On this day in medical history: Celebrating the brilliance of Linus Pauling

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published February 26, 2018

Key Takeaways

On February 28, 1901, Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, OR. Considered one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century, Dr. Pauling was a theoretical physical chemist who became the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes.

In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Then on October 10, 1963, he was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for Peace for his crusade to stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Not coincidentally, this was the day the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was enacted.

You might say that Dr. Pauling’s desire to investigate the properties of substances and how they interact was innate. His father, Herman, was a pharmacist and his mother, Lucy, the daughter of a pharmacist. After his father’s death, Dr. Pauling and his family lived in relative poverty, and he had to work odd jobs to help his family make ends meet. He eventually had to drop out of high school.

Dr. Pauling attended the Oregon Agricultural College, where his interests in chemistry, mathematics, and physics were sparked. He took time off from his studies to teach an introductory chemistry course there, and met and married one of his students, Ava Helen Miller. They remained married throughout their lives and had four children.

In 1922, Dr. Pauling obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering, graduating summa cum laude. After this, he went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, CA. It was there that he used x-ray diffraction to explain the structures of chemical bonds and how they form molecules. Crystal structures was the topic of his dissertation, and he was awarded a doctorate in chemistry and mathematical physics in 1925.

In 1926, Dr. Pauling was off to study quantum mechanics in Europe after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and returned after 18 months to continue researching structural chemistry and teaching chemistry at Caltech.

Dr. Pauling detailed his findings in his seminal work, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Published in 1939, this book is considered the foundation of modern chemistry and the basis of molecular biology.

He volunteered his services to the US government during World War II in the early 1940s. Here, he made two very important contributions: developing oxypolygelatin, a synthetic blood plasma that could be used for emergency transfusions in combat settings, and inventing an oxygen detector for use in submarines and airplanes. The latter remained in use after the war, in incubators for premature infants and for anesthetized surgical patients.

In 1948, President Harry Truman awarded Dr. Pauling the Presidential Medal for Merit for his wartime service and patriotism.

After the war, Dr. Pauling joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, co-founded by Albert Einstein. He began to speak publicly about the dangers of nuclear war, and his activism became a target of the government and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into allegations, some of which were unfounded, of Communist influence in the government. Because of this, he was denied a passport and could not travel abroad from 1951 to 1954.

During this time, Dr. Pauling kept busy with his discovery of the alpha helix, which he believed to be the basic structure of DNA. He also published research detailing the structural nature of sickle-cell anemia. And when the publication of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helix proved Dr. Pauling’s theory to be incorrect, he was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into the nature of chemical bonds and their applications. Later that year, his passport was reinstated.

Dr. Pauling continued his work decrying the dangers of nuclear arms and published a book No More War! In 1960, because of his continued activism in this area, he was called to appear before a congressional committee to defend himself. He was later acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Dr. Pauling went on to develop the new field of orthomolecular medicine, based on the idea that large amounts of certain compounds could treat and even prevent diseases. He theorized that megadoses of vitamins could help treat conditions from the common cold to cancer and AIDS.

In 1973, Dr. Pauling founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine, since renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. The medical community did not accept much of his work on finding nontoxic alternatives to medicine, however. His book, How to Live Longer and Feel Better, published in 1986, was not well received.

In 1974, he received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor, from President Gerald Ford.

In 1991, Dr. Pauling was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and after undergoing two surgeries, refused all other treatments. He chose to treat himself with massive doses of vitamin C instead. The cancer eventually metastasized to his liver, and he died on August 19, 1994, at the age of 93.

Throughout his life, Linus Pauling demonstrated the breadth and width of his search for scientific answers. His life-long curiosity, perseverance, and well-rounded approach as a scientist, family man, and peace activist were testaments to his brilliance.


Linus Pauling Biography. A&E Television Networks. The Biography.com website. https://www.biography.com/people/linus-pauling-9435195. Accessed February 21, 2018.

Linus Pauling Biography. THEFAMOUSPEOPLE. https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/linus-pauling-4946.php. Accessed February 15, 2018.

Linus Pauling Facts. Nobelprize.org. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1954/pauling-facts.html. Accessed February 19, 2018.

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