A unique chapter of Linus Pauling’s life played out over the summers of his undergraduate years at Oregon Agricultural College. A theme that had shadowed much of his young adult life – problems with finances – would continue to follow him into his graduate studies. The absence of a steady source of income, as well as short periods of more intensified financial hardship, significantly shaped the transition years between his start as an undergraduate and the beginning of his rigorous studies at the California Institute of Technology.
Pauling worked odd jobs on campus to make ends meet during the school year, but during most summers he was employed by the Oregon State Highway Commission as a paving plant inspector, living in a tent and charged with monitoring the quality of the bitumen-stone mixes used in the building of roads. His employment at the highway commission would stretch from the end of his sophomore year to the beginning of his doctoral studies. Over this course of time, particularly his final summer, distinguishing themes and aspects of Pauling’s professional life began to blossom.
Though it was not glorified work, and at times very boring, Pauling did enjoy his time working outdoors. He wrote of his love for the sun, and the benefits of spending a substantial portion of the year outside of a laboratory. Though Pauling would go on to work three additional summers for the highway commission, his first year was not without conflict. At this time he worked under the partial jurisdiction of a man named E.W. Lazell, a chemical and efficiency engineer stationed in Portland. A series of letters and reprimands from Mr. Lazell, as well as consultations with third parties, became common toward the end of Pauling’s first summer at the commission. In early September Pauling replied to department official Leland Gregory, apparently in regard to a complaint lodged against his handling of paving material temperatures. The “misinformed informant,” as Pauling referred to the unnamed complainant (Lazell), could apparently have been better informed had he referred to Pauling’s reports.
At the end of his first season with the commission, Pauling’s mother Belle informed him that she had been forced to use the money he had been sending her over the summer. The money had been meant to pay his school expenses for the following year, and with no additional funds at his disposal, Pauling chose to continue working into the fall.
Luckily, in late autumn of the same year, Pauling was offered a job by the chemistry department at O. A. C. Though it entailed a $25 per month pay cut, Pauling returned to the college as a full-time assistant instructor in quantitative analysis. The following summer he began work once again for the highway commission, and saved enough money to continue his studies as an undergraduate.
As has been well-documented, it is during Pauling’s stint as “boy professor” that he met Ava Helen Miller, his future wife, while teaching chemistry to her and twenty-four other home economics students. The two began dating toward the end of the school year, and the exchange of letters between them during Pauling’s last summer as a paving plant inspector gives one of the clearest and most intimate views of the future Nobel Prize winner’s advancing train of thought. All in all Pauling received 94 letters over the summer from Ava Miller, and replied in kind every day, sometimes two or three times.
You are my own darling girl, and your love is my only priceless possession. I shall try to make my life perfect in order that it may be good enough for you. I love your beautiful big blue eyes, your dainty little ears, your adorable own darling self. I love you.
-Linus Pauling to Ava Helen Miller, June 14, 1922.
The elements that generally defined Pauling’s correspondence with his future wife were a) their wish to be engaged, and b) the strong opposition to marriage that the two faced from their respective families. Always the romantic, Pauling was accused by some of Ava’s friends as being consistently “too mushy,” and indeed there is much written between the two about marriage, children and love.
However, over the course of their exchanges, Pauling likewise discussed much of his evolving personal philosophy. Both suggested reading materials to one another, with the bulk of the books suggested by Ava generally being metaphysical or philosophical in nature. As a result, Pauling discussed, in great detail, his perceptions of the soul, his conflicted feelings between animism and materialism, and his predisposition towards pacifism.
Money, a common theme for the duration of his undergraduate experience, also makes its presence felt throughout their correspondence. At times Pauling secretly mailed money to Ava to help finance trips to see him. He also devoted a substantial portion of his energies to trying to acquire the funds that would allow the two to marry after the summer’s end, with or without help from their parents.
Through youthful confessions, bouts of jealousy, and bold declarations, much can be gleaned about the budding relationship between Pauling and his wife-to-be. Other precursors such as Ava’s influence on Pauling’s diet, as well as his developing fascination with fruits, hint at patterns that would come to define important periods of his future life.
Pauling also read from his own selection of books, and took quite a liking to David Copperfield among others. Far and away, however, a major defining characteristic of his summer evenings was the time that he spent working through proof sheets of the first nine chapters of a newly revised chemistry textbook, Chemical Principles, sent to him by Arthur Amos Noyes, the head of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.
Worked while stationed near the Pacific Coast at Astoria, Pauling devoured all 500 of the listed problems. After discussing his other interests with Noyes by mail, Pauling also began reading books on x-ray crystallography, a new technique being used to study the structure of crystals. (One of these texts was X-rays and Crystal Structures by W. H. and W. L. Bragg, the latter of whom would eventually become a chief scientific rival of Pauling’s.) Having completed his reading, and prompted by some nudging from Noyes, Pauling would begin his career as an x-ray crystallographer under the direction Professor Roscoe Dickinson at Caltech the following year.
It is clear by the end of his final summer with the highway commission that Pauling had grown weary of his summer occupation. (In an August 1922 letter to Ava Helen he writes: “I really hate working in a paving plant. I do it just because I earn more than I would elsewhere.”) Bored, lonely and finished with the problem sets given to him by Professor Noyes, it appears that Pauling was left in an ideal state of mind to begin his graduate studies, and start what would become a brilliant career as an academic, a scientist and an activist for peace.