“We cannot imagine what it is but I feel that either ourselves or our children will someday stand before the world as a specimen of a high standard of intelligence.”
-Herman Pauling, letter to Belle Pauling, 1905.
The documentary record of Linus Pauling’s early years is, unfortunately, rather thin. Much of what we know about Pauling’s life before high school is based either on letters exchanged by his parents or through Pauling’s own recollections conveyed in interviews to various biographers over the latter decades of his life.
There does exist, however, at least one highly-illustrative shred of semi-neutral evidence of the young Pauling’s precociousness — a letter to the editor of The (Portland) Oregonian, written in May 1910 by Pauling’s father, Herman. Titled “Reading for 9-Year-Old Boy,” the letter requests suggestions for books that might stimulate a grade-schooler “deeply interested in ancient history” and “prematurely developed [in his] inclinations.” Here is a scan of that published letter:
Raise your hand if you had read both Darwin and the Bible by the fourth grade.
The background to Herman’s request is provided by biographer Thomas Hager, who detailed this account of young Linus’s “unusual intelligence.”
When Linus was five, Herman commented on the boy’s talkativeness and ‘earnest manner’ when he prattled to his elders. By age six he had already been advanced to the second grade of the little school in Condon and had learned how to express himself clearly through the written word….By age eight he had developed an interest in ancient civilizations, and Herman began teaching him a few words of Latin. And he showed some early interest in science. When the projector lens from Condon’s one nickelodeon broke, Linus salvaged a piece and played for days focusing sunlight into a burning point. At age nine he was already reading Darwin and delighting his little sisters with miniature volcanoes he made by pushing together some sweepings in the backyard, adding some calcium carbide from a bicycle lamp, pouring water, and lighting the acetylene gas that was given off. The reaction was a common one used to provide light for bicyclists; Linus’s variation on the theme was original.
In their response to Herman’s request, the editors of The Oregonian suggest a reading list that might seem a stretch by contemporary standards — Plutarch’s Lives, Herodotus, Thomas Arnold’s The History of Rome, all books that one might now expect to find on a college history survey syllabus.
We do not know to what extent Herman Pauling followed up on The Oregonian‘s suggestions — for what it’s worth, none of the three recommended books remains extant in the Pauling Personal Library. What is clear, however, is that the strong desire for knowledge that Herman helped to cultivate in his only son remained a defining element of Linus Pauling’s personality throughout his 93 years.
Herman was clearly proud of his children, each of whom he wanted to become, as he put it in another letter to Belle, “an asset to the human race.” Sadly, he was never to know the extent to which his son would fulfill that ambition. One of the great tragedies of Linus Pauling’s life was his father’s sudden death, of a perforated ulcer, on June 11, 1910, less than one month after writing to the state’s newspaper for advice about a bright boy.