Science Milestones: Linus Pauling & Molecular Medicine

As an Oregon State University alum, Linus Pauling’s memory invokes a sense of pride. Not only was he one of the greatest scientists of our modern age, but he was also a much respected and beloved defender of civil liberties and health issues.

My father, when I had just about reached my ninth birthday, wrote a letter to the Portland Oregonian, asking for advice as to what books to get for me. He said that I seemed to have an unusual interest in reading, especially history. Then he went on to say, “And don’t say the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species, because he has already read them.”

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Biography

Linus Carl Pauling was born in Portland, Oregon, on February 28, 1901. He received his early education in Oregon, finishing in 1922 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis — now Oregon State University. Already he was drawn to the challenge of how and why particular atoms form bonds with each other to create molecules with unique structures.

LinusPaulingFor postgraduate study Pauling went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which provided a stipend for research and teaching. In 1925 he received a Ph.D. in chemistry and mathematical physics. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1926-27 he studied in Europe with physicists who were exploring the implications of quantum mechanics for atomic structure. In this revolutionary new field Pauling found a physical and mathematical framework for his own future theories regarding molecular structure and its correlation with chemical properties and function.

Pauling discovered that in many cases the type of bonding — whether ionic or covalent (formed by a sharing of electrons between bonded atoms) — could be determined from a substance’s magnetic properties. To explain covalent bonding, Pauling introduced two major new concepts, based on quantum mechanics: bond-orbital hybridization and bond resonance.

Pauling originated the concept of molecular disease. In 1945, while hearing a physician describe sickle cell anemia, he instantly surmised that it might be caused by a defect in the red blood cell’s hemoglobin. After three years of painstaking research, he and his associate Dr. Harvey Itano identified this prevalent disease as molecular in origin — caused by a genetically transmitted abnormality in the hemoglobin molecule.

“I have always liked working in some scientific direction that nobody else is working in.”

Pauling’s description of this first molecular disease initiated a search for many more such disorders. The new idea quickly became immensely important in medicine and is now the main focus of human genome research. Thus the medical specialties of hematology, serology, immunology, applied genetics, and pathology owe much to Pauling’s contributions, which were made long before his intense interest in the promise of nutritional therapy became widely known.

In 1954 Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Pauling put his elevated new position as a Nobel laureate to good effect in his growing social activism. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he protested vehemently against atmospheric nuclear testing.

Pauling’s antitesting campaign was vindicated when a treaty was signed by the three nuclear powers — the U.S., Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. On October 10, 1963, the day on which the limited test ban went into effect, it was announced that Linus Pauling would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962.

Linus Pauling is the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes and one of only four individuals to have won more than one Nobel Prize (the others being Marie Curie, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger). Also of note, he and Marie Curie are the only people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields.

Bring it Home

About Eva Varga

Eva is passionate about education. She has extensive experience in both formal and informal settings. She presently homeschools her two young children, teaches professional development courses through the Heritage Institute, and writes a middle level secular science curriculum called Science Logic. In addition to her work in education, she is an athlete, competing in Masters swimming events and marathons. In her spare time she enjoys reading, traveling, learning new languages, and above all spending time with her family. ♥

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