Next week sees the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners. Many of the Royal Society’s Fellows and Foreign Members have been awarded a Nobel Prize, and here we look back at the work of one Foreign Member – Linus Pauling.


Nowadays, the US is a strong supporter of the ban on nuclear tests, but this wasn’t always the case: they essentially opened the atomic age with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and there was a time when raising concerns about the nuclear program would get you accused of being a communist conspirator. One of the people who bore the brunt of censorship was also a double Nobel Prize winner – he won one for Chemistry and one for Peace.

Linus Carl Pauling (1901-1994). Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Linus Pauling, a Foreign Member of the Royal Society known for the discovery of the structure of the DNA, went from wartime research to pacifism, through a fair amount of logistical hurdles. During World War II, he carried out research on rocket propellants and artificial antibodies. For his work, in 1948 he was awarded with the highest honour a civilian can achieve in the US, the Presidential Medal for Merit.

It must have been a rather awkward ceremony: at that point, Pauling had already been active for three years on the anti-nuclear front, which had brought about some attention from the FBI. In 1945, he had started writing and holding lectures about the impact of nuclear warfare on international relations, and advocating for restraint. As well as signing petitions, he had joined organisations advocating for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, among which the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, whose president at the time was Albert Einstein.

As a potential security threat, it was difficult for Pauling to leave the country. In 1948, the FBI tracked him during his entire trip to Europe. Subsequently, when invited to give a talk here at the Royal Society, he wasn’t able to obtain a passport because his trip ‘would not be in the best interest of the United States’. Despite his insistence and further applications, he never made it to the meeting. Public outrage following the incident eventually led to his being able to travel to Europe again in 1953. One of the aims of this trip was to see first-hand the results of Watson, Crick and Franklin’s work on the DNA double-helix.

The Pauling children at a gathering in celebration of the 1954 Nobel Prizes. Stockholm, Sweden.

His newfound freedom was paid for with silence: for some time, he didn’t speak publicly about nuclear power. He was suddenly pulled out of his restraint by an event that he couldn’t ignore: in March 1954, the US government deployed a hydrogen bomb on the Bikini Atoll, after evacuating the islands, starting a wave of tests in the area. Pauling resumed his advocacy, thereby re-igniting the bureaucratic cold war between himself and the US State Department, which became publicly significant when his first Nobel Prize was announced in November. In that instance, he won: the public reaction if he had been refused to travel to the award ceremony in Stockholm would have been unbearable. After the ceremony, he went on a celebratory tour that took him to Israel, India, Thailand and Japan. His arrival was always welcomed with enthusiasm, both for his recent scientific success and his opposition to nuclear weapons.

As the arms race between US and Soviet Union continued, Pauling started warning the public about potential health issues related to nuclear testing. There was widespread alarm about the presence in the atmosphere of radioactive isotopes, which were harmful to living beings and would linger, potentially, for generations. The Atomic Energy Commission dismissed him, saying that the level of harmful radiation was not high enough to be dangerous, but there was no way to check: the AEC was both developing nuclear weapons and monitoring health hazards. Now we know that Pauling was right: more than 60 years later, the Bikini Atoll is still uninhabitable, and in 1990 it was estimated that, in terms of health hazard posed by the tests, 10 000 humans died as a result of each one.

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, who supported him throughout his political activity, helped to collect signatures for a petition calling for a ban on nuclear testing, which was presented at the United Nations. Shortly afterwards, an informal moratorium was agreed between the UK, the US and the Soviet Union. After a second petition in 1961, Pauling helped to organise the Oslo Conference on the impact of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. While all this was happening, Pauling was called to testify about communist infiltration in the anti-nuclear movement. He asked for the hearings to be open, which led to a new wave of support for himself, and bad press for the Senate Internal Security Committee.

Despite the agreement, tests were resumed by both the Americans and Soviets in a short-lived spree that ended with the first international ban on nuclear tests, promoted by President Kennedy. The treaty came into force on 10 October 1962, the day before Pauling was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Thirty years later, in 1996 a treaty for a total ban was open for signature. To this day, it still hasn’t come into force, but has been signed by most countries in the world.

Read more about Pauling’s life in his Biographical Memoir. You can also view memoirs of other Nobel Prize winners, including recent memoirs on Francis Crick, Harry Kroto and Francois Jacob. These are all currently free to read.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)