Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History Narrative  
Home | Search | All Documents and Media | Linus Pauling Day-By-Day
A Gamble, A Loss
<  33  >

The three April 25 Nature papers on DNA would significantly change the history of science. Linus Pauling's efforts would become a footnote only. He missed his chance for two basic reasons: hurry and hubris. He rushed because he realized late that DNA was the biggest prize around and if he did not crack it, someone else-probably someone in England-soon would. Although he later denied he was competing with the British researchers for the DNA structure - "I did not feel that I was in a race with Watson and Crick," he said. "They felt that they were in a race with me" - the fact was that he was in a race, perhaps not with the unknown Watson and Crick but certainly with Wilkins and Franklin and, above all, with his oldest rival, Sir William Lawrence Bragg. Pauling wanted to publish his DNA structure quickly in order to beat Bragg's group, and Wilkins, too, and he took a chance doing it without having done his homework.

He rushed, and he thought he could get away with it because of his pride in his own ability. He wanted the prize, he gambled, and he lost.

The race for DNA would become the stuff of scientific legend. Watson and Crick would take center stage, with Pauling assuming the smaller part of an offstage voice, a legendary Goliath in a far land felled by two unlikely Davids. A year would rarely go by after 1953 without someone, a scientist or writer, asking Pauling where he had gone wrong. His wife, Ava Helen, finally tired of it. After hearing the questions and explanations over and again, she cut through the excuses with a simple question. "If that was such an important problem," she asked her husband, "why didn't you work harder on it?"

Previous Page Next Page

Video Clip  Video: A Triumph of "Brain Work" and Good Fortune. 1973. (2:22) Transcript and More Information

Click images to enlarge 

Formal portrait of Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. 1950s.

Page 1
Pauling notes re: his desire to learn how life works. approx. August 1992.

"The other point is about DNA. Pauling is very frank in telling why he did not succeed here. I thought this was an interesting example of how one's courage and willingness to put out an idea, even if you are not sure it is right, can sometimes lead to disaster....There is another aspect of the way Pauling works...his 'capacitic method.' He starts with a few postulates about the parameters and the restrictions of orientation of the subunits in a giant molecule, and from there works out pure whole molecules. This worked beautifully with polypeptides, and gave him the correct answer to what the whole molecule is like. Whereas with DNA the same procedure - using what he knew about the subunits there and building a model that fitted beautifully - did not work out."

Robert Olby
September 1969
Home | Search | All Documents and Media | Linus Pauling Day-By-Day