Pauling’s Best Friend: Lloyd Jeffress

Lloyd Jeffress, extracted from Physics Today, December 1977.

Photo of Lloyd Jeffress, extracted from Physics Today, December 1977.

As a child, Linus Pauling had relatively few friends. After moving from Condon, Oregon to Portland, the death of his father and subsequent poverty forced him to work when not in school. The remainder of his time was consumed with studying and household chores, leaving little room for companionship. Pauling, even as a boy, was also exceedingly introspective and self-reliant, capable of quietly entertaining himself without supervision. Nevertheless, even the busiest and most independent children need friends.

In 1913, while walking home from school, Pauling began talking with another young boy, Lloyd Jeffress. The two quickly discovered a mutual interest in science and natural phenomena, and Lloyd invited Linus to his home to view a chemistry experiment. Pauling readily agreed and, within the hour, Lloyd was performing a series of basic chemical reactions that bubbled, fizzed and smoked, transfixing the young Pauling. It was on this day, in Lloyd Jeffress’ little Portland bedroom, that Pauling decided to become a chemist.

From that point on, the two boys were inseparable. When not at school or work, they were performing crude, and sometimes dangerous, experiments in the makeshift lab that Linus built in the Pauling basement. Using donated or pilfered chemicals, the boys created noxious gases and exploding powders while dreaming of getting rich as corporate chemists.

Video Link: Watch Pauling recount his and Jeffress’ early chemical experiments

As an adult, Linus Pauling often told a story of Lloyd Jeffress to friends and interviewers. At the age of fifteen, Pauling had imagined himself as a chemical engineer, working for one of the United States’ major companies. When Pauling told his grandmother this, Lloyd chimed in saying, “No, he is going to be a university professor.” Jeffress’ words proved prophetic, as Pauling spent more than thirty years as a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Following high school, Linus and Lloyd both attended Oregon Agricultural College, where Pauling studied chemistry and Lloyd majored in electrical engineering. Jeffress, however, developed an interest first in physics and later in the medical field, eventually graduating from the University of California with a Ph.D. in psychology, while Pauling, of course, took at job as a chemistry professor at Caltech. Despite the divergence in their interests, the two stayed in intermittent contact for the following sixty years.

Lloyd Jeffress served as best man at Pauling's wedding.  Linus and Ava Helen also gave their second-born son the name Peter Jeffress Pauling.

Lloyd Jeffress served as best man at Pauling's wedding. Linus and Ava Helen also gave their second-born son the name Peter Jeffress Pauling.

With Pauling at Caltech and Jeffress at the University of Texas in Austin, it was difficult for the men to meet. They visited one another as regularly as their schedules would allow, sometimes engaging in the tomfoolery of their youth. In a short manuscript written after Lloyd’s death, (see below) Pauling recounts their deceiving the guests at an academic event with Lloyd’s “mind reading” abilities, a hoax successfully planned and orchestrated by the pair. He also tells readers of Lloyd’s wedding, a hurried affair conducted by an unknown minister in Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s small California apartment with only the Paulings to act as witnesses.

Jeffress, like Pauling, was a highly successful member of the academic community. Though his career began slowly, the breadth and depth of his research expanded considerably as he aged, with the vast majority of his papers being produced after his 50th birthday. As an expert in experimental psychology, focusing on psychoacoustics, he served as the chairman of the University of Texas psychology department, and even worked with various military-based programs.

Additionally, his longstanding interest in physics led him to take over some physics classes while serving in the university’s psychology department. Perhaps more surprising, his experience with wave transference resulted in work on mine-detecting devices for the United States military. Over the course of his career, Jeffress earned a series of awards and commendations for his excellence as an educator and for his contributions to the field of psychoacoustics. Pauling personally took great pride in his friend’s successes, expressing special interest in his scientific papers.

Following Lloyd’s death, Pauling was asked to write a brief narrative of their relationship as part of a tribute. In it, Linus described their meeting as boys and their lifelong friendship. In closing, he stated “I have many friends, but I continue to think of Lloyd Alexander Jeffress as my best friend.”

For more on the life of Lloyd Jeffress, please see Pauling’s typescript below, as well as this lengthy memorial resolution (PDF link) prepared by members of the University of Texas faculty.  For more on Pauling’s links with Oregon, check out our continuing Oregon150 series.

“Life with Lloyd Jeffress,” by Linus Pauling, June 5, 1986.

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Oregon 150

2 Responses

  1. […] was the site of a day-long conference honoring Pauling’s memory. “In 1986, just before [Lloyd] Jeffress died, Pauling wrote him a letter in which he caught him up on the events of the past year. The last […]

  2. […] their travels. The changes helped, but only to a degree. In September he wrote to his best friend, Lloyd Jeffress, “I am getting along pretty well, but I still feel quite lonesome. I have been working […]

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