Period of Transition: Pauling in Corvallis

Linus Pauling, age 17.

Linus Pauling, age 17.

Corvallis, the home of Oregon State University, sits adjacent to the Willamette River in the central Willamette Valley. Nestled between Portland and Eugene, and a reasonable distance from both the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade mountain range, Corvallis offers close proximity to a large variety of outdoor activities and big city accommodations while maintaining the feel of a small town lifestyle. Corvallis’ reputation as a green, vegetarian-friendly, and bicycle-friendly community also help to define its place on the map.

However, when Linus Pauling arrived here in 1917, Corvallis was an entirely different place. As opposed to its current population of roughly 50,000, Pauling’s Corvallis housed only about 5,000 people within its city limits. There were certainly no bike-lanes or vegetarian-friendly restaurants, and Hewlett-Packard, a major employer here, wasn’t even an idea yet. Furthermore, Oregon State University, which Pauling chose to attend because of financial necessity, was known as Oregon Agricultural College.

Interestingly enough, Pauling’s entry into the college world was not marked by his characteristic confidence. Because he was only 16, Pauling was worried about how he would compare to his older and (he assumed) more intelligent classmates. Nonetheless, he pushed his fears aside and before long, had arrived for his first year as an undergraduate.

Pauling started out as, more or less, a typical underclassman. He moved into a boarding house with his cousin Mervyn Stephenson, and enrolled in the classes required for the mining engineering field. He also developed a fair amount of school spirit, or ‘beaver pep’ as he called it. He wore the green beanie required of all freshman, attended and cheered at sport events, joined the student military cadet corps, and began searching for romance. Within a few weeks, Pauling had moved out of the boarding house for financial reasons, had developed a clear idea of the classes he enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, and had taken an interest in a co-ed, although their association wouldn’t last very long.

Painting of Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1912.

Painting of Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1912.

As might be expected, Pauling’s favorite courses were math and the physical sciences. Not only did he truly enjoy these classes, but he excelled in them as well. In fact, he found that he had no more trouble mastering college level courses than he did mastering his high school classes. However, Pauling didn’t succeed in every class he took. He received a D in mechanical drawing – a subject for which he didn’t have enough patience – and an F in freshman gymnasium after his attempt to work around the rules for taking the class failed.

Pauling’s sophomore year at OAC was much like his first. He continued to outshine his classmates, was given a job in the chemistry department’s solution room, and also joined a fraternity, Gamma Tau Beta. Between his studies and his job, Pauling had very little free time. This set the precedent for the long hours of hard work that would, in part, define the rest of his life.

Pauling’s third year at OAC, however, was as different from the preceding two as could possibly have been the case. As the end of summer was approaching, Linus’ mother Belle told him that she needed to use all the money he had earned to make ends meet at home. Instead of protesting, Pauling agreed, and prepared himself to make the best of a year at home.

However, the chemistry department at OAC had a very different plan. Burdened by unexpected staff shortages, and fearful of losing their prize student, the department decided to offer him a job teaching quantitative chemistry – a course he had taken only a year earlier. Although the job would be a cut in pay from a job that he had found as  paving instructor for the state’s department of transportation, Pauling didn’t hesitate and headed back to Corvallis. He wasn’t able to take any classes, but Pauling enjoyed the job. It gave him good experience as a lecturer and an excellent opportunity to catch up on the latest research in the field of chemistry.

In 1920, after his yearlong stint as a chemistry instructor, Pauling reentered the OAC chemistry program as a junior. By this time, he had gained a great deal of self-confidence. He was closer in age to the rest of his classmates, officially an upperclassman, and was building his reputation as the smartest man on campus. He continued to have no trouble mastering his courses, and began to develop an interest in public speaking, which he took far enough to compete in a school-wide contest (he finished second).

The next year, as Pauling was traveling home for Christmas vacation, OAC offered him a new job teaching freshman chemistry for home economic majors. Thinking the extra money would be useful, he decided to accept the offer. On his first day of class, a young student by the name of Ava Helen Miller caught his eye. As time went on, they began to become more interested in each other until finally, Pauling asked her to go on a walk with him. From there, their relationship grew, and just before the end of the term, Pauling asked her to marry him. She said yes, and he promptly lowered her final grade by one letter to avoid any possibility of favoritism.  The location where Linus and Ava Helen first met, Education Hall Room 201, is now marked by a plaque.

During his senior year, Pauling also began thinking about graduate school. It was clear to him that his goals in life required a higher education than was attainable at OAC. He applied to several schools that offered advanced chemistry programs including Harvard, Berkeley, and of course, the California Institute of Technology. Although Caltech was the youngest and smallest of the schools, they made Pauling the best offer. He decided to accept, and at the end of the summer of 1922, armed with his B.S. in Chemical Engineering, Pauling left his bride-to-be Ava Helen behind in Corvallis and headed for California.

For more information of Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.  For more on Pauling’s undergraduate years, see the Pauling Centenary Exhibit or the Linus Pauling at OSU site published by the Department of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering.

Oregon 150

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