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: “Personal Reminiscences about Linus Pauling.” Frank Catchpool

22:58 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Related Names: Linus Pauling


Frank Catchpool: I wish to make a couple of corrections about the remarks we have just heard. On the day after I arrived in Pasadena, I went up to the Paulings' house on Fairpoint Street. Noticing that I admired the house, Pauling said to me, "You see, the wings of the house are set at a tetrahedral angle." The builder had a problem with the shape; he wanted to know why it was necessary to join the wings at a 108 degree angle. "Why does it have to be that weird angle?" he asked Pauling. They argued about it, and the builder concluded by insisting that the change would make the house cost umpteen more thousands of dollars. Pauling replied, "No, it shouldn't, but it is very important to me. It needs to be that angle." Linus told me how he actually staked out the house and showed them the angle at which its wings must be set. The builder was still not mollified, and he commented that the angle would cause the joists to meet at difficult angles, and that the house would not be up to code.

The other thing was the pool. I had never seen an elliptical pool before. On this same visit to their home, Pauling demonstrated that the pool was a perfect ellipse. He reached out over the water at the end of the pool, and he patted the water at the focus. I am sure that he had done this many times before, because ripples went out and then the pool became still. Suddenly, at the other end of the pool, there was a little eruption of water at the other focus.

I first met Linus in the summer of 1959. He was standing on the banks of the Ogoue River with mud up to his ankles. The Ogoue was the main river of what was then French Equatorial Africa. Ava Helen was there, too. I had only had about a half hour to prepare to meet my great hero. At lunch that day, Albert Schweitzer had said to me, "Please go to the river edge and greet this American who is coming. His name is Linus Pauling." I said, "Oh, yes, I know all about him." Schweitzer was surprised, and he asked how I knew him. I was not a chemist or a physicist. I said, "I read TIME and Newsweek whenever I can and I see that he is saying the things that I want to hear. He is saying them loudly and clearly."

Pauling always made a great first impression. As everybody knows, when you met him you had to wonder what made this man so different from all other people. How did he get his start in the backwoods of Oregon State? As a child, he had grown up in a small town with dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. He and his friends had scrounged for pennies underneath the sidewalks of the village of Condon. They were teased by the cowboys who came into town with their herds of cattle. All of this did not amount to a very auspicious beginning. I had always thought that you had to go to the right schools, and have the right connections -- that you had to get into the right university and aim for the Cavendish, or something of that sort. But Linus had done it all himself.

Throughout the years I tried to discover Linus' beginnings. The more I learned, the more interesting his background became. His sisters told him early on that real engineers did not go to college. They simply went out and became engineers. They thought he should not waste his time at college, but should stay home to help the family. Of course, it soon became apparent that he could help his family much more readily if he had an education. Victor Goertzel said in 1962, "At the age of twenty-one, [Pauling] was already the man he wanted to be." And that is absolutely correct, according to everything I have read. By the age of twenty-one, his trajectory was set.

I would like to share one thought about biography. On one occasion I was at the airport to meet arriving guests. In reality, it was not an airport; rather, it was simply a grass strip on the riverbank opposite the hospital. The Paulings descended from the plane, and then a man got off, and Linus said to me, "This young man is from the Daily Mirror. He wants to interview Albert Schweitzer. He has flown all the way from London." I remarked on the difficulty of his staying at the hospital without writing ahead, considering the shortage of rooms at that time. The man replied simply, "I will sleep outside." Well, of course, he could not sleep outside. He could have died from exposure to diseases carried by mosquitoes. He was adamant, insisting that he would cross the river with us. "You cannot do this," I said. "You cannot just drop in on the hospital like this without any notification. Besides, I'm not sure [Schweitzer] wants to see you." We all crossed the river by canoe. Once across, the reporter announced that he wished to interview a young woman called Olga Detterding, a millionaire who happened to be visiting the hospital. Schweitzer refused: "No, absolutely not! She is my guest and she is on retreat." This reporter was the only person ever denied admission to the hospital. I had to take him across the river, after dark -- which was a dangerous thing to do -- back to the tiny one-room hotel in the village and arrange his affairs, because he did not speak French. Soon after, the reporter went away, but he came back to the hospital about five years later under a different guise. Everyone had by then forgotten the previous visit. After interviewing Schweitzer, he composed the most derogatory biography ever written. He had obviously been insulted by his reception there five years earlier. And yet during the reporter's second visit, Schweitzer had been so kind to him, offering interviews and arranging all his accommodations.

When the Paulings visited the hospital, I was intrigued by them. They were so different from the other visitors. They did not mind the heat so much, did not mind the dirt, or the squawking chickens and goats running around. They were genuinely interested in seeing some of my patients, and they were not horrified by what they saw. The stench of some of the sores on the lepers and other things I was dealing with every day had no effect upon them. In any event, Ava Helen and Linus used to walk around hand-in-hand. We at the hospital all thought that this was bizarre, a middle-aged couple walking around holding hands all the time. And yet I realized that that was how they had been and would be throughout their lives. They had this tremendous, affectionate, and warm loving relationship. They wanted to be in physical contact with each other all the time. On one occasion, Ava Helen asked me to go to the airport and meet Linus, and she said, "By the way, he is expecting me, and he won't be very pleased to see you." At the airport Linus was quite put out. He did not want me to drive him up to Caltech. He wanted Ava Helen.

At the hospital in Africa, Linus charmed us all. One day, he called my colleagues and I together and said, "I'm going to tell you about sickle-cell anemia." What followed was an amazing production. We sat there on the steps while he gave us a little seminar. I was bowled over by it. I had the sudden realization that I had been seeing sickle-cell anemia in my patients without recognizing it. It was likely that the large ulcers I had found on patients' legs were caused by sickle-cell anemia.

On another occasion, he pulled me aside and we went into my room. He saw that I was reading Scientific American. He commented that doctors then practicing medicine were going to be ignorant of all these exciting new things happening in biochemistry and medicine. I thought he was telling me that I would end up a country-bumpkin doctor if I were not careful. He said, "Come to Caltech for your next leave and spend some time with me." I told him that this was a totally ridiculous idea, because I had only scraped by in chemistry at King's College. It had been my worst subject. While I was at King's, Maurice Wilkins was one floor below me, with Rosalind Franklin, working out the structure of DNA. I told Pauling that when I took the exam in chemistry I realized that I would have to abandon much of the syllabus and simply do the physical chemistry questions. If my answers were absolutely right then I could get the minimum score necessary to pass. So I had simply junked the whole curriculum except for physical chemistry. Linus responded with a story: "When I was twenty years old I was working on the roads in the state of Oregon, living in a tent. I had a book of problems in physical chemistry and I worked them out by lantern light in my tent. Incidentally, I found that for one of the problems I couldn't get the right answer, so I wrote to A. A. Noyes to tell him that he had got the wrong answer for a problem. Noyes wrote back rather angrily and said, 'No, you've got the wrong interpretation of the data.'" Pauling gave me that little book and told me to do the same thing, and I did. I worked all those problems.

When I first arrived at Caltech, I shared a desk with Emile Zuckerkandl, who has been my friend ever since. I watched him develop his work on evolution with Linus. I listened to the great discussions in which he and Linus developed their great ideas together. On my first day I went up to Linus' room to discuss my work: he asked, "Well, what are you going to work on here? Have you done any sort of research?" I had cooperated on a project involving anaesthesia, I told him. Within minutes he was rolling out the hydrate microcrystal theory of anaesthesia. I realized what he was saying was not published, nor even written; the theory seemed to have come off this top of this head, and he was talking about dodecahedral, tetrakaidecahedral, and hexakaidecahedral structures and the stabilization of clathrate molecules which could, he thought, cause anaesthesia. As far as I am concerned this is still the only quasi-viable theory of anaesthesia around today. No other theories are really any good.

It seems valid to draw comparisons between Linus Pauling and Albert Schweitzer -- if only in the way they led their lives. In Strasbourg, Schweitzer had a tremendous meteoric rise to fame. He already had his third doctorate by the age of twenty-six. He had several volumes published, and he was in demand all over Europe to give concerts. He was writing books on philosophy, and he had published his major theological works on the search for the historical Jesus, as well as books on musicology (i.e., on Bach). He vowed that he would devote the first thirty years of his life to doing what he wanted to do, and then his remaining years to doing those things he felt he ought to do, in an attempt to give something back to mankind. In much the same way, Linus had a wonderful meteoric career. He always said that the Nobel Prize in chemistry had come during the fun part of his life. That was the good and happy part, full of activity and interesting things. The Nobel Prize for Peace involved hardship, grief, the loss of good friends. To millions of people around the world he was saying things that needed to be said, and saying them over and over again -- spelling them out in a way everybody could understand, talking to YMCA groups, talking to church groups, talking wherever there was an audience to hear him. Although his scientific following has been enormous -- everywhere you go you find one of his graduate students, or one of his post docs, all doing marvelous things, and many of whom have become eminent in their fields -- there are millions of people around the world who only know Linus from his peace work.

At Caltech, Ava Helen and Linus invited me to go out on some peace marches with them and I thought at first that I should not, because I was not a citizen of this country. But Linus told me, "This is a world problem, not a U.S. problem." As we went and marched through Los Angeles, I was horrified to see the police there in such large numbers. There were also unmarked trucks with cameras on top that were carefully recording every face as we marched by, presumably so that the CIA could do some damage to our careers.

I was at Caltech when the news of Linus' second Nobel Prize came through. It was at a time when his relationship with Caltech seemed to be at a low water mark. There were plenty of hard feelings. There were even some who commented aloud about trying to remove him from the faculty. Lee DuBridge had agreed that Linus should be fired from Caltech, but then it was pointed out that he could not be fired because he had tenure. Trustees were regularly donating monies, but often with one string attached: Caltech must get rid of Linus Pauling.

I heard about the Nobel Peace Prize in an interesting way, on my car radio in a flash announcement. I was overjoyed, and I drove right into the Crellin courtyard and stopped there so I could spread the news to the first person I met. When one of the professors came out, I grabbed him and had him listen to a second announcement over the radio. Instead of looking joyful, he appeared crestfallen. I thought I knew what he felt. He said, "You know, we turned our backs on him. We didn't support him. We thought nobody was listening to him. We thought he was crazy, lowering his own image and the image of our profession and our institution, but the world was listening. And now comes this message from Oslo, about the greatest of all his prizes, the one that he prized the most."

Linus was away at the ranch the day of the Oslo announcement. He was scheduled to come back within a couple of days. I was terrified that he was going to come up to the chemistry labs and find no friends there to greet him, to shake his hand, or to congratulate him; so I scurried around the chemistry labs trying to work up some celebration to mark this historic moment, but it was clear that there was nothing planned. It was finally Max Delbrück who came to me -- almost three weeks after the award was announced -- to ask what the chemistry department was doing for Linus. I said that I thought nothing was being done. He replied by saying that the biologists would like to arrange something for him, just a cocktail party to salute him and congratulate him, but he did not want to act until the chemists had made some sort of move. I thought this situation absurd: here was Max Delbrück, the chairman of the division, asking me, a little postdoc, what the biology department should do. In the event we did have a wonderful, warm reception, apart from the chemists.

I would very much like to continue to share my fond memories with you, but in the interest of time I must end here.


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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