During his time at Oregon Agricultural College, Linus Pauling quickly built a reputation as being the smartest man on campus. This reputation would eventually evolve into international considerations of Pauling as one of the top scientists in all of history. Understandably, because of his abilities in the classroom and the laboratory, he made significant impressions on his classmates and teachers alike. However, it is unlikely that Pauling impressed many of his early mentors as much as he did Fred Allen.
Allen was Pauling’s physical chemistry professor during his senior year at O.A.C. For this course, Allen kept a data notebook that can now be found in the biographical section of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. The notebook, simply titled “Phy Chem Data Book,” contains not only results compiled from the experiments that his students completed, but also annotations and short biographical notes made by Allen in his later life. While the data aren’t of any particular interest, the annotations, made in 1962, do provide some interesting details on the class in general, and also on Pauling in particular. On one of the first pages, Allen writes:
The 14 men named on next page were in a Phy. Chem. Course under FJ Allen the school year 1921-22. It was a remarkable group.
Pauling is obviously the most notable person among the list of students, but another familiar name is Paul Emmett. Emmett, who, along with Pauling, would go on to receive his Ph.D. from Caltech, was one of the best in the class. However, according to Allen, Pauling was in a league entirely his own.
Except for Pauling, Emmett would have been top man in the class. No censure is intended when I say that the gap from Pauling to the others in the class is akin to the hardness gap from diamond to corundum.
Allen’s praise for Pauling, however, does not stop there.
Pauling is the only student I have encountered who showed definite qualities of genius as an undergraduate.
A number of other interesting tidbits pertaining to Pauling’s life can also be gleaned from Allen’s short note about him. For example, an anecdote suggesting that Pauling was coveted by more than just the Caltech chemistry department.
Robt. A Millikan, visiting at Purdue in the early twenties told me with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Linus is too good a man to waste on chemistry. I’m going to make a physicist out of him.’ In 1956, I told this to Linus who said, ‘He tried. He offered me the headship at Cal Tech.’ I said ‘Why didn’t you take him up?’ Linus replied, ‘Chemistry made me a better offer.’
Allen also makes a point to address his sympathy for Pauling’s political problems.
In my opinion the persecution that Pauling has undergone would be ridiculous if it were not so tragic. He had to get a Nobel Prize to obtain a passport to leave the U.S.A.
Allen likewise mentions a recent visit with Pauling, during which their student and teacher roles from O.A.C. appear to have been reversed, at least for a short time.
I saw him last in 1956 when as a research associate I attended some of his lectures and did a very small piece of research under his direction. The courtesies extended to me at that time by Ava Helen, Linus and Crellin (younger son) will live long in my memory.
Interestingly enough, Allen is also the professor that triggered the meeting between Linus and Ava Helen. As Pauling was traveling home to Portland for Christmas vacation his senior year, Allen approached him and asked him to teach his general chemistry class for home economic majors. Enrolled in this class just happened to be Ava Helen Miller, who almost immediately caught Pauling’s eye. In due time, the two would be married.
Over the years, Allen and Pauling stayed in contact, discussing many matters, both scientific and otherwise, such as writing textbooks, Pauling’s passport troubles, their families, and visiting one another. As their correspondence continued, what began merely as a student-professor relationship became a friendship that lasted until Allen passed away in 1968.
Excerpts from the Fred Allen diary are available here. For more information on Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.