[Ed Note: The Pauling Blog wears a black armband today for the Oregon Historical Society Library and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, both of which have been forced to close due to budget considerations. The state of Oregon is little more than two weeks removed from its sesquicentennial celebration and it is our sincere hope that these two cultural institutions, both of which are fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be an Oregonian, are soon able to re-open to the public and continue celebrating the state’s 150th birthday.]
Linus Pauling is well known for his brilliance, wit, drive, and determination. Even at a young age, he showed a remarkable interest in academics and a surprising level of self-motivation. His native intelligence can perhaps be attributed to biology, but his penchant for learning and his commitment to work are products of his experience. Pauling’s biographers have devoted years to unlocking the secrets of just what made him so unique, picking apart his life experiences and teasing out distant memories. Even so, much about Pauling – especially the young Pauling – remains a mystery.
In the spirit of psychological discovery, The Pauling Blog would like to take a moment to explore Pauling’s childhood in Condon as described by those who have made a career of recording his life. In his introduction to Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, Tom Hager sets the stage for an in-depth look at Pauling’s childhood.
What forces created Linus Pauling? Even after all this time and study, I cannot say. But I can provide some clues. The first come from his early years. I think it significant that Pauling was born and raised in the Western U.S., in a place and at a time when the pioneer virtues of bravery, perseverance, and hard work were extolled; where people were valued for the work they did, not the name they carried; and where egalitarianism and openness were valued.
– Hager, Thomas. “The Roots of Genius,” in Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001, 3-4.
Pauling has often been called odd, eccentric, and sometimes even crazy. His dedication to the fight for peace was seen as courageous by some, and ludicrous by others. Whatever the case, Pauling’s Condon relatives did have a peculiar family history.
His father’s family was of sober and hard-working German immigrant stock; his mother’s was somewhat more eccentric. On his mother’s side, the Darling family, he had a grandfather who practiced law without a degree; a great uncle who communed with an Indian spirit; an aunt who toured the state as a safecracker (legally; she practiced her skills for a safe company); and a mother whose chronic anemia kept her bedridden for long stretches.
– Hager, 4.
In an unpublished manuscript, Robert Paradowski, a biographer who worked closely with Pauling over multiple decades, describes the individuals that Pauling encountered during his time in Condon. Some of them, Pauling remembered in his later years, even helped shape his thinking.
“He spent his early years in Condon, an arid Western town in the interior of Oregon, where his father owned a drugstore and where young Linus encountered both cowboys, one of whom showed him the proper way to sharpen a pencil with a knife, and Indians, one of whom showed him how to dig for edible roots. These two thing impressed him deeply: that there was correct technique for doing things and that there were people who had useful knowledge of nature.”
– Paradowski, Robert J.: Typescripts. LP Correspondence Box #306.1
Many of Pauling’s memories of his childhood focused on Herman Pauling, his father and Condon’s local pharmacist. When interviewed about his relationship with his father, Pauling recalled a kind and caring man who protected his family, even at cost to himself.
“When he was about seven years old, Linus remembered, he and his cousin were caught while exploring a half-finished building by a burly workman. Linus tried to wriggle out a window but the workman caught him by his pants, dragged him back inside, and beat him with a piece of lath. Linus ran home sobbing. He tearfully told his story to Herman, who listened carefully, then led his son by the hand through Condon’s streets in search of the workman. They found the fellow eating lunch in the crowded dining room of the town’s largest hotel. Herman asked him if he had beaten his son. When the man answered yes, Linus recalled, Herman knocked the fellow to the floor – and was subsequently arrested and tried for assault.”
– Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 30
It should be noted that Pauling’s memory was at least partially incorrect and that, in reality, Herman was not arrested for assault. Instead, he was tried for bootlegging, an accusation that proved to be false.
Finally, we must remember that Pauling, though he grew up to be a highly-respected scientist, was once mischievous. In an interview with Victor and Mildred Goertzel, he recalled one of his youthful (and occasionally disastrous) misadventures.
“When he was about five, he had a bitter experience. He had a new little wagon with a wooden body, which he and his playmates put in a five gallon tin can to make it into a steam roller. They built a fire in it, and the new wagon was badly charred. He hid the wagon and succeeded – or thinks he did – in keeping his father from knowing what happened.”
Though these anecdotes cannot decode Pauling, they offer us a rare glimpse at events that shaped him and his role in the world. In considering his childhood we are reminded that, despite his later achievements, he was once a little boy much like any other.
Learn more at Linus Pauling Online.