surgeries, but he refused any other treatments, choosing to take massive doses of vitamin C instead. The cancer eventually spread to his liver, and Pauling passed away at home on August 19, 1994, at the age of 93. He is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

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