The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling

Ava Helen Pauling, 1927.

[Ed Note: Over the next three weeks we will be publishing a paper, “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” that was written by Ingrid Ockert.  Ingrid is an Oregon State University alum and a long-time student worker in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  In the Spring of 2012 her paper was one of three selected by the OSU Libraries for its annual Library Undergraduate Research Awards.  An accomplished student, Ingrid will begin doctoral studies in the history of science at Princeton University this coming Fall.]

[Part 1 of 3]


In 1926, a young Ava Helen Pauling arrived in Munich, Germany, ready for academic adventure. Her husband, Linus Pauling had received a Guggenheim fellowship to study atomic structure and quantum theories at the University of Munich. While Linus learned quantum mechanics from scientific giants like Sommerfeld and Schroedinger, Ava Helen explored German intellectual life. As she recalled later, it was a time of “great excitement and intellectual growth.” Ava Helen visited art museums and natural history collections. She attended scientific lectures in physics and chemistry. She edited Linus’ physics papers and chatted with brilliant scientists. And as Linus learned how to be a scientist, Ava Helen struggled to comprehend her new role as the wife of a scientist.

Ava Helen in Germany, 1927.

Early on their relationship, Linus and Ava had been united by their passion for chemistry. They collaborated on lab experiments, scientific calculations, and chemical models. But, since the birth of their son, Linus Jr., in 1925, Ava Helen had become increasingly separated from her husband and the world of science. On an even larger scale, Ava Helen wondered about her own role in the future of humankind. Her personal journal from her year abroad in Germany reveals her search for a clear identity. Ava Helen’s journal is filled with chemical notations and elemental symbols. It also includes reviews of anthropology and sociology texts, books that Ava Helen read to understand the roles of women in other cultures. Ava Helen even mentions herself as a Professor among her addresses of other professors at the University of Munich. But ultimately, Ava Helen reached a startlingly pessimistic conclusion on her role in society. “If a woman thinks honestly and clearly,” Ava Helen writes in her journal, “she must soon reach the conclusion that, no matter what life work she chooses, it could be better done by a man.” Ava Helen decided to let go of her own interests in science and to focus her energies on furthering Linus’ career. Upon their return to Cal Tech in 1928, Ava Helen settled into her new role as the professor’s wife, hostess, and caretaker. She was not alone in her conclusions. Many of her contemporaries, American women interested in science in the early 20th century, also decided to bow out of scientific communities. The American women who did try to pursue scientific education and careers found themselves pigeonholed as research assistants and secretaries.

But following the end of World War II, many Americans began to reconsider their previously accepted social roles. Many began to search for new identities. For Ava Helen Pauling, the end of the war provided the catalyst for her change in identity. She, along with thousands of other women, began to advocate for a respected role within American society. By the 1960s, these American women organized political groups and formed the foundations of the modern feminist movement. The end of World War II also prompted members of another major community to realize that they wanted to change their public image. During the early 20th century, physicists had isolated themselves from the American public. Following WWII, these atomic scientists began to envision a new role for themselves as socially responsible, public educators. They began a crusade to educate and reconnect with average Americans. Standing at the crossroads of the feminist and the atomic scientist movements, Ava Helen Pauling joined both groups. At the dawn of the America’s Atomic Age, Ava Helen Pauling recast herself as a feminist activist and an advocate for scientific education.

The Stirrings of a Social Activist

By the 1950s, twenty years after her trip to Germany, Ava Helen was no longer an eager student, but a harried housewife and a mother of four children. Her husband Linus, as she would sadly explain in interviews, needed to devote himself to science. So it was up to Ava Helen to take care of common household tasks. Ava spent her time thinking about what she called “trivial things,” like cleaning dishes, taking their children to the dentist, and paying bills. The Pauling family calendar from 1946 reveals Ava Helen’s busy life: during that year, she spent most of her time taking care of the four children, preparing Linus for business trips, and hosting visiting professors. By the 1950s, Linus had become a respected professor and had received a Nobel for his work in Chemistry. But Linus was well aware of Ava’s sacrifice. He later credited his scientific achievements to his wife, remarking, “I am not smarter than other [scientists]…[but Ava] handled the problems and stresses associated with family, leaving me free to devote all my time to working on the problems I wanted to work on.” While Ava Helen was pleased with her husband’s success, she was frustrated with her own progress in life. The pressure of managing an entire household weighed heavily on her.

Ava Helen at a meeting of women in Japan, 1955.

By the mid-fifties, Ava Helen Pauling began to look for her own direction in life. “Beginning in the forties and fifties,” Ava Helen remembered later in an interview, “I was at an age when I felt that my life could have been different.” The Pauling children were nearly grown, so Ava Helen finally had time to focus on her own interests. She realized that she wanted to be involved in something larger, something socially important. Ava Helen had grown up in a politically active family that encouraged intense debate and social activism. Her mother had been an active member of Oregon’s suffragette movement. Ava Helen was inspired to pursue a similar political course. As Ava Helen later confided in an interview, “I wanted to set the world on fire!”

Ava Helen continued her family’s legacy and became involved in several progressive organizations focused on social change. During World War II, Ava Helen had become an active member of the ACLU and protested the discrimination of Japanese Americans. She also became a member of Union Now, an organization that advocated world government. Ava Helen also grew increasingly aware of women’s issues around this time. “I [felt that] I needed to learn more about women…” she recalled years later, “I became interested to see what other women were doing.” In 1956, Ava Helen also joined another major women’s organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was an organization started by Jane Addams in 1915. By the 1950s, WILPF’s goals included: “the education of youth for peace, measures to remove the economic causes of war; and total and universal disarmament.” In the 1960s, Ava Helen would become a founding member of WILPF’s two offshoots: Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and Women Act for Disarmament (WAD).

Fanning the Flames of Future Feminists

Women’s organizations like WILPF, WSP, and WAD served important functions for women’s rights in the years before the 1960s. As Susan M. Hartmann explains in her book From Margin to Mainstream, these groups “not only motivated and trained women for public office, they also operated as pressure groups. In the post-suffrage era, substantial numbers of women organized to shape public opinion, mobilize voters behind female defined issues, and exert direct pressure on legislatures and administrators.” The women who worked within women’s organizations in the 1940s and 1950s gained the skills necessary to become the feminist leaders of the 1960s.

Ava Helen at the WILPF national meeting, Washington D.C., June 1960.

Indeed, while working for WILPF, Ava Helen fully immersed herself in the feminist movement. She believed that world peace would be achieved by the total equality of men and women. Ava Helen had read some early works of feminism published in the 1940s, like Mary Inman’s In Women’s Defense. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Ava Helen bought the book on the first printing run. She instantly connected to Friedan’s theme and publicly hailed the book as “excellent and provocative.” Like Friedan, Ava Helen believed that a woman did a disservice “to herself and to society and to her children by electing to remain in the home and devot[ing] her full energies to her home.” By working with organizations like WILPF, WSP, and WAD, Ava Helen felt that she was finally serving a larger role in her society.

Ava Helen honed her skills as a public speaker and activist while she organized WILPF events. In 1959, she had been elected the vice president of the American Chapter of WILPF. Ava Helen eagerly organized national conferences. She even helped coordinate the 1964 International Women’s Strike for Peace Rally at the Hague. In 1961, she and Linus worked together to organize a major conference between scientists, writers, and peace activists in Oslo, Norway. Ava Helen emerged from the shadow of her famous husband, as an important public figure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: