Watson on Pauling

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In 1931, when he was 30, Linus Pauling knew he was the world's best chemist. Ten years later his peers agreed. By then, The Nature of the Chemical Bond (1939) was already on its way to becoming the most influential chemistry book of the century. His biggest biological success came from his 1951 proposal of the alpha-helical fold for protein molecules, which everybody else thought were too large and complex to study. His findings were quickly verified, and Linus' confidence was never higher.

Then, unexpectedly, he struck out when he proposed an implausible, three-chain helix for DNA. Several months later, in Cambridge, England, Francis Crick and I, apprehensive that Linus might bat again, found the double helix. Why Linus failed to hit this home run will never be known. His wife Ava Helen is said to have told Linus that he should have worked harder. I believe the decade following World War II may have had too many agonizing moments for the Pauling family.

They arose chiefly from his opposition to nuclear weapons. After the first atom bombs were used, he began giving speeches expressing his concern that our nation's growing anticommunist fears were forcing us into an insane nuclear-weapons race. He was broadly labeled a pink, if not a red. J. Edgar Hoover personally pursued him, Senator McCarthy called him a security risk, and the State Department took away his passport.

Linus' last big wish was to do for medicine what he had done for chemistry. But using vitamins to conquer mental diseases, the common cold and cancer proved more than a tall order even for him. That Linus did not get his final triumph should not surprise us. Failure hovers uncomfortably close to greatness. What matters now is his perfections, not his past imperfections.

I most remember Pauling from 50 years ago, when he proclaimed that no vital forces, only chemical bonds, underlie life. Without that message, Crick and I might never have succeeded.

--By James D. Watson