“I doubt that many Nobel Prizes have been so popular with the masses in science…. [A]lmost all are delighted that the Nobel Prize embarrasses the State Department.”
– Charles Coryell in a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer, as referenced in Force of Nature, by Tom Hager, p. 451. November 2, 1954.
In 1954, Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of complex substances.” Pauling, who had thought it unlikely that he would receive the Prize, was both shocked and thrilled. He received the news just before giving a lecture at Cornell University and, in his own words, he “had a little difficulty calming down enough to enter [the lecture hall].”
For the past several years, Pauling had been in almost constant struggle with the U.S. government. Pauling was an outspoken proponent of peace and loudly argued against American activities during the Cold War. As such, he had been branded a Communist sympathizer and, as a result, a threat to U.S. interests. Pauling knew his request for a passport renewal, which would allow him to participate in the Nobel ceremony, was going to be a sticking point. Thanks to a European press blitz, accompanied by dozens of letters from well-known individuals, the U.S. State Department was forced to reassess its position of power.
Pauling’s position as a Nobel winner, combined with his highly outspoken personality, placed the State Department at the wrong end of the American public’s sympathies. When ominous-sounding letters from European delegates began arriving, insisting that Pauling be allowed to travel, the Passport Office decided enough was enough. Pauling was granted unfettered access to global travel.
After a thoroughly enjoyable celebration at Caltech, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, along with their four children, departed for Sweden. The Nobel ceremonies began on December 9, 1954. Each laureate was introduced with a speech detailing their accomplishments. After the speeches, the laureates were presented with their medals by King Gustavus VI. After the ceremony, a lavish dinner was held in the Gold Room of Stockholm’s city hall. Here, each prize winner was toasted by the king, and then offered a brief speech of his or her own.
Following the dinner, the laureates were led a balcony overlooking hundreds of university students. Pauling, as decided by his fellow award winners, was elected to speak to the students. After a brief introduction, he began his speech.
Perhaps, as one of the older generation, I should preach a little sermon to you, but I do not propose to do so. I shall, instead, give you a word of advice about how to behave toward your elders. When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect – but do not believe him. Never put your trust in anything but your own intellect. Your elder, no matter whether he has gray hair or has lost his hair, no mater whether he is a Nobel Laureate – may be wrong. The world progresses, year by year, century by century, as the members of the younger generation find out what was wrong among the things that their elders said. So you must always be skeptical – always think for yourself.
At the close of his speech, the crowd below the laureates cheered and applauded Pauling and his message of hope and self-reliance.
The next two weeks were taken up by the delivery of speeches, a party at the U.S. embassy, and sightseeing in Sweden. After the Nobel festivities concluded, Linus Pauling and his wife departed on a four month trip, visiting Israel, India and Japan, giving over fifty speeches during their travels.
Pauling’s return to Pasadena was bittersweet. Though saddened to end his trip, he was reinvigorated with a sense of purpose. The people of the world were shocked by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons. Pauling was prepared to return to his peace work, knowing he was supported by like-minded individuals the world over.
Learn more about Pauling’s Nobel trip on the website Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.