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Linus Pauling (1901-1994)

Seung Yon Rhee

"I wanted to understand the world!" replied Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate, when asked why he became a scientist. To him, the only way to understand the world was to understand the structures of the simplest molecules. This mind-set eventually led to the elucidation of chemical bonding, amino acid and protein structures, and the molecular basis of sickle-cell anemia, among a variety of other achievements. He is generally considered among the greatest chemists of the twentieth century.

As the oldest child of Lucy Isabelle Darling and Herman W. Pauling, Linus Pauling grew up in a small town in Oregon with little but a surplus of curiosity and imagination. Throughout his childhood, he speculated about the physical world around him. Pauling paid his way through school at Oregon Agricultural College by teaching courses he had taken himself only the year before.

Pauling earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1925. During his years at CalTech, he associated with some of the greatest minds of the century, such as Noyes, Millikan, Hale, and Dickinson. Using Dickinson's method of X-ray diffraction, Pauling invented an ingenious way of elucidating the structure of crystals. As a graduate student, he was one of the people who utilized the methods of X-ray crystallography to determine the structures of organic molecules.

Pauling's success depended partly on his persistent probing of the unknown, as well as on his ability to cross scientific boundaries, both of which were necessary in his quest to elucidate the nature of chemical bonding. Applying the recently elucidated laws of quantum mechanics, he was the first to describe how atoms bonded to form a molecule. While the physicists regarded the new quantum theory as a solution to understanding physical events on an atomic scale, Pauling had a novel perspective, which used quantum mechanics to describe the structure of the electron orbitals, bond angles, bond energies, and interatomic distances.

Pauling's quest for knowledge did not stop after these initial achievements. He pursued the biological manifestations of chemical bonding. Biological molecules are far more complex in terms of chemical bonding characteristics, and this presented a challenge for Pauling. His initial attack on these frontiers was the hemoglobin molecule. His group at CalTech was the first to determine the structure of such a huge molecule and describe its characteristics, such as the mechanics of bonding to oxygen. His work on hemoglobin propelled the field of protein biochemistry, which flourished in the ensuing years.

In addition, this work provided the foundation for understanding the molecular basis of sickle-cell anemia, a common disease among those of African descent. It causes red blood cells to aggregate and block blood vessels. From his understanding of the chemical structure of hemoglobin, Pauling deduced that this clumping of blood may be caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that have mutually complementary regions, which would attract each other via weak intermolecular forces. This attraction would cause the molecules to stick together and distort the red blood cell into a "sickled" shape. This distorted cell is defective in its binding to oxygen, which causes the clinical symptoms of the disease.

Pauling's achievements in science ranged from physical chemistry to molecular medicine to genetics. His intellectual pursuits led to some of the most fundamental discoveries about the nature of inorganic and organic molecules. But he didn't limit his intellect to the laboratory, he used his celebrity status as a world-renowned chemist and his expertise in chemistry to help halt nuclear testing. His second Nobel Prize - the first was in Chemistry - marked his achievements in seeking world peace.

For more information on Linus Pauling:

  • For primary source research, see the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers Collection. This collection, comprised of over five hundred thousand items, contains all of Linus Pauling's personal and scientific papers, research materials, correspondence, photographs, awards, and memorabilia and those of his wife, Ava Helen Pauling (1903-1981).

  • For information related to Linus Pauling's Nobel Prizes, the official Nobel Foundation Web site has posted speeches, Nobel Lectures, banquet speechs, and links to other resources related to his 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and his 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

Page reviewed and links added 30 November 2007.

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