“We think of this honor [the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize] as an indication of the rightness of our position during these many years. You know, of course, my husband would have preferred to have remained quietly in his laboratory thinking about his scientific problems. However, people are more important than scientific truths.”
-Ava Helen Pauling. Letter to Victoria Orellana. 1963.
The legacy of Ava Helen Pauling’s peace activism is far-reaching and hugely important. Wife and best friend to Linus Pauling for nearly sixty years, Ava Helen profoundly impacted her husband’s thinking on the nature of the world while, at the same time, establishing herself as a leader and role-model for a generation of women’s rights and civil liberties activists around the world.
Ava Helen Miller, age 19, met Linus Pauling under somewhat unusual circumstances. Two years her senior, Linus had been asked by the Oregon Agricultural College chemistry department to fill an unexpected staffing shortage and teach a few introductory courses, including “Chemistry for Home Economics Majors” in which Ava Helen was enrolled. Linus was immediately impressed by Ava Helen’s weighty intellect, and within months the two had fallen in love. (Linus was always quick to point out, however, that his affection for Ms. Miller did not translate to favoritism in the classroom. Indeed, the young professor was an extra-strict grader of Ava Helen’s work, with the pupil ultimately completing “Chemistry for Home Economics Majors” with a B average, when perhaps her work had merited higher.) In 1923 the young couple was married. A plaque now hangs in Education Hall Room 201 on the Oregon State University campus, marking the location where Ava Helen Miller and her future husband first met.
Linus Pauling won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, but it is Ava Helen Pauling who is credited with introducing him to the peace movement and instilling in him a desire to contribute to causes outside of his laboratory. Raised in a large (eleven brothers and sisters), left-leaning family, Ava Helen was inclined toward liberal politics and was deeply horrified by the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945. In later interviews, Ava Helen explained that, following World War II, she encouraged Linus to use his intellect and growing stature to become actively involved in peace work as his scientific research would be of no value if the world were destroyed by war.
Listen: Ava Helen describes the grim realities of nuclear war
Over the years, Linus and Ava Helen became close colleagues in the struggle for peace.
While Linus gained a great deal of attention (some of it unwanted) for his humanitarian efforts, it was Ava Helen that helped distribute copies of the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, co-organized the Oslo Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, coordinated efforts with other peace activists, and steadily developed her own philosophies on women’s rights, civil liberties and international affairs.
By the early 1950s, the four Pauling children now grown, Ava Helen gradually assumed an ever-more public persona as a spokeswoman for peace causes, delivering hundreds of lectures in countries around the world and assuming leadership positions in a great number of peace organizations — most prominently the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Women Strike for Peace.
It is small wonder then that, upon accepting the 1962 Nobel Prize for Peace, Linus Pauling was quick to note the undeniable importance of his wife. “In the fight for peace and against oppression, she has been my constant and courageous companion and coworker,” he said. “On her behalf, as well as my own, I express my thanks.”
Learn more about Ava Helen Pauling at her Wikipedia biography, on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement or by clicking on the multimedia link below.