Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Life and Work of Linus Pauling (1901-1994): A Discourse on the Art of Biography.”

February 28 - March 2, 1995

Video: “Analyzing Pauling's Personality: A Three Generational, Three Decade Project.” Ted Goertzel

34:56 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Related Names: Linus Pauling


[Introductory remarks by Cliff Mead]

Ted Goertzel: My parents, Mildred and Victor Goertzel, began work on a biography, with Pauling's assistance, in 1962, as a continuation of their work on the childhoods of eminent people. They admired Pauling especially for his leadership of the peace movement, and thought that a biography would be inspirational for young people who might be thinking of careers in science or involvement in worthy causes. They interviewed relatives, teachers and neighbors who knew Pauling in his childhood. Pauling was generous with his time in reading and editing their drafts of early chapters about his childhood and family background. He also authorized psychologist Anna Roe to provide them with a copy of the record of the Rorschach test which he had taken as one of the subjects in her book The Making of a Scientist.

Mildred and Victor differed with Pauling, however, about the focus of the book. They wanted to write more about his personality, he wanted more about his scientific work. They put the project aside for a number of years, but continued to follow his life. They were troubled when Pauling began his crusade over Vitamin C. Much later, they were distressed by his treatment of Arthur Robinson whom they came to know personally. They again worked sporadically on the manuscript which became more critical, less of a pacifist hagiography.

Mildred and Victor then asked me, their oldest son and a professor at Rutgers University with an interest in the psychosocial roots of political beliefs, to help with the manuscript. I interviewed some of Pauling's associates who lived on the east coast and added material on Pauling's scientific contributions and on the controversies surrounding orthomolecular medicine.

When Pauling contracted prostate cancer in 1991, at the age of ninety, we decided that I should undertake the preparation of a final manuscript. Mildred and Victor's health no longer permitted full participation, and we thought that a complete rewrite by one author would lead to a more coherent book. My experience in statistical research methods was particularly helpful in making sense of the ongoing controversies concerning vitamins and health. Victor and I visited the newly established Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers at Oregon State University, to collect quotes from letters and other documents, and did some updating interviews with Pauling's associates. I also asked my son, Benjamin Goertzel, a mathematician and cognitive scientist, to help with the chapters on Pauling's science. Our editor had told us that Pauling was right, the book needed more about his contributions to science. In the final manuscript, those chapters cover very much the material that Pauling told my parents they should thirty years ago.

Our biography is probably unique in being a three generational, three decade project, but, despite the input from different authors, there is a theme which ties it together. This is an interest in the psychology of belief systems, eminence and creativity. My own work focuses on the psychology of political ideologies, while Ben is more interested in scientific thinking. Pauling's long and varied life provided grist for all of our mills, and I believe the final product is better than any of us could have done individually.

There is some scholarly literature on the personalities of scientists as a group. I believe the best of this genre is Bernice Eiduson's book Scientists: Their Psychological World, in which Pauling happens to have been a subject. Although she used no names, much of Eiduson's book reads as if it were a study of Linus Pauling, which suggests that his life fits a pattern found among many creative scientists. She observed that scientists:

  • were intellectually gifted children, whose greatest talent was their mind
  • had limited intimacy with their families as children, particularly with their fathers who were often absent
  • found nurturence in intellectual life, turning to reading, puzzles, daydreams and fantasies for entertainment and escape
  • received tangible recognition for their intellectual accomplishments in the forms of scholarships and prizes
  • built a set of "intellectual fences" to defend themselves against problems or disturbances at home
  • learned to value novelty, innovation, and difference, while tolerating any ambiguity and uncertainty which this might create
  • developed into intellectual rebels, channeling their aggressions into their intellectual life
  • valued logic, rationality and emotional control
  • were likely to enter into traditional marriages with competent women who took responsibility for home and children primarily for the extrinsic rewards they provide.

Eiduson also used the Rorschach test to probe more deeply into the psychological processes of the creative scientist. She found that creative scientists had many traits which might be confused with mental disorder. This is not a new observation. As long ago as 1680, the poet John Dryden wrote:

"Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

In his recent best selling biography of Richard Feynman, James Gleick asks, "when people speak of the borderline between genius and madness, why is it so evident what they mean?" Although both Feynman and Pauling were quite sane, I believe a case can be made that they, and many other eminent scientists, lived on this borderline between genius and madness.

Eiduson offers some insight into what this means. She thought that creative scientists as a group had a heightened sensitivity to experiences that, in her words,

"is accompanied in thinking by over-alertness to relatively unimportant or tangential aspects of problems. It makes them look for and postulate significance in things which customarily would not be singled out. It encourages highly individualized and even autistic ways of thinking. Were this thinking not in the framework of scientific work, it would be considered paranoid. In scientific work, creative thinking demands seeing things not seen previously, or in ways not previously imagined; and this necessitates jumping off from "normal" positions, and taking risks by departing from reality. The difference between the thinking of the paranoid patient and the scientist comes in the latter's ability and willingness to test out his fantasies or grandiose conceptualizations through the systems of checks and balances science has established.... One might say that scientific thinking is in a way institutionalized paranoid thinking; it sanctions it not only as proper, but also as the irrational that ultimately promotes the rationality of science."

I believe this general observation fits Linus Pauling remarkably well. Pauling was, in many ways, the quintessential scientist. He differed, however, from most of the scientists Eiduson studied by his intense involvement in political and medical controversies, and his tendency to take very strong positions on issues where the objective evidence was ambivalent at best. To understand these traits, we need to look at the specifics of Pauling's personality structure.

Psychologically-oriented biographies have traditionally inferred personality traits from published and archival documents, supplemented with interviews with people who knew the subject. We used all of these sources, including interviews with many of Pauling's relatives and teachers who knew him when he was a child. In addition, we were fortunate in having access to Pauling's Rorschach protocol, which had never been fully interpreted. My parents had never had the Rorschach interpreted, and did not use it as the basis of their work, perhaps because my father's experiences with it in his dissertation work had left him quite skeptical of its validity. I, however, decided this was an opportunity which was too good to miss, so I set out to have the protocol interpreted.

According to Anne Roe's notes, Pauling was an enthusiastic participant in the Rorschach testing. He went through the ten cards in twenty-nine minutes, giving images as quickly as Roe could take them down. At the end of the protocol, she observed:

"Whew! After the first card and his question I did not actively interrupt him, but when he came to a pause I picked up another card. He usually but not always put down the one he was holding and took the other, although he could always have gone on almost indefinitely; I don't think he was more hampered at one time than at another. Possibly there would have been fewer on X [the last card] if it had not been apparent that there were no other cards. He quite enjoyed this."

The key images which Pauling found in each of the ten ink blots of the Rorschach test are below:

Key Images in Linus Pauling's Rorschach Protocol

Card I

  1. pelvis
  2. insect ... like a specimen
  3. two pairs of white dots ... symmetrical translation
  4. sine curve
  5. lobster claws
  6. bat wing ... I looked for the little hooks a bat uses to hang by but they are not visible.
  7. lack of symmetry ... little white line on the left is not there on the right ... a little claw there

Card II

  1. blood and the black of ink, carbon and the structure of graphite ... straight lines in the little central figure are puzzling
  2. vulva
  3. pair of butterflies ... wings vertical ... facing each other
  4. pair of sharp-nosed pliers
  5. two rabbits ... in an attitude of supplication

Card III

  1. two men perhaps waiters ... formal dress ... facing each other ... Joos dancers or some other pair of male dancers
  2. crab (the men are holding)
  3. Picasso ... two white spots ... two eyes looking out ... the nose ... oligocephalic
  4. red blotches ... the Bible is standing open

Card IV

  1. a pelt skinned off ... on the skin side and to some extent on the fur side ... pile of skins
  2. Dali's watches ... the two arms ... hang over in that limp manner
  3. spigot that iron comes out of a cupola
  4. testicles and penis
  5. gorilla ... standing there, illuminated by a bright light close behind his back
  6. carcass of an animal spread open; I seem to see a cleaver, not in the picture but the act of cleaving
  7. little group of very small dots ... spots on a Laue photograph ... two-dimension lattice

Card V

  1. batty
  2. swallow tailed butterfly ... moth
  3. deer ... horns of a deer in the velvet
  4. nut cracker
  5. man with a derby hat just below the horns which suggests he is cuckolded
  6. Icarus ... like DaVinci's drawing ... wearing skits
  7. alligator, the heads ... bulging above the eyes

Card VI

  1. totem pole effect
  2. same sort of skin as before
  3. the question of embryological development that arises from the ridge down the middle
  4. this should be colored and should be orange, I don't know why

Card VII

  1. insect ... the antennae or some mouth parts
  2. animal faces and heads, like the funny papers
  3. hinge ... special sort of structure ... bivalve
  4. crustaceans or lobster claws
  5. appearance of islands from the air, but the symmetry tends to remove that because no tropical island would occur in pairs like that


  1. nice colors ... sort of skeletal, too ... the color ... a liver, a spinal column of a fish and ribs coming out
  2. couple of animals ... not exactly beaver-like, tails to the bottom, climbing up ... Dutch painter, Breughel? ... and of Bosch ... fanciful animals ... the temptation of St. Anthony involved trumpets in the noses and in this case ... tail suggests an adhesive organ, like the placenta
  3. one of those Breughel imaginary animals
  4. landscape, there has been a lot of erosion by the rain

Card IX

  1. that's Punch, two Punch's ... with pendulous abdomens
  2. insects
  3. pelvic bones ... from in front instead of above (referring to Card I)
  4. water is dripping, perhaps blood dripping down
  5. peaches or similar fruit, four of them arranged in a row
  6. flame produced from a central structure (two elaborations of 1 and 3)
  7. holes ... holes of the metal cylinder into which the glass globe of a kerosene lamp would fit and the bottom structure might be the container for the lamp
  8. two pigs heads ... end of snout a porcine indication

Card X

  1. wish bone
  2. governor of a locomotive the jowls ... 3 ellipses attached together by arms ... dynamically unsatisfactory
  3. facing gnomes, two on the right and two on the left, the fatter one with arms around the thinner holding up a green structure which isn't heavy
  4. two similar gnomes holding up, perhaps a candle stick ... some little insect, colorless, water nymph
  5. pelvis
  6. a rabbit being held up by
  7. two caterpillars
  8. nice yellow sea shells, not exactly conch shells ... some sea shells are spiny
  9. sea horses, but the tails are bent the wrong way
  10. Irish appearance too, the nose, and there is something hanging from both upper and lower lips, mouth open, it's ectoplasmic
  11. the California peninsula, geographical coastal contour
  12. the floats that hold kelp upon the surface
  13. a sweet pea, not quite open
  14. Madagascar
  15. locust
  16. a cow lying down

To me, with no training or experience in Rorschach interpretation, Pauling's answers seem very imaginative and creative. As one might expect, there is some scientific terminology. There are more references to animals, plants and geography than to molecular structures. Pauling's lifelong hobby of reading encyclopedias had apparently given him a tremendous wealth of images to draw upon, and he enjoyed the creative process that the test called for.

Rorschach experts, however, can find a great deal more meaning in these responses than lay people. I first asked my colleague, psychologist Michael Wogan, to review the Rorschach protocol. The most outstanding feature of Pauling's Rorschach, in Wogan's view, was the lack of emotion. Wogan thought that Pauling was a person who felt little of life's pains and pleasures, avoiding strong emotion through denial and defenses.

In order to check on the reliability of the Rorschach interpretation, I went to the library and compiled a list of twenty-two specialists who had published articles on Rorschach interpretation in the Journal of Personality Assessment. I wrote to them and asked if they would be willing to do a "blind" interpretation, knowing nothing but the subject's sex and age at the time of testing. Fortunately, seven of these distinguished Rorschach experts generously agreed to participate in this research, purely on a voluntary basis.

When the experts' reports came in we were quite surprised that they found as much pathology as they did in Pauling's responses, since Pauling had never required treatment for any kind of psychiatric illness. Several of the experts warned that Pauling was at high risk for suicide, others thought that he showed signs of schizophrenia. Dr. John Exner, the most prominent Rorschach expert in the world and the author of the standard method used today to analyze Rorschachs concluded that Pauling's protocol "conveys the impression of a very disorganized individual whose thinking currently is fragmented, impulsive, and often quite chaotic. The characteristics of his disorganized thinking are typical of individuals who are unable to control and direct their thinking effectively." This disorganization, in Exner's view, was a chronic feature of Pauling's personality. "In summary," concluded Exner, "it is very likely that this is an individual who will be regarded by those around him as crazy.'"

This and many other observations by the Rorschach experts were remarkably inconsistent with the known facts about Linus Pauling. Pauling was not suicidal or schizophrenic, and if there was one thing Pauling could do better than almost any other human being it was organize his thoughts effectively. If Pauling did not organize his responses to the ink blots in the way that most people do, perhaps it was simply because he thought the test did not call for organized, systematic thinking, but for a disorganized "brainstorming" process. Pauling had read the literature on creative thinking, and this literature strongly recommends against imposing structure on the initial phases of a creative process. Pauling's skill in doing this may give some insight into how a highly creative person differs from more typical people.

On the other hand, several of the Rorschach experts warned of the danger of pathologizing a creative personality. The best interpretations came from two scholars who have used the Rorschach in biographical work (with Nazi war criminals), not in a clinical practice. The most useful interpretation came from Eric Zillmer of Drexel University, who thought that Pauling was "a very bright and capable person who responds inconsistently to new problem solving situations or when making decisions.... The protocol further suggests that this individual was experiencing substantial emotional uneasiness or distress at the time of the Rorschach administration."

Zillmer observed that Pauling "is somewhat uncomfortable in dealing with emotional experiences or situations directly...; Individuals with this style usually feel uncomfortable about their ability to deal with negative feelings adequately and often bend reality' to avoid dealing with perceived or anticipated negatives in their environment. This may lead to social isolation, a sense of loneliness, or emotional deprivation. This presents a conflict for this subject since there are indications of strong unmet needs for emotional sharing, accessibility, and interpersonal closeness."

In summary, Zillmer found the protocol to be very unusual, "most likely given by a highly complex man who has many strengths, but also several liabilities in his personality structure...; the present Rorschach inkblot protocol indicates both, the potential for brilliant insight and sophistication on behalf of the respondent, but also the likelihood for inappropriate behaviors ranging from immaturity to distorted thinking, particularly when confronted with emotionally laden situations. Thus, the central issue which defines the main aspect of the individual's personality structure is related to how successfully he copes with his affective and emotional world."

Zillmer's comments made a great deal of sense to me because they meshed well with my impression of Pauling's personality based on the biographical materials. My experience with the Rorschach has convinced me that it cannot be taken as definitive in any way. The results you get seem to depend entirely on the orientation and skills of the interpreter.

This may be particularly true when dealing with creative people. There is evidence that highly creative people often score similarly to schizophrenics on the Rorschach, even though they do not have any kind of psychiatric disorder. This is believed to be true because creative people are able to draw on primitive psychological processes which "normal" people do not often use. However, they are not stuck on a primitive or chaotic level of thinking, as some mentally ill people are, but are quite capable of integrating their thinking in a mature way when appropriate.

Pauling's Personality: A Biographer's Interpretation

Perhaps the Rorschach can be useful, however, even though it is unreliable, because it helps us to break out of our established mental sets and confront new hypotheses. In this final section, and in this spirit, I offer my own interpretation of Pauling's personality. This interpretation includes only those points from the Rorschach interpretations which I believe are also supported by the biographical information. Since Eric Zillmer turned out to be a neighbor as well as an expert in personality assessment, I invited him to review all of the Rorschach interpretations and help me in preparing this appraisal.

There is no question that Pauling was extremely intelligent, including both verbal and mathematical abilities. He had an outstanding ability to visualize spatial relationships. He was a creative, intuitive thinker, for whom new ideas came quickly and spontaneously. He contrasted himself to very capable scientists who got new ideas by "fiddling with the equations." By contrast, he said, "I've never made a contribution that I didn't get just by having a new idea." His approach, as he often remarked, was to have a lot of ideas and then throw away the bad ones.

He had two different intellectual styles in coping with this flow of ideas. In the first, he carefully tested his ideas against empirical data. In this mode, he was open to modifying or even abandoning his ideas if they were not supported. In this process, he often came up with new ideas. He used this mode of thinking in his work in chemistry, and more generally in work which did not involve a strong emotional dimension. He was at his best when he was solving scientific puzzles. In the second mode of thinking, he became emotionally committed to his ideas and sought out evidence to support them. He became defensive against anyone who questioned his thinking on these matters, often assuming that they were motivated by personal animosity. He made the strongest case possible for his point of view, while minimizing contradictory evidence. His political and nutritional work often followed this second mode of thinking, and it was often effective in advocating for controversial positions.

There is a striking contrast between Pauling's scientific thinking, which was innovative and highly complex, and his political thought, which was simple and predictable. His political speeches were similar to those being given by thousands of other New Left radicals at the time. Even his examples and illustrations were ones which were constantly used in the rhetoric of the time. In his scientific work, he sought out difficult, unresolved problems. In his political rhetoric, he avoided the difficult issues, such as how to reconcile revolutionary egalitarianism with the need for economic incentives and human rights. His views were sincere and well-motivated, and he had every right to expound them freely. But they did not draw on the sophistication and creative insight which characterized him as a scientific thinker.

In contrast to his tremendous enjoyment of intellectual functioning, Pauling found emotional life troublesome, and he often tried to avoid situations which involved emotionally charged interactions. A core element of his personality was a narcissistic, child-like tendency to overvalue his personal worth and seek the approval of others for his ideas and accomplishments. He loved giving speeches and receiving the approval of large groups of admirers, and he devoted a great deal of time and energy to travel and public speaking at the expense of his scientific work. His narcissism was displayed in an extreme sensitivity to criticism, including a tendency to file law suits against his critics.

In his personal life, Pauling was stiff and formal, not the kind of person who enjoyed casual, lighthearted activities. He was happy to leave the responsibility for personal and social matters to his wife, to whom he was quite devoted. He did not spend much time on close friendships which involved meaningful interpersonal commitments. He might have felt isolated or lonely, if it were not for the devoted companionship of his wife and the continual stream of attention from admirers around the world.

He had the capacity for brilliant insight, but also for distorted thinking particularly when confronted with situations which were emotionally laden. In these situations, his intellectual defenses sometimes broke down. The sad confrontation with Arthur Robinson was the worst example of this pattern. It can also be seen in his response to Dr. Moertel and the New England Journal of Medicine. As Ewan Cameron observed at the time, "I have never seen him so upset...; he regards this whole affair as a personal attack on his integrity." Pauling thought that Moertel's paper was a case of "fraud and deliberate misrepresentation" and consulted his attorneys about the possibility of filing a libel suit. He then went on to accuse the New England Journal of engaging in a "conspiracy to suppress the truth."

I believe that the personality patterns which Pauling displayed throughout his life developed in the period after his father's death when he was nine. He never really allowed himself to express the pain which he felt after his grandfather's and his father's deaths, perhaps because his relationship with his mother was not close enough to give him a feeling of security. Her own depression and ill health, coupled with the unfamiliar practical problems of providing support for the family, made it difficult for Belle to be attentive to her son's emotional needs. She was never as close to him as she was to her daughters.

His father had admired him greatly, and encouraged his intellectuality. His mother, because of her illness and vulnerability as a widow, was not able to provide the same degree of support. In interviews with my parents, Linus recalled, "you know when my father died my mother became hysterical. As we went on the street car down Hawthorne Avenue to take the train to Oswego where papa would be buried, where the funeral took place. I remember that I was upset by my mother making a disturbance. This was an attack of hysteria that I suppose is not uncommon." Belle's reaction may have been quite normal for a young mother whose husband was about to be buried, but it was understandably frightening to a nine year old boy who had suddenly become the man in the family.

From nine onwards, Linus channeled his energies into his hobbies and into part-time jobs designed to contribute to the family's expenses but also to give him a degree of independence from his mother. He was fascinated by the natural sciences, as are many boys of that age, and also discovered that he had a natural aptitude for academic work. He avoided close relationships with adults, whether teachers or relatives, but maintained friendships with other boys who shared his scientific interests and did not pressure him about family obligations.

The preoccupation with science may have had its origins at least in part in a need to sublimate emotional distress, but he was also good at it and realistic enough to recognize that scientific achievement could be an avenue to professional security as well as an absorbing escape from the rigors of everyday life. Whether through death, illness or insensitivity, adults had let him down. He was determined to make his way on his own.

By the age of twelve, Linus Pauling had already developed many of the behavior and personality patterns which he was to maintain throughout his life. He was introverted, intent on pursuing his own interests, and oblivious to conflicting demands from those around him. Emotionally, he was most comfortable when he could rely on a close relationship with one person for intimacy and support. The first special person was his boyhood friend Lloyd Jeffress, the second his wife Ava Helen Miller. His marriage to Ava Helen closely paralleled that of his own parents in its emphasis on closeness between the married couple having priority over parent-child relationships. It was a traditional marriage, with Ava Helen devoting her life to her husband's career and nurturing their children.

He found that he could use his intellectual brilliance to maintain independence from her and obtain approval from others. He married a woman who gave him the devotion he was unable to get from his mother.

Despite his tremendous success as a young scientist, Linus Pauling was never satisfied. Having won two Nobel Prizes, he felt he deserved a third. When his brilliance as a scientific innovator declined with age, he fell more and more into his second intellectual style. In his later years, his combativeness and defensiveness increasingly triumphed over his brilliance and creativity.


Watch Other Videos

Session 1: Linus C. Pauling Day Lecture

Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography

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