A Prominent High School Dropout

Linus Pauling posing with his ho norary high school diploma, 1962.

Linus Pauling posing with his honorary high school diploma, 1962.

Interviewer: Where did you go to high school at in Portland?

Pauling: I went to Washington High School for 3 ½ years, so that my whole high school career was there. It was on the east side of Portland.

Interviewer: How come they wouldn’t give you a diploma?

Pauling: Well, I didn’t finish the requirements. I started in February and by June of 1917, I had completed, essentially, the high school course. I hadn’t taken a one year course in American History. I planned to have it in my last semester. But there was a rule that said you couldn’t take the second half of a course simultaneously with the first half. So, I just wasn’t allowed to take American History. I didn’t return to high school in the fall, but was admitted to Oregon Agricultural College in 1917. I came down [to Corvallis] then.

-Oral history interview, Oregon State University, May 20, 1980.

Linus Pauling, as might be expected, developed an interest in learning at a very early age. By age six, he had already reached the second grade of the elementary school in Condon, Oregon. At eight, he developed an interest in ancient civilizations, and by age nine he had read almost every book in the Pauling household, including works such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In February of 1914, right before his 13th birthday, Linus entered Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, having finishing an accelerated grade school program.

East Portland High School, the second oldest in Portland, was renamed Washington High School in the early 1900s. It was later rechristened Washington-Monroe High School, and eventually closed in the early 1980s because of declining enrollment. In its prime, however, WHS was a great school and, for a young boy keen on learning all he could, there was no better place to be.

In his first semester, Linus took a standard course load consisting of elementary algebra, English, Latin, and gym. After the summer, he returned to WHS for the full year and took his first actual science course, physiography. In this course, Linus was taught about minerals, which he found very interesting. Subsequently, he began a rock collection, and although it never grew to be very large, he enjoyed analyzing and classifying his specimens.

Before long, Linus was taking a course load of above-average difficulty. On top of his normal classes, he continued with Latin and began taking every science and math course he could. Mathematics and the sciences quickly became his favorite subjects, because, as Linus later remembered it:

It’s like the story of the little boy who, when his teacher asked him, ‘Willie, what is two and two?’ answered, ‘Four.’ And she said, ‘That’s very good, Willie.’ And he said, ‘Very good? It’s perfect!’ I liked mathematics because you could be perfect, whereas with Latin, or in studying any language, it’s essentially impossible to be perfect.

As his high school career progressed, Linus easily maintained his challenging schedule and still managed to find time outside of school for other activities. In fact, high school never presented any sort of challenge to him. This was fortunate, because he needed every minute of his free time to work his various jobs, and also to feed his ever-growing appetite for chemistry, which he had developed around the same time he entered high school.

Although chemistry quickly became Linus’ main interest, he wasn’t able to take many classes on the subject. He took first-year chemistry as a junior, which was the only chemistry course that was offered at WHS. Fortunately, the teacher of the course took a liking to Linus, and he was allowed to stay after class to work on additional problems during both his junior and senior years.

W.V. Green was an important early mentor of Linus Pauling.

W.V. Green was an important early mentor of Linus Pauling. This annotated extract is from Pauling's W.H.S. yearbook, ca. 1917.

In his last semester of high school, Linus took his first physics course. The instructor of this course impressed Linus, and specifically emphasized the importance of the use of precise language in the sciences. One of the main points that Linus took from high school was the importance of the careful use of language, not only in the sciences but in all aspects of education. Linus even tried his hand at fiction writing, which resulted in his English teacher encouraging him to write a novel. Linus’ appreciation for languages and reading would be a great help to him throughout his career.

At the end of his seventh semester at WHS, Linus had run out of math and science classes to take. He had also completed all of the requirements for graduation, except for the year of senior-level American history required by the state of Oregon. Upon learning of this requirement, Linus decided to return to WHS for his last semester after summer break, with the intent of taking the two required history courses simultaneously. This decision was quickly vetoed by the principle, and although Linus had been impressed with the thoroughness of his high school education, he decided to attend Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in the fall without a high school diploma – none was required by OAC at the time.

Although this was a natural decision for Linus, it soon provided him with a fair amount of anxiety. The following, written on September 5, 1917, is an excerpt from his diary.

Yesterday and today the feeling has often come to me that never more will I go to school. I think of all the other students beginning their studies, I imagine how I am [sic] member of the graduation class, would appear at Washington, I remember the enjoyment I got out of my studies and school life in general, and I sometimes poignantly regret that I have decided to go to college without graduating from high school. I covet every term of education that I have, and would gladly have more. College still seems so dim and far away that I often forget all about it. In a month and a day from now I will be in Corvallis. I try not to think of College, because of the way it affects me. Why should I rush through my education the way I am?

Despite his nervousness, Linus stuck with his decision and did not return to WHS. He left for college in early October and ended up thriving at OAC. He would eventually go on to have an extremely long and distinguished career as one of the most influential scientists in history. And finally, in 1962, he was awarded an honorary diploma from Washington High School.

For more information about Linus Pauling and his relationship with Oregon, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal or check out the previous posts in our Oregon150 series.  For those interested in the history of Washington High School, have a look at this great alumni website.

Oregon 150

2 Responses

  1. […] the same, including the famous “White House incident,” many more awards (including an honorary high school diploma) and nearly 2,700 unsolicited write-in votes for U. S. Senator from California.  In the midst of […]

  2. […] his twentieth degree, a high school diploma, from Washington High School in Portland, Oregon. As noted previously on the Pauling Blog, the 45 year gap between senior year and diploma was due to a regulation that forbade the young […]

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