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Stanford faculty recollections of Linus Pauling

STANFORD -- Henry Taube recalls vividly the first time he met Linus Pauling.

It was at a seminar held in 1938 at the University of California-Berkeley. "Pauling was already famous," the Stanford chemistry professor and Nobel laureate says. Following a brilliant lecture, Pauling handled all the questions put to him so readily and deftly that a fellow scientist was moved to remark that Pauling must have a pipeline to God and to jokingly propose that he should be called Pope Linus I.

"Pauling responded by informing the person that there had already been several Pope Linuses, so he couldn't be the first. However, he didn't object to the fitness of the designation," Taube says.

This is one of the recollections of Stanford scientists who knew the two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus C. Pauling, who died last weekend at the age of 93. Although Pauling spent the lion's share of his academic career in Pasadena at the California Institute of Technology, he served on the Stanford faculty from 1969 to 1973 before moving on to the Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine that he founded in Palo Alto.

Facets of the famous scientist's personality recalled by campus colleagues include his brilliance as a scientist - he was arguably the greatest chemist of the century; his ability as a teacher; his outspoken efforts in behalf of world peace; his lively wit, yet total lack of small talk; the nearly photographic memory that he retained into his 80s; and his intense devotion to science that bordered on obsession.

"He was a remarkable person. We won't see another like him. He was truly, truly spectacular," says Stanford chemistry Professor James P. Collman. Although Collman knew Pauling only casually, he studied his career and used it as the basis for a public lecture that he presented once with Pauling in the audience.

"He thought big thoughts about everything. There is probably no important idea in chemistry that he didn't think about and publish about. He was often right, and often years ahead of the experimental techniques that would prove him right," Collman says.

One of Pauling's greatest contributions, Collman says, was proposing the concept of molecular disease - that certain diseases are caused by malformed proteins made by the body and so can be inherited. This idea, which Pauling presented decades ago, is now the basis of many of the advances only now being made using the latest biotechnology.

Pauling's outspokenness on scientific matters carried over into politics. In the post-war period he was a vocal opponent of nuclear testing. In 1958, he initiated a petition calling for the end of such testing that was signed by 11,000 scientists in the United States and in 1962 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first person to have won a Nobel Prize in both science and peace - each one unshared. As a result, he was viewed suspiciously by the U.S. government, which suspected him of having communist sympathies. His political views also created friction between Pauling and the administration at Caltech that ultimately led to his departure.

If not for his political activities Pauling might have been the one to discover the structure of DNA, Collman speculates. "James Watson and Francis Crick were terrified that Pauling was going to figure out the structure before they did," he says. Fortunately for them, the U.S. government had canceled Pauling's visa. As a result, he was unable to visit England and so did not have an opportunity to see the X-ray crystallography work that provided key evidence of DNA's double helix structure.

Noel Hush, professor of theoretical chemistry at the University of Sydney who is a frequent visitor at Taube's laboratory at Stanford, tells another story about Pauling from this period. In 1952 Pauling got a limited passport to visit Britain and France, Hush says. But when Pauling arrived at Heathrow airport in London, he was met by a British functionary who told him that he could not leave the airport. When Pauling asked for the man's name, he would only give his number. Because Pauling continued to object, a second official was dispatched who, like the first, refused to give his name, only his number. Finally, the controller for the entire airport was called in. "What's your number?" Pauling asked him immediately.

One of the people instrumental in bringing Pauling to Stanford was chemistry Professor Harden McConnell. McConnell first met Pauling when McConnell arrived at Caltech as a 20-year-old graduate student in 1947. Because he wanted to pursue a career in theoretical chemistry, he sought Pauling out. "He told me that if you want to become a theoretical chemist, you have to know everything about chemistry, physics and biology. A warning light came on in my head, 'Watch this guy!' And I decided to go work with someone else!"

From 1947 to 1950, the time that McConnell was at Caltech, was an extraordinarily productive time for Pauling. Pauling not only accomplished pioneering work on the structure of proteins, but also researched the valence structure of metals. In addition, he was teaching freshman chemistry and serving as chairman of the chemistry department. "It was an incredible mental and physical feat," McConnell says.

It wasn't until 1956, when McConnell returned to Caltech as a faculty member, that he got to know Pauling as a person. "He had a great sense of humor. It was not canned, but spontaneous," McConnell says. He points to a humorous scientific paper that Pauling published about a commercial product that was supposed to combat odors. Because his analysis showed that the product was mostly formaldehyde, Pauling concluded that it worked by embalming people's noses.

"He had a very selective memory. He only remembered what he thought was important, but, for those things, his memory was instantaneous," McConnell says. Pauling was forever embarrassing him by asking if he remembered whether some technical point or other was true. When McConnell would reply, "I think so," Pauling would inform McConnell that he'd told him so several years before.

McConnell left Caltech and came to Stanford in 1964, about the time that Pauling severed ties with Caltech. Pauling first went to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of California-Santa Barbara. But after a couple of years he got lonely for chemistry, so he moved to the University of California-San Diego. Then McConnell and David Mason in chemical engineering convinced the Stanford faculty to offer Pauling a special emeritus position with a seat on the Academic Senate.

At this time Pauling, who was already in his 80s, had turned his formidable talents toward understanding the chemical basis of health. "This interest goes way back," says McConnell. Earlier in his career, Pauling had attempted to diagnose schizophrenia through the biochemical analysis of urine. In addition, he was developing a model for the structure of the nucleus of the atom, as well as proposing explanations for a newly discovered material called quasi-crystals.

The controversy surrounding his advocacy of the benefits of taking large doses of vitamin C, for which he is best known to the public, is only a small part of his efforts in this regard. Actually, Pauling's position at that time was "very reasonable," Taube remembers. "He maintained that most physicians and much of the public do not discriminate between minimum daily requirements for nutrients and optimal requirements."

While Pauling was on campus, his office was just down the hall from Taube's. When Pauling arrived on campus, Taube had recently been on a trip to Brazil, where he became interested in an unusual type of geode. On a visit to Taube's home, Pauling examined one of these geodes. "Completely forgetting that he was an expert on quartz and how it is formed, I began explaining some of my ideas on how these geodes were formed," Taube recalls. "At the time, Linus told me that I should think of publishing a scientific paper on the subject. Then, a day or two latter, I got a long, hand-written letter from him educating me about quartz and explaining why my ideas were wrong. I was very impressed that he took the time to write me that letter," Taube says.

During this period Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, were frequent visitors at the McConnells'. After Ava Helen died, he became an even more frequent guest. In the afternoon, after work, he and McConnell would sit, discuss science and sip vodka. "It was quite interesting, learning about all the things he was working on," McConnell says.

When asked what people should remember about Pauling, McConnell says, "He was a great scientist. He was a great advocate for peace. He was often controversial, but he was often right."



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