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: “Boswellizing Pauling.” Derek Davenport

20:55 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Related Names: Linus Pauling


"The Publick are respectfully informed, that Mr. Boswell's LIFE of Dr. Johnson is in great Forwardness. The Reason of its having been delayed is...."
Advertisement in Gentleman's Magazine, June 1787. 

Derek Davenport: Today we are presented with three biographies of Linus Pauling all in a state of "great Forwardness" though all three authors tend to dilate more on the snaffle and the bit than on the horse. Which of them will prove a Sir John Hawkins? a Mrs. Thrale? a John Wain? a W. Jackson Bate? even a James Boswell? I am allowed a mere ten minutes to handicap these entries while all the while I would prefer to be riding my own Pauling hobby-horse.

Passing quickly by the meretricious "Bootlegger's Son" I turn to the neat coinage: "The Stochastic Method in Biography." At first sight this is an insightful use of Pauling's approach to solving complex structural problems. I feel a little like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain for I now realize that in assembling popular historical slide-lectures on Priestley, Faraday, Pauling and others I have, in a modest way, been using the stochastic approach for years. First comes the wide and somewhat random reading, the jotting down of apt and if possible witty quotations, the copying of relevant illustrations. There follows the more focused reading, the coining of a clever title (akin to "The Bootlegger's Son"), and, as late as possible, the dropping of slides into a tray, thus freezing the story-line. Finally all that is needed is ad-libbing suitable patter as the slides march inexorably on. The method seems to work. For that matter, how else, short of a lifetime's devotion, can it be done? But I take care not to confuse the final portrait with some unapproachable truth: this is my Priestley, my Faraday and, yes, my Pauling. This is where the stochastic analogy breaks down. In chemistry there is, or so we believe, an asymptotically approachable structural "truth." In biography, even of a simpleton, there is not.

"Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." So advises Benjamin Disraeli. For a modern historian of science is it possible to write a scientific biography (in contrast to an unscientific one?) without a theory, even without a colon in its title? Certainly Isis would be unlikely to review it favorably. Hager himself confesses as much: "A biographer can no more expect to recreate a life out of a simple ordering of facts than a scientist can expect to create life from tossing together dry chemicals." (Surely the word "dry" might better be applied to "facts" than to "chemicals.") With Hager's Pauling, in so far as I can judge from his paper, I have little quarrel though I would prefer less of childhood trauma and the search for father figures. And if father figures are needed, why not A.A. Noyes and G.N. Lewis?

I would, however, like to add to one anecdote and to quibble with one of his assertions. My story about Las Vegas does not involve hookers, but it does involve a young lady and Linus Pauling. In the January 1961 issue, we can see the TIME cover that so impressed Feynman's ladies of the town. Pauling had agreed to speak at a G.N. Lewis symposium I had organized for the 1982 American Chemical Society meeting in Las Vegas. Ava Helen Pauling had died shortly before, and Pauling's secretary called asking that I meet him at the airport. He arrived jaunty as ever and chattered amiably during the short journey to the hotel. We entered the Hilton which was full of gambling, even gamboling, chemists. As we moved to the reception desk the crowd parted and fell silent. It was rather like following Moses across the Red Sea. Linus told the young lady at the counter: "You should have a reservation for Pauling." After finding the card, she asked sweetly "would that be a Linus Pauling?" "Yes, yes, Linus Pauling." "How do you intend to pay, sir?" "By VISA card." "I will need identification, sir." Pauling was nonplussed. He put on one of his dopiest grins, turned to the silent throngs on the casino floor, threw his arms wide, and implored rather than asked: "Don't I look like Linus Pauling?" The young lady was unimpressed and insisted on, and got, his driver's license.

I tell this story for several reasons, but principally to remind us that it was only in later years that he became a legend in his own time and on occasion in his own mind. I first heard him speak in 1948 in London when he was approaching the zenith of his astonishing scientific accomplishments, and half of his long life was already spent. He was the most charismatic chemist I had ever heard but there was no sign of the guru and no evidence of groupies. These came later as a consequence of his political persecution and his advocacy of Vitamin C. We must remember he was a man who did legendary science long before he became the Pauling of legend.

My quibble is with Hager's allusion to "[Pauling's] long competition with Sir Lawrence Bragg." There was, I believe, no such competition in Pauling's, or I suspect in Bragg's mind. After all, Bragg had won the Nobel Prize for the creation of the technique that was to prove the key to Pauling's career while Pauling was still in high school. It is true that Bragg was well on the way to the structural principles of the silicates when Pauling peremptorily scooped him in the Sommerfeld Festschrift, but lacking Pauling's encyclopedic chemical knowledge and unsurpassable chemical intuition there is no way Bragg could have written The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Though a proud man, Bragg was not a particularly competitive one. Any Nobel laureate who, under an assumed name, hires himself out as a part-time gardener is not too concerned about his amour propre. Even so there may be an oblique reference to the genesis of the Pauling Rules for silicate structures, as well as to the DNA matter at hand, in Bragg's forgiving Foreword to James Watson's The Double Helix:

"Then again, the story is a poignant example of a dilemma which may confront an investigator. He knows that a colleague has been working for years on a problem and has accumulated a mass of hard-won evidence, which has not yet been published because it is anticipated that success is just around the corner. He has seen this evidence and has good reason to believe that a method of attack which he can envisage, perhaps merely a new point of view, will lead straight to the solution. An offer of collaboration at such a stage might well be regarded as a trespass. Should he go ahead on his own? It is not easy to be sure whether the crucial new idea is really one's own or has been unconsciously assimilated in talks with others."

Paradowski casts his net very wide indeed. Being no film buff, at best a casual art critic and sadly unblessed with a Jesuit education I was at first somewhat hesitant to comment on his manuscript. Fortunately, I have read his splendid 1974 Ph.D. thesis titled The Structural Chemistry of Linus Pauling and somewhat later more than five hundred pages of an early draft of his biography. These five hundred pages carried Pauling only to his twenty-sixth year and it is clear that Paradowski's "Life" will be one of Boswellian amplitude. While admiring the thoroughness, fairness, eloquence, and documentation of this massive first installment I suggested, in my review for W.H. Freeman, that the world might not yet be ready for a multi-volume biography of a scientist, even one as multidimensional as Linus Pauling. A copy of my review was, at my request, sent to Bob Paradowski who in turn showed it to Pauling. Shortly afterwards I received a rather snippy note from Linus maintaining that he felt a multi-volume biography was fully merited. Later I was to receive a similar note when I suggested that (at age ninety) he should perhaps consider writing an autobiography. He replied that he fully intended to write such a work, but that for the moment he was too busy doing science!

For the most part, I find myself comfortable with Paradowski's emerging portrait. I am unpersuaded, however, by his comments on Edel's mask/figure-under-the-carpet duality. I cannot accept that a scientist's underlying psyche structures his science in quite the same way as an artist's psyche structures his or her art -- how the science is achieved maybe, but not the achievement itself. In attempting to distinguish between art and science Georges Braque once said: "Science is a view of the world as seen by no one or by everyone while Art is a view of the world as envisioned by one unique individual." On most days I find this distinction persuasive. Braque also said that while Art must disturb it is the purpose of Science to reassure. This I find, in William Blake's term, "uneasy."

"One of the principal problems besetting [biographers of scientists] is what to do with the science," writes Paradowski. Ah, there's the rub. But why write at all if the immortalizing science is scanted, or even largely omitted as in Antony Serafini's wretched little book. Abraham Pais and Walter Moore have shown that it can be done, though admittedly such books are not destined for best-sellerdom. Pauling spent the first half of his life largely as a prototypical (if prodigiously gifted) academic. He wrote seminal papers, and authored long-lasting textbooks; he saw Caltech emerge from the shadow of Throop College to world repute. He lectured to undergraduates, nurtured graduate students, and inspired innumerable brilliant collaborators and associates. For those of us not privileged to be close associates he wrote the books and gave the lectures from which we learned and later taught. He never forgot the scientist's obligation to the ordinary citizen. He was an unusually active President of the American Chemical Society and in his Presidential address he both forcefully supported the creation of the National Science Foundation and chastised the American Medical Association. All this before he mounted the hustings for Henry Wallace. Biographers should pay more attention than they generally do to the ways even great scientists spend their working days. In this, as in so much else, Einstein is not the norm. However, with Paradowski's conclusions I largely agree and to his epiphany murmur "amen."

I now turn to Ted Goertzel's paper. I find myself in much less sympathy with his approach than with Hager's and Paradowski's. Psycho-biographies, of scientists at least, are by nature imprecise and frequently are impertinent in both senses of the word. In spite of poetic authority I do not find scientific genius closely akin to madness. Even though Francis Crick titles his autobiography What Mad Pursuit, I am sure the image he wishes to convey is not that of Lucia de Lammermoor going dotty in white satin. When it comes to derangement, some of my lesser colleagues seem much nearer the edge than most of the distinguished ones, and just as vain. I agree with Goertzel's observation concerning Pauling's "tendency to take very strong positions on issues where the objective evidence was ambivalent at best" but only if it is intended as a comment on his advocacy of Vitamin C. Even here his books on the subject are well referenced to the "objective" literature.

As for Pauling's responses to the Rorschach test, I find them intriguing, beautifully phrased, and to a degree enlightening. Intriguing, because I would not have expected, no doubt through ignorance, so many references to the arts: Dali, Breughel, Bosch, da Vinci, Kurt Joos. I would have expected the many acute observations though not their exquisite wording: "I looked for the little hooks a bat uses to hang by"; "two rabbits -- in an attitude of supplication"; "I seem to see [not] a cleaver ... but the act of cleaving"; "horns of a deer in the velvet"; "the horns which suggest he is cuckolded"; "that's Punch, two Punch's ... with pendulous abdomens"; "sea horses, but tails are bent the wrong way." This is the voice of a poet as much as a scientist. As to the interpretations of the Rorschach protocol by the experts I shall, in the spirit of collegiality, pass by in silence.

I am uneasy with the distinction between Pauling's unemotional science and his emotional non-science. He certainly had an emotional commitment to his own scientific past. How else explain six hundred plus resonance forms for ferrocene in the face of the ascendant molecular orbital theory? How else explain the acerbic put-down (in his nineties) of a non-canonical view of electronegativity?

I will close with a brief account of three lectures given at Purdue University in the mid-60's as they illustrate the essential unity of Pauling's response to his many passions. In 1965 as chairman of Purdue's Special Lectures Committee I had invited Pauling to give a lecture titled "The Scientist and the Public Conscience." In addition I had asked him if he would give a lecture for "bright sophomores." He readily agreed and suggested the all-encompassing title "Molecules, Disease and Evolution." In a later letter he requested that I also schedule a graduate seminar in physics on his then-new "Close-Packed-Spheron Theory of the Structure of Atomic Nuclei." These were contentious times and it was with some trepidation (John Kenneth Galbraith had been a speaker a few weeks earlier) that I asked the Provost and then the Dean to introduce Pauling. Both demurred pleading previous engagements, so I decided to introduce him myself. The large theater was packed, and as I looked down I was not totally surprised to see the Provost and Dean sitting in the audience. Pauling spoke calmly and eloquently of perceived political iniquities. On this occasion his remarks were indeed "simple and predictable." But so were the iniquities. His speech was not, however, "similar to those being given by thousands of other New Left radicals at the time." This was not rant but rather a moving testament to personal conviction. The question and answer session lasted an hour and was very lively. Arguments and counter-arguments, names, addresses and telephone numbers flew backwards and forwards as the students aired their Clintonesque misgivings while the establishment voiced its disapproval. Linus rode the waves of opinion like a consummate dialectical surfer.

The next morning the physics seminar was scheduled for eleven o'clock. I had a genuine previous engagement and arrived just as Linus called for his first slide. He was using a new-fangled Polaroid process for making instant 4¬ x 3¬ slides and a suitable projector had been exhumed for the occasion. Before our eyes the first slide began changing into an incipient Dali and then into a mass of molten plastic. Pauling was clearly shaken and asked for an overhead projector. He then proceeded to finish the lecture drawing all his complex slides from memory. There were few questions, for the physicists were unconvinced and Linus was in no mood to linger. A lunch had been scheduled and I escorted Ava Helen and Linus across campus walking between the two of them. After a while Ava Helen asked how the lecture had gone, for she knew it was the first time that her husband had presented his new theory to an audience of nuclear physicists. "They melted my slides" he said. I walked on saying nothing. "Do you think it was deliberate?" Ava Helen rejoined. There was a long pause before Linus answered "No.... I don't think so."

As you may well imagine the afternoon lecture to bright sophomores was for me an anxious occasion. Not so for Pauling who captivated a jam-packed audience. It was perhaps the finest lecture I have ever heard. H.C. Brown helped me run the lights and projector and perhaps for that reason all went well. At dinner that night a beaming Fred Allen sat between Ava Helen and Linus Pauling and all three said how much they had enjoyed the visit. "Who is Fred Allen?" you ask. That must wait until the Pauling Symposium in Anaheim.1


  1. Derek A. Davenport, "Letters to F.J. Allen: An Informal Portrait of Linus Pauling," J. Chem. Educ., (1996), 73, 21-28. Return to text ↑


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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