The Pauling Chalkboard – A Short History

Pauling's chalkboard, as preserved in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

(Part 1 of 3)

Nestled in the northwest corner of the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections reading room, there exists a small locked area devoted to a permanent display on the life and work of Linus Pauling. In this room you can find Pauling’s desk, his lab coat, his microscope and his Nobel medals. If you walk in you will see models, books, paperwork, pictures, awards and several measuring devices, including an hourglass and two slide rules.

In this room you will also find a large chalkboard on the back wall, covered in names, diagrams, terms, equations and messy impromptu demonstrations. The writings and drawings on the board lend unique insight into Linus Pauling’s interactions and thought processes during his time at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. It becomes clear very quickly that the man operated within a complicated web of people, places and time, necessitating some type of medium to keep lesser-known variables in order.

It is not known exactly when this chalkboard first came into Pauling’s possession. It is believed, because of the wide range of names on its face, that the board was moved to his office before the initial establishment of the Institute. Pauling rarely erased information from his board, so one can see a great bridging of years in the names and drawings, potentially spanning from the mid-1970s to the time of his death in August 1994.

In 1986 Pauling donated all of his materials to Oregon State University, the bulk of which was moved to Corvallis following his passing. Transporting the chalkboard posed a serious problem. The board was located in Palo Alto, California, and its final destination was Oregon’s mid-Willamette valley, some six-hundred miles away. Because it was the intention of those involved to preserve the board exactly as Pauling had left it, there existed great concern about the potential for damage that the moving process might inflict upon this fragile information while in transit.

Coating the board with a preserving fluid was considered, and numerous museums were consulted as to how the move might be accomplished without damaging the chalk writing. This method was discarded, however, as it was determined that, due to the porous molecular nature of the artifact, certain amounts of chalk dust would be pulled into the board upon the application of a sealant.  The notion of a permanent glass cover was also entertained, though it was feared that this method might produce enough static electricity to pull dust off of the board.

Eventually, the curators decided to build a custom crate, with a foam rubber edge, into which the board would be carefully placed. The board itself has a border that protrudes from its face, and the space between the edge of the border and the board itself was enough to ensure that the integrity of the chalk writing was maintained.

Pauling with the chalkboard in 1979.

The crate was placed in a truck with special instructions and the assurance that it would be moved with the utmost caution. It was then driven from California to Oregon, brought to the 5th floor of the Valley Library, and installed in the room now dedicated to Linus Pauling.

The board itself served many functions for Pauling – namely as a type of index, as well as a mnemonic device for remembering the names of people either working at the Institute or otherwise  indirectly involved in some fashion. Besides names, the board was at times a space for demonstrations of theories for guests, and also served similarly as a mnemonic device for particular projects at the Institute. A mnemonic device is a method for enhancing memory, a service that likely gained importance as Pauling aged and the operation of the Institute became more diverse and encompassed more variables.

We’ll talk more about the functions of Pauling’s chalkboard in parts two and three of this series.

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One Response

  1. […] and a sherry, and those people wouldn’t have been able to distinguish my work from a Jackson Pollock painting! And they’ve got cooties!” For those few readers who are still reading (go away […]

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