Pauling’s Failed Rhodes Scholarship Application

Linus Pauling, 1922

Linus Pauling, 1922.

As to the Rhodes Scholarship, I probably was lucky not to get it, because I think conditions were better in Pasadena than in Oxford. The Oxford people were burned up too when they learned in 1948 while I was Eastman Professor there, that I had been turned down in 1922!

-Linus Pauling, letter to Fred Allen, November 14, 1954.

In August 1920, Linus Pauling received a letter which invited him to apply for candidacy as a Rhodes Scholar. A day after receiving the letter, Pauling replied to the sender, expressing great interest. A series of letters, applications and recommendations document his efforts during the following year to be recommended by a state committee for the honor. It is evident from available materials that Pauling sincerely desired a place of study at Oxford. However, it is not entirely clear whether or not Pauling was truly ready for the obligation and engagement that such an honor might entail.

The Rhodes scholarship offered Pauling the possibility to learn at an institution whose scientific facilities were, in Pauling’s own words, “not excelled in the world.” The scholarship itself offered three years of expenses-paid study at Oxford, an opportunity that Pauling did not regard flippantly. He was convinced, because of the then current developments in science, that a student with a scientific background would be chosen.

Outside of general qualifications which included a specific age range, class standing and citizenship status, certain qualities were expected of potential representatives who were to be selected by the Oregon state scholarship committee. These qualities, as defined by the Rhodes Scholarship Memorandum, included:

(1) Qualities of manhood, force of character, and leadership.

(2) Literary and scholastic ability and attainments.

(3) Physical vigor, as shown by interest in outdoor sports or in other ways.

Should a candidate who was qualified in all three areas fail to appear, committees were to select those who showed “distinction either of character and personality, or of intellect, over one who shows a lower degree of excellence in both.”

In his initial application letter, Pauling referenced his engagement in campus honor societies, his impressive scholastic record, his status as junior class orator and his involvement in track and field as relevant personal qualifications for the scholarship. Overall it appears that Pauling had prepared a strong application. In it he displayed his knowledge of the scholarship itself, and it is clear that he understood, because of the nature of the scholarship and its qualifications, that this was his only chance to apply and be accepted.

Pauling acquired seven letters of recommendation from numerous faculty members as well as his summer employer. All of the letters offer diverse insights and perceptions of Pauling as a student and potential Rhodes Scholar. Though the recommendations are overwhelmingly positive and illuminating, noting his competence, character and intelligence, a barely perceptible undertone characterizes many of the documents – namely, a tendency to reference his “unusual” nature and sub-surface qualities. It is obvious by context that these traits are considered to be strengths rather than weaknesses; nonetheless, they stand out as abnormalities and may have been a factor in the final consideration of his application.

Pauling at track practice, Bell Field, Oregon Agricultural College. 1917.

Pauling at track practice, Bell Field, Oregon Agricultural College. 1917.

It is also clear that some of the faculty felt the need to overcompensate for his lack of established athletic prowess. In subsequent introspective musings, Pauling viewed his lack of interest in sport as a major determinant for the ultimate outcome of his scholarship application.

In the end, Pauling was not offered a Rhodes scholarship. Though he voiced open disappointment, a new and pressing element had made its way into his life. As he received his letter from the appointment committee, informing him regrettably of his failure to be chosen, he was already falling in love with his future wife, then-student Ava Helen Miller.

Reflecting later in life, Pauling appears free of regret, and even thankful that he was not accepted. He remarked later in a letter to a friend that the people at Oxford were “burned up” in 1948 when they found out that he had been denied a Rhodes scholarship in 1922. Similarly, when asked what role sport played in his life, Pauling wrote the following in response:

You have asked what part Sport has played in my life and in my work… I have had the feeling that my lack of interest in sports may have been responsible for my failure to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship, for study at Oxford, at the time in 1922 when I was a candidate for this Scholarship. This may be the most important part that Sport has played in my life.

Though it cannot be known what would have become of Pauling’s life and work had he been admitted to Oxford for three years of study, it can at least be guessed that his particular graduate research at Caltech, and the relationships he developed there, would not have been initiated. Though he may have gone on to accomplish great things after graduating from Oxford, this particular chapter in Linus Pauling’s life seems to reinforce the old adage that one should sometimes be thankful for unanswered prayers.

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.

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