The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

Sort Interviews by Affiliation or Theme

An Oral History of the Linus Pauling Institute

Six interviews with Steve Lawson, conducted by Chris Petersen.

August - December 2011


Linus Carl Pauling (1901-1994) is OSU's most accomplished alumnus. Born in Portland, Pauling graduated from Oregon Agricultural College in 1922 with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and went on to become a world historical figure recognized in part for his major contributions to multiple scientific disciplines, including chemistry, physics and biology. Pauling was also a dedicated and very public peace activist, most widely known for his work advocating against nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s. He remains the only individual to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes, the first for Chemistry in 1954 and the second for Peace, received in 1963.

Pauling spent forty-one years at the California Institute of Technology, first as a Ph.D. student and later as a dynamic member of the Caltech faculty in the Institute's prestigious Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, which he chaired for twenty-one years. Pauling severed ties with Caltech at the end of 1963, largely due to the institution's growing impatience with, and even hostility toward, his broad agenda of peace-related activities. Over the decade that followed, Pauling was formally affiliated with three successive organizational homes - the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the University of California at San Diego, and Stanford University - none of which ever proved to a be a fully satisfactory fit.

In 1973 Pauling and two colleagues founded the Institute for Orthomolecular Medicine, located near the Stanford University campus and primarily devoted to pursuing Pauling's growing interest in the potential impact on human health of vitamin supplementation, with a particular focus on the use of large doses of vitamin C to combat a wide variety of illnesses, including the common cold and, later, cancer and AIDS. Not long into its history, the fledgling organization changed its name to the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine (LPISM).

Pauling's ideas on vitamin C received wide attention and were very controversial. As a result, LPISM struggled to obtain reliable research support through traditional grant funding agencies, and increasingly came to rely upon the generosity of private donors to sustain its activities. The Institute was also beset by a handful of personnel problems that led to formal legal actions and took years to resolve. Despite this, LPISM managed to conduct useful research on a diversity of topics far afield from vitamin C, including superconductivity, molecular evolution, viral carcinogenesis, metabolic profiling, and the effects of neurotoxins.

By the time of Pauling's death in 1994, LPISM was in very poor financial shape and would likely have ceased to exist were it not for the serendipitous receipt of a few large estate gifts. At around this time as well, Pauling's eldest son, Linus Pauling Jr., stepped in to provide administrative counsel and to try and chart a future direction for his father's struggling organization. After a period of negotiation with multiple potential destinations, the Institute moved to Oregon State University in 1996 and formally reorganized itself as the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI).

Boosted by the guarantee of dependable salary lines and stabilized by its new setting within a university culture, LPI began to gain momentum after its move to Corvallis. In 1997 LPI hired an accomplished biochemist, Balz Frei, to direct the Institute, and in the years that followed LPI hired a collection of key principal investigators, many of them supported by large grants as well as generous private endowments. The mission of the Institute began to shift as well, focusing less on megadoses of vitamin C and developing a three-pronged research agenda oriented toward cancer prevention and intervention, cardiometabolic disease prevention, and healthy aging.

A major milestone in the Institute's history was reached in October 2011 when the Linus Pauling Science Center (LPSC) was dedicated at Oregon State University. A state-of-the-art new home for LPI and other campus units within the College of Science, the 105,000 square foot LPSC is the largest academic building ever constructed at OSU and, at $62.5 million, the most expensive as well. Speaking at the facility's dedication, Linus Pauling Jr. likened the moment to a phoenix rising from the ashes and remarked of his father, "I'm sure, if he were here, he would have tears of joy in his eyes just as I do."

Stephen R. Lawson was born in 1951 in Pennsylvania and grew up in Topsfield, Massachusetts. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in Anthropology, Lawson joined the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, beginning in 1977 as a support staffer for a direct mail solicitation program and gradually moving his way up the ranks as a research assistant and an administrator. Over the next twenty years, Lawson came to assume increasing amounts of responsibility and was named Chief Executive Officer of LPISM in the early 1990s. In 1996, Lawson was among a small handful of LPISM employees to move with the organization to its new location on the campus of Oregon State University. As the Linus Pauling Institute's Administrative Officer, Lawson was responsible for a whole host of activities related to outreach, strategic planning, and donor relations. He retired from LPI and OSU in 2016.