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: “The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling.” Lily Kay

13:42 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Related Names: Linus Pauling


Lily Kay: It is a daunting task to comment on the works of three scholars who have devoted many years -- in one case three generations -- to the subject of Linus Pauling. I am not a biographer of Linus Pauling, nor have I written a full biography of another scientist. The closest I have come to the challenges and rewards so eloquently expressed by our three speakers is in a kind of prosopography, with Pauling as one of the key figures in my narrative. I am referring to my study of the rise of molecular biology, focusing on the role of Caltech and the Rockefeller Foundation from the 1930s to the 1940s, where I traced several partial scientific careers, among them Thomas Hunt Morgan, Max Delbrück, George Beadle, and especially Linus Pauling -- an analytical history which, to use Robert Paradowski's words, aimed to disturb as well as enlighten.

While I have tried to understand how formative social and educational experiences might have shaped the Weltanshauung of these scientists, notably Pauling, I have not probed deep into their psyches. In part because I am suspicious of the speakers' essentialist categories, entailing constructions such as "the inner self," "the real Pauling," "the true man behind the public mask," and so on. I am more persuaded by the Lacanian view, according to which subjectivity is constituted through an unceasing interactive or dialectical process, where the inside and the outside continuously define and resignify each other; and meaning is partially fixed around particularly prominent nodal points of personal and social experience. According to this view Pauling would be seen as a complex composite of his private and public identities.

For me Pauling provided a window into larger developments in science and society. I was interested in how Pauling -- in many ways quite representative of a particular American era and social stratum -- shaped and was shaped by the molecular vision of life and its related articulations of social control, in all their embeddedness in contemporary institutional structures and cultural milieu. For my reconstruction I have relied primarily on archival records -- RAC, CIT, APS, OSU -- and on the published biographical sources. Only after I felt I had a good grasp of Pauling and related events did I finally interview him, but more as a complementary, rather than a guiding, resource: because I had specific questions which my other sources did not answer. By then I had corresponded with him -- in fact, at his initiative -- and he had read my dissertation (the book's precursor).

His reaction to my historical account and his responses during our interview have been extremely instructive to me about memory, objectivity, narratives, and the writing of history. Here is how. Pauling's enthusiasm for my dissertation stemmed mainly from the fact that I had reconstructed in minute detail significant episodes of his Caltech years. It brought back experiences, events, and people who had faded away from his memory. But what does this mean? Perhaps I did excavate important forgotten "truths"; but maybe he did not consider them important back then, and hence forgot; or maybe he only thought he forgot but actually was not even aware of these events. It could mean that my reconstructions might have shaped his recent perceptions of what these truths might have been, and that we were both now engaged in a process of coproduction of history.

In the interview Pauling steadfastly avoided discussing issues which I raised but which were for him intellectually and socially sensitive, such as his concept of the protein gene in the 1940s, the racial dimensions of sickle-cell anemia in the 1950s, and the role of eugenics in the regional and national culture of the 1930s through 1950s. While Pauling recalled in meticulous and impressive detail episodes which he preferred to discuss, he seemed either unaware of (or had forgotten) these less comfortable issues: How did he explain gene action in terms of protein structure? How did the black community react to sickle-cell anemia research? And how might eugenics have shaped the visions of a gene-based molecular medicine?

I wrote my story based on my other sources. And despite his avoidance of these issues, Pauling seemed to have graciously accepted my reconstructions and interpretations. After having read my book -- which greatly expanded on the role of social agenda and cultural trends in shaping the rise of the new biology -- Pauling sent me a warm letter thanking me for my favorable portrayal of his role in the rise of molecular biology.

But what did this mean? I was pleased, yet confused. Once again his response opened up the question of how the historian and her subjects perceive the past. I portrayed Pauling not only as a brilliant researcher but as an enterprising and aggressive scientific manager, driven by personal ambition of power and visions of bio-technological utopianism, who let little stand in his way. I also argued that eugenic goals played a significant role in the molecular biology project in general and in Pauling's visions in particular. While to me this reconstruction showed that science is not only about intellectual transcendence but also about social power, to many scientists this portrayal would (and did) imply tarnishing of the image of science and scientists -- as indeed a couple of Caltech's old-timers did object. Yet for Pauling my historical account seemed to pose no problem, nor did he see it as diminishing his endeavors or his stature.

Why? Is it because Pauling was so flattered by the pivotal role I attributed to him in my story that he was willing to overlook a few misrepresentations? Did he think that these were not misrepresentations but accepted some embarrassment for what later became politically insensitive views for the sake of greater historical glory? Or perhaps he still believed in and thought exactly in the same way about his old positions. Perhaps he liked my portrayal even if he had not seen himself this way.

The point is that I do not think these questions about the past can be answered with finality and authenticity, for I do not think that any one actor in a historical account has the privileged Archimedean vantage point from which to tell "the true story." As Robert Paradowski's nuanced analysis reminds us, the lessons of Kurosawa's Rashomon suggest that several narratives can, and in fact must, coexist in a reconstruction of a past event. And though biographers must make choices, those are imperfect choices about different representations of truths. Indeed, Tom Hager's recounting of his quixotic quest for an iron-clad objective biographical account of Pauling, based on all extant Pauling documents scattered in the entire archival universe is a touching cautionary tale of the objectivist's nightmare. When do facts become historically significant? As his inevitable lesson attests: an author must choose some vantage point a particular problem or interest, a reason for writing to help rank-order and signify historical facts.

Historians have come a long way since the imperative of Leopold von Ranke (founder of documentary history) to construct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen. As far back as 1960, Edward H. Carr taught us in his classic What is History? about the complex processes by which facts become historically significant at different historical junctures; about the contingent and selective nature of documents, and, alas, about the inevitable presence of present in all histories. Through Carr's work and those of others, historians have gradually learned to relinquish full control over the prized realm of objectivity and be content with an imperfect grasp of events and actors, even of nature.

Pauling seemed to have been aware of these limits on knowledge. In a rare moment of self-reflection, he described his scientific philosophy through a contrast with Karl Landsteiner: "I found that Landsteiner and I had a much different approach to science," he noted. "Landsteiner would ask, What do these experimental observations force us to believe about the nature of the world?' and I would ask, What is the most simple, general, and intellectually satisfying picture of the world that encompasses these observations and is not incompatible with them?" If this pragmatist philosophy applies to representations of chemical structures, I believe it applies even more to our representations of the past.

Thus as Tom Hager reflected, we will find in the future many more narratives of Linus Pauling, addressing different, even contradictory dimensions of this great life.


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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