Linus Pauling Biography

Born: February 28, 1901
Portland, Oregon

Died: August 19, 1994
Big Sur, California

American chemist

The American chemist Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize twice. Through his research he clarified much about the structure of the smallest units of matter. His studies on sickle cell anemia (a disease that mainly affects African Americans) helped to create the field of molecular biology. He founded the science of orthomolecular medicine, which is based on the idea that diseases result from chemical imbalances and can be cured by restoring proper levels of chemical substances.

The early years

Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, on February 28, 1901. He was the first of three children born to Herman Henry William Pauling, a druggist, and Lucy Isabelle Pauling. The family moved several times as Herman Pauling struggled to make a living.

Linus was a shy but curious child. He collected insects and minerals as he wandered through the woods. He read continuously. His interest in science was apparently stimulated by his friend, Lloyd Jeffress, during his grammar school years. Jeffress kept a small chemistry laboratory in a corner of his bedroom, where he performed simple experiments. Pauling was intrigued by these experiments and decided to become a chemical engineer.

Herman Pauling died in 1910, when Linus was nine. Linus did many odd jobs to help support his mother and sisters after his father died. He delivered milk, washed

Linus Pauling. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Linus Pauling.
Courtesy of the
Library of Congress
dishes, and worked in a machine shop. During high school Pauling pursued his interest in chemistry, performing experiments using material he "borrowed" from an abandoned metal company, where his grandfather was a security guard.


In the fall of 1917 Pauling entered Oregon Agricultural College (OAC), now Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon. There he studied how the physical and chemical properties of substances are related to the structure of the atoms (basic units of matter) and molecules of which they are composed. A molecule is the smallest particle into which a substance can be divided and still have the chemical identity of the original substance.

During his senior year, Pauling met Ava Helen Miller while teaching chemistry in a home-economics class. They were married June 17, 1923, and later had four children. Pauling received his bachelor's degree from OAC on June 5, 1922. He began attending the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena the following fall. He received his doctorate, summa cum laude (with highest honors), in chemistry in 1925.

After college

After graduation Pauling traveled in Europe for two years, studying in the new field of quantum mechanics. The science of quantum mechanics is based on the idea that particles can sometimes behave like waves, and waves can sometimes act like particles that have no mass. In the fall of 1927 Pauling was appointed assistant professor on Cal Tech's faculty of theoretical chemistry. He was later made a full professor of chemistry. He stayed at Cal Tech until 1963. In addition, from 1937 to 1958, he headed the Gates and Crellin Chemical Laboratories.

Chemical structure

The central theme of Pauling's work was always understanding the properties of chemical substances in relation to their structure. He began by determining the structure of various inorganic (nonliving) compounds. He then tried to understand the rules that govern the structure of molecules. He went on to predict the chemical and physical properties of atoms and ions. (Ions are atoms or groups of atoms that have an electrical charge.)

In 1930 Pauling and R. B. Corey began to study the structure of amino acids and small peptides. Amino acids are the organic acids that make up proteins. Peptides are compounds made up of two or more amino acids. On April 6, 1931, Pauling published the first major paper on this topic ("The Nature of the Chemical Bond") and was awarded the American Chemical Society's Langmuir Prize for "the most noteworthy work in pure science done by a man thirty years of age or less."

In 1939 Pauling published his book The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals. This book has been considered by many as one of the most important works in the history of chemistry. The ideas presented in the book and related papers are the primary basis upon which Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954.

Sickle cell anemia

In the mid-1930s Pauling turned his interest to the structure of biological molecules. In 1936 he and C. D. Coryell discovered that the magnetic properties of hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that contains iron and carries oxygen) change upon being exposed to oxygen. These studies led to the 1949 proposal that humans may manufacture more than one kind of adult hemoglobin. Some hemoglobin tends to clump together and does not function properly when it is exposed to less oxygen. This is a disease called sickle cell anemia. This was the first documented instance of a "molecular" disorder.

World peace

The 1940s were a decade of significant change in Pauling's life. While on a 1947 trip to Europe he decided that he would raise the issue of world peace in every speech he made in the future. In 1957 he organized a petition calling for an end to nuclear bomb testing. In January of the following year he presented this petition at the United Nations. Over eleven thousand scientists from all over the world had signed it. In 1958 he published his views on the military threat facing the world in his book No More War!

Pauling's views annoyed many in the scientific and political communities. He was often punished for these views. In 1952 the U.S. State Department three times denied him a passport to attend an important scientific convention in England. In 1960 he was called before the Internal Security Committee of the U.S. Senate to explain his antiwar activities. However, nothing could keep Pauling from protesting, writing, speaking, and organizing conferences against the world's continuing militarism. In recognition of these efforts, Pauling was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Vitamin C and beyond

Pauling's long association with Cal Tech ended in 1963, when he became a research professor at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. He also went on to teach chemistry at the University of California in San Diego, California, and at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

In 1966 Pauling began to explore the possible effects of vitamin C in preventing colds. He summarized his views in the 1970 book Vitamin C and The Common Cold. His work helped establish the science of orthomolecular medicine. This field is based on the idea that substances normally present in the body, such as vitamin C, can be used to prevent disease and illness.

In 1972 Pauling cofounded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine, a non-profit organization for scientific research. It was later named the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

In 1974 Pauling testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health on food supplement legislation. He argued for controls over vitamins but did not want to classify them as drugs.

In 1986 he published How To Live Longer and Feel Better. In 1990, along with Daisaku Ikeda Seimei, he published In Quest of the Century of Life—Science and Peace and Health.

Pauling received many awards during his successful career. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the British Royal Society.

Pauling died of cancer on August 19, 1994, at his ranch outside Big Sur, California. Since his death, research continues on every aspect of his earlier discoveries, especially his theory about vitamin C and its effects on disease and the human body. His scientific career and work for world peace show us what a courageous imagination and approach can accomplish.

For More Information

Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Mead, Clifford, and Thomas Hager, eds. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001.

Newton, David E. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Advocate. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Pauling, Linus. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Edited by Clifford Mead, Thomas Hager. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001.

Serafini, Anthony. Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

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