Portland, OR: Pauling’s Teenage Years

Lucile, Linus, Belle, and Pauline Pauling, 1916.

Lucile, Linus, Belle, and Pauline Pauling, Portland, Oregon, 1916.

“This activist loves Oregon more than he loves life.”
– Tom McCall

Portland, the largest city in Oregon, sits at the convergence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers on Oregon’s northern border. Known for its microbreweries, environmentalists, and growing nightlife, Portland is nationally recognized as an epicenter of West Coast progressive culture. However, a century ago, the city held a very different position in the national consciousness.

As a part of the great West, early 20th century Portland was largely seen as an untamed and uncivilized part of the continent, full of opportunities and dangers. Aside from an impoverished and rather seedy Japan Town (located in the same area as Portland’s modern Chinatown) and a thriving red light district, the city was an industrial center and little else. Due to its convenient access to Oregon’s primary rivers, which in turn provided a direct line to the Pacific Ocean, Portland became a hub for the state’s shipbuilding and logging sectors. Oregon’s booming timber industry single-handedly supported much of the state’s economy, providing work in mills, producing lumber for shipbuilders and helping stoke the fires of Portland’s fledgling steel industry.

It was in this young industrial center that Linus Pauling spent his teenage years, immersed in a culture of blue-collar labor and near-poverty. He spent his youth in pursuits appropriate to his surroundings; dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes and fantasizing about life as a successful corporate chemist. Pauling was the product of his environment – bright, industrious, and a capitalist to the core.

Though born in Portland, Pauling was not always an enterprising city boy in a smog-choked factory town. In 1905, his family moved to Condon, Oregon, a small watering hole in north central Oregon frequented by cowboys and nomadic Native American tribes, a veritable Wild West to the young Linus. Here, he spent his early years playing on the expansive prairie, climbing trees and wading through creeks. When his father’s drugstore was sold out from underneath the family, however, the Paulings were forced to leave Condon and return to Portland.

Shortly after moving back to the city, Pauling’s father, Herman, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Linus, his two sisters, and his mother, Belle, were left to fend for themselves. Belle sold the drugstore Herman had just opened in Portland and purchased a house with the proceeds. Unfortunately, she had no practical business skill and grossly overpaid for the six bedroom home. In an attempt to keep her family afloat, she took on boarders, though even with the revenue from her tenets, Belle’s income was not enough to support herself and the children. Moreover, the shock of Herman’s death and the added stress of her difficult financial situation pushed Belle into a state of deep depression which was worsened by pernicious anemia, a blood disease which sapped her strength and left her bedridden.

By the time he had turned thirteen, Linus and his sisters had taken over many of the duties of the boarding house. At his mother’s encouragement, he began working outside jobs for extra income. He sold meat in a butcher shop, tended reels in a movie theater, delivered milk in a horse drawn wagon, and transported special delivery packages for the Portland postal service. The money he earned went straight to his mother, who in turn used it to purchase necessities for the family. Unsurprisingly, Pauling disliked having to give up his hard-earned wages and, in the years to come, disagreements over finances would prove to be a continuing source of friction between Linus and his mother.

Linus’ chief respite from the grim realities of his family life was his intellect. At the age of thirteen, Pauling was first introduced to chemistry by his best friend, Lloyd Jeffress. After watching Lloyd demonstrate a few small chemical reactions with a homemade chemistry set, his own course was set. Linus  had previously built a small room in the basement of his mother’s boardinghouse to house his mineral collection – this space quickly became his laboratory. Soon he was collecting chemicals and supplies with which to conduct his own “experiments.”

Indeed, academic pursuits often served as Pauling’s escape from his difficult adolescence. At the age of sixteen, he chose to formally pursue an academic career and leave Portland altogether. He moved to Corvallis, Oregon in the fall of 1917 where he enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College. There, he embarked on a course that would eventually earn him two Nobel prizes and worldwide acclaim. It should be remembered, however, that Pauling’s life in Portland shaped much of who he was as a scientist and an activist. His difficult youth instilled in him a work ethic and sense of determination that characterized his career and led to some of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century.

For more information about Linus Pauling and his life in Oregon, visit the Linus Pauling Online portal or check out the other posts in our Oregon 150 series.

Oregon 150

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