Scholars pore over Pauling Papers for insights into a genius and his times
When OSU librarian Cliff Mead leads you into the collected life history of one of America’s greatest minds, you step into the vortex of the last century. The Valley Library, where the papers of Linus Pauling reside, opens up a first-person portal into the most transformative events of the 1900s, an intimate avenue into 20th-century headline news. That’s because the Oregon scientist who was lauded for discovering the nature of the chemical bond — and then lauded again for tirelessly fighting nuclear proliferation — lived at the very nexus of scientific and social change.
The 500,000 items catalogued in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers — diaries and telegrams, photos and lab notes, correspondence from world leaders, hand-built molecular models, grainy home movies, tender love letters, solid-gold Nobel Prize medallions — document events both monumental and humble. Evidence of stunning scientific achievement and wrenching political controversy is preserved alongside mementos of a loving marriage and minutiae of an academic life. FBI files from the ‘50s Red Scare and original records of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists share space with adolescent doodles and boxes of bank statements.
These objects and records are the raw materials of history.
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“It’s a microcosm of 20th-century science, history, politics and culture,” says Mead, director of Special Collections and curator of the Pauling Papers since 1986, when the first batch arrived at OSU via Mayflower Van Lines tractor-trailer. “The four decades of the ‘20s through the ‘50s is considered the golden age of 20th-century science. Pauling was right in the middle of it. He knew everybody of import, everybody knew him.”
Pauling’s thinking was never cramped by traditional disciplinary boundaries. His investigations can be likened, not to a line drawn on a page, but to a drop of ink suffusing outward on the currents of curiosity and the tides of creativity. He saved everything, wrote everything down. “His notes are so clear, so legible,” says Paul Farber, chair of OSU’s Department of History. “It’s like looking over his shoulder in the lab.”
The result is an information mother lode for scholars, particularly science historians.
“We’ve identified 23 disparate areas in which Pauling had a major hand: chemistry, biology, molecular biology, physics, orthomolecular medicine, peace studies and subsets of all these major areas,” says Mead. “The collection is a great point from which scholars can diverge in all sorts of directions.”
Researchers from as far away as southern China and as nearby as OSU’s Milam Hall mine this rich vein of primary sources. When scholars visit the collection in person, they are welcomed with open arms, by all accounts. Unlike some library collections, where researchers are made to feel like intruders, Mead and his staff at the Valley Library are very friendly, according to several frequent users. “Some archives take an overly protective view toward their holdings,” says Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, whose work as a science historian has taken him to archives throughout the United States and Europe. “They can throw a lot of roadblocks in your way. Their attitude seems to be to make it as difficult as possible to get into those holdings.”
The large colorful, “space-filling” molecular constructions, representing what Nye calls the “architecture of matter,” became a Pauling trademark.
Those who can’t make the trip to Corvallis can access huge chunks of the collection on the Web, where engaging narratives of the Pauling story are enhanced by thousands of scanned documents, photos, videos and audioclips.
Recent patrons requesting information have hailed from:
- LaSapienza University, Rome (researching the Cuban Missile Crisis)
- University of Berne, Switzerland (seeking materials on the Second International Congress of Pure and Applied Science)
- Belgian Museum for Radiology, Brussels (inquiring about Pauling’s research notebook entries with Charles Coryell on the magnetization of hemoglobin and oxyhemoglobin)
- Sharif University of Technology, Iran (looking for imagery of the amino acid sequence of hemoglobin)
- Shenzhen, China (gathering information for a book, published under the title Pauling and His Vitamin Crusade)
- TV2 Denmark (requesting vitamin C clips for Danish news)
Students, too, use the Pauling papers. Undergraduates in the University Honors College chemistry sequence, for instance, write term papers based on primary-source research in the collection. Ph.D. students, too, come from far and wide. OSU science historian Mary Jo Nye served on committees for two recent doctoral candidates in quantum chemistry — one from Harvard, the other from the University of Toronto — who used the collection for their dissertations.
Scholars uncover things both momentous and mundane, from grand achievements to psychological nuances. The range mirrors the scope of the collection itself. Pauling’s sweeping innovations in chemistry textbooks and molecular modeling, for instance, stand in contrast to the psychological subtleties of demeanor and body language apparent during a friendly game of baseball with his colleagues at Caltech.
Magician of Molecules
“Pauling revolutionized the writing of chemistry textbooks by beginning with atomic and molecular theory,” says Nye, who used the Pauling papers to research a chapter for a 2000 book titled Communicating Chemistry: Textbooks and Their Audiences, 1789 – 1939. “He completely changed the format of undergraduate chemistry instruction.”
In addition to studying the various editions of Pauling’s classic textbook General Chemistry: An Introduction to Descriptive Chemistry and Modern Chemical Theory, Nye burrowed into hand-scrawled notes, correspondence with publishers, comments from reviewers and letters to and from illustrators. “I was trying to understand what motivated him,” says Nye, who holds the Horning Chair in the Humanities.
Organized around the idea that “up-to-date theory” and “concrete imagery of atoms and molecules” are better starting points for chemistry students than the history of chemical discovery — the old-school approach — Pauling’s textbook became an instant hit, Nye says. “Pauling introduced students immediately to definitions and pictures of atoms, molecules and crystals,” she writes. “Images abounded.”
When General Chemistry was first published in 1947, the imagery that so greatly distinguished it had already morphed from two-dimensional drawings and illustrations to 3-D models in his lab. The large, colorful molecular “space-filling” constructions, representing what Nye calls the “architecture of matter,” became a Pauling trademark. Usually made of plastic balls (standing for atoms) linked by wooden sticks (standing for bonds), they “superficially resembled the toys of preschool children,” James Watson of DNA fame once remarked.
After analyzing Pauling’s passion for hand-built structural representations of molecules such as protein, penicillin, insulin, benzene, ethylene, Nye concluded in another book chapter: “These new tools resulted in important experimental and theoretical discoveries, in new methods of pedagogy, and in a revolutionized positive image of the chemist as a magician of molecules” (Tools and Modes of Representation in the Laboratory Sciences, 2001).
For researchers who want to get beyond science into Pauling’s persona, the collection provides plenty of clues. Biographer Hager spent years scouring the library’s holdings in search of the essential Linus. One day he came across home movies from the ‘30s. A grainy film clip captured a young Pauling playing baseball with the Caltech chemistry department — a lighthearted, unrehearsed moment that revealed an appealing personality brimming with confidence, ambition and competitiveness. “It illuminated the kind of person he was at that time in his life in a way that a written document simply could not do,” says Hager, author of Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling.
When questioned about being the sort of person whose pulse quickens with anticipation as he rummages in the dustbin of history, Hager grins sheepishly. “It’s a strange personality quirk,” the Eugene, Oregon, writer confesses. “It’s like detective work. That’s the part of it that excites me. Much of history remains undiscovered, and much of that undiscovered history resides in archives. So you never know what you’re going to find, and you never know how significant it’s going to be. It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
Hunting among the Pauling Papers is, from all accounts, very, very good.
“The Pauling collection is one of the most extensive and significant single-scientist collections in the world,” says Hager. “It is extraordinary.”