“Noyes, a romantic at heart, may have hoped that Pauling’s Italian tour would bring to flower a latent aesthetic sensibility. But Pauling wasn’t Noyes.”
– Thomas Hager, Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 1995
By the mid-1920s, scientific institutions across Europe were producing top notch researchers in physics and chemistry. New and exciting research was being conducted across the continent and the scientific community was booming. To many, Caltech seemed a veritable backwater compared to the laboratories of Göttingen, Munich, and Copenhagen. It was in this context that, in 1925, Linus Pauling applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship with the hope of funding a European tour to visit the continent’s world-famous laboratories and learn from its scientific leaders.
In mid-1920s, prior to his Guggenheim application, Pauling was supported by a fellowship from the National Research Council. The fellowship was meant to allow Pauling to work at Caltech for six months, and then send him on to the University of California, Berkeley for another six month stint. A. A. Noyes, head of the Caltech chemistry department, had other plans. As a leading member of the American scientific community, he was able to convince Frank Aydelotte, the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, to guarantee Pauling a fellowship. Noyes also proposed that Pauling be sent to Europe early so that he and Ava Helen could enjoy the sights of the continent before beginning an intensive work schedule. In return, Noyes suggested that Pauling forfeit his National Research Council fellowship and remain at Caltech rather than serving the half-years stint at Berkeley. Pauling readily accepted the proposal.
On March 4, 1926, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling said goodbye to their infant son and departed for the East Coast. After a trans-continental train trip and a brief stay in New York, the couple stepped onto the steamship Duilio, therein officially embarking on their first trip to Europe. After a week of rough seas and a “young hurricane,” the Paulings and their shipmates finally set foot on dry land on the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal. In response to her first sight of European land, twenty-three year-old Ava Helen wrote in her diary,
“For two hours we sailed along the southern edge of Madeira, watching the pretty villages made of toy houses with red roofs scattered along the terraced slopes, and seeing light lovely waterfalls beneath the snow-topped hills.”
Her diary entries, filled with romantic imagery and exclamations of delight, contrast sharply with her husband’s letters to his mentor, A. A. Noyes, in which he deemed Naples “not spotless,” the Roman ruins “disappointing” and Rome itself “terribly crowded.”
The Paulings’ wedding had been a quiet event followed by a one-day honeymoon in the small town of Corvallis, Oregon. Though three years late, their stay in southern Europe evolved into the honeymoon that they had missed. Even Linus’ complaints couldn’t stifle the fun of the trip. Ava Helen Pauling kept a travel diary, given to her by Linus and inscribed “For my dear Ava Helen.” In it she (and occasionally her husband) recounted, in detail, the notable events of their travels, including a diagram of the Rock of Gibraltar. In contrast, Pauling’s own diary briefly notes the trip across the U.S., a few sights in New York, and several days’ weather reports before ending in a long series of blank pages. It seems the young scientist had little interest in travel journalism.
Among the more colorful of Ava Helen’s entries is her description of an assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini in which an English woman “shot him through the nose,” followed by a further recounting of Mussolini’s car, containing the undoubtedly shaken leader, as it passed through a crowd of excited Fascists. This was not the only encounter the couple had with Italian politics during their stay. On a train ride from Pisa to Florence, the Paulings found themselves in conversation with a leader of the Fascist movement in Florence. During the trip, he regaled them with stories of his war wounds, the evils of Communism, and the successes of Mussolini. The couple, while entertained by the man’s exotic tales, were “glad to return to Florence and to dinner.”
The Pauling’s vacation, originally meant to continue through the end of April, ended a week early, at Linus’ insistence. In a letter to Noyes, he wrote “We have come to the end of a very pleasant trip, and I am glad; for even though Italy is wonderful, and everything was new to us, traveling becomes tiresome. Moreover, I am very anxious to get back to work after nearly two months of idleness.” Not even the romance of Italy in the spring could keep Pauling out of the laboratory for long. It was on to Munich for the restless young scientist.
View Ava Helen Pauling’s entire travel diary or learn more about the Guggenheim trip on the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”
[Ed. Note: Parts II and III of our series on the Paulings’ Guggenheim trip will appear next week]