Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling, 1950.

[Part 2 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

The Dawning of the Cold War

While Ava Helen was busy volunteering for radical women’s groups in the 1940s and 1950s, she became a participant in another revolutionary group: the Atomic Scientists’ Movement. The bombing of Japan at the end of World War II left American physicists with very mixed feelings. Initially many American physicists were simply relieved to no longer be at war. I.I. Rabi, a scientist who served as the director of the defensive radar developments at MIT and worked on the Manhattan Project, remarked that he was “frankly pleased, terrified, and to an even greater extent embarrassed when contemplating the results of [my] wartime efforts.” A survey of physicists in September 1945 revealed that 66.5% of physicists approved of the government’s decision to bomb Japan.

Gradually however, these feelings of relief turned into remorse and anxiety. After all, as historian Alice Kimball Smith noted in her study of the physicists, “Scientists are for the most part human and sensitive, and if rationality served them well, it spared very few of them, sooner or later, from feelings of direct responsibility.” Even scientists like Linus Pauling, who had nothing to do with the construction of the bomb, felt in some way accountable for the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As historian Jessica Wang explains in her journal article. “Scientists and the Problem of the Public:”

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 provided a grim counterpoint to the elation with which Manhattan Project scientists had celebrated the Trinty Test a month earlier. Even as the war ended, scientists began to imagine the terrifying possibilities of the next great war.

As American soldiers returned from the battlefront, physicists returned to their pre-war duties within research laboratories. It took months for many of these physicists to process the full implications of the Manhattan Project. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear began to ferment within the minds of American physicists. “As more information began to accrue about the real-world effects of the bomb, including the new threat of widespread radiation poisoning,” historian Thomas Hager summarized in his Pauling biography Force of Nature, “a sense of guilt spread across the scientific community – especially that portion involved in designing and building new weapons.” As the radioactive fallout of Hiroshima settled across the Pacific Ocean, American scientists started to take sides in the new Cold War.

The Awakening of Atomic Activists

A small group of plucky, prominent physicists, including Eugene Rabinowitch, H.H. Goldsmith, Harold C. Urey, Leo Szilard and Katherine Way advocated for international nuclear disarmament. They organized the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) in October 1945. The FAS united small pockets of concerned scientists, such as the Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists and the Association of Los Alamos. The FAS intended to lead inquiries into the implications of atomic energy, shape national and international atomic policy, and raise national awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy. But members of FAS had an even larger ambition in mind. They sought to redefine scientists as “part of a larger public, within which [scientists] participated as equals, but offered their expertise for the purpose of information, consideration, and criticism.” Previously, scientists were isolated in laboratories and separated from the cultural implications of their technology. The FAS sought to forge a partnership between scientists and the general public. Scientists, they concluded, neither “could be or should be separated from the social and political ramifications of technological innovation.” And, by continuation, an informed public would be an empowered public that could wisely navigate through the emotional rhetoric that shaped atomic legislation.

The FAS facilitated the conciliation between scientists and the public through a strong public education campaign. The National Committee on Atomic Information, a subset of FAS that organized in November 1945, was the public face of the Atomic Scientists movement. The NCAI reached out to “labor movements, educational organizations, religious groups, and professional associations for cooperation and assistance in appealing to the public.” It connected local scientists at speaking engagements with youth groups, women’s clubs, and religious centers. The NCAI sponsored educational science fairs and distributed study kits, educational films, pamphlets, and moralistic plays. Atomic Information, the public mouthpiece for NCAI and FAS, was first printed in March 1945 and was sent out to 10 million addresses. It presented serious scientific articles alongside quirky cartoons and enthusiastic political commentary.

Charles Coryell and Linus Pauling, 1935.

The Paulings quickly became active participants of the Atomic Scientists Movement. Many of the scientists involved in the movement were good friends of the Paulings. Charles Coryell, one of the young men who founded FAS, was one of Linus’ former students. The Federation of Atomic Scientists recruited Linus as a high profile public speaker as it lobbied Congress for a civilian Atomic Energy Commission in the spring of 1946. That same spring, the director of the NCAI, Daniel Melcher, approached Albert Einstein with the idea of creating a fundraising society, chaired by scientific stars like Einstein, that would raise monetary support for the FAS directly from the American public. This society, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, became incorporated in October of 1946. Linus Pauling eagerly accepted their invitation to join and raised money for the FAS’ public education campaign. The FAS’ successful public outreach campaign cultivated a national interest in the implications of atomic energy. The demand for scientists who could speak on atomic matters steadily increased.

Out of his own feelings of moral responsibility, Linus began accepting invitations for speaking engagements. Linus was a well-respected lecturer on scientific topics; his classroom lectures were engaging and humorous. But Linus’ first talks on the dangers of nuclear warfare were dry; he struggled to connect to a general audience over political and social issues. Fortunately, Ava Helen quickly understood what was going wrong. “You’re not convincing,” she confided to him after one lecture. “You give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying.” Working with organizations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and Union Now had also taught Ava how to connect with ordinary citizens over political issues. Ava drew upon these skills as she helped teach Linus to establish a rapport with his audience. As biographer Thomas Hager describes,

Ava accompanied Pauling to almost all of his talks, sat in the front row of the audience, and listened carefully to his delivery. She also kept an eye on the room, saw what worked and what did not, and afterward critiqued his performance.

The Paulings also read up on the politics of atomic energy until Linus felt that he could confidently “speak on his own authority.” Under Ava’s watchful eye, Linus transformed from a college professor into a public scientist.

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at Women Strike for Peace rally, San Francisco, August 1961.

But Ava Helen wasn’t going to let Linus have all of the fun. After years of working behind the scenes, Ava Helen finally began to give public speeches in 1957. Initially, Ava Helen gave speeches centering on the Paulings’ international travels. By the early 1960s, Ava Helen was regularly speaking to women’s clubs and religious groups on topics concerning peace, science, and women’s rights. Although Ava Helen didn’t receive the same high billing as Linus, she easily reached an audience that the FAS was eager to connect to: women. American women had become fierce cold warriors after World War II. As wives and mothers, they were expected to protect their own families and communities. The moral responsibilities of women grew during the 1960s to extend outside the home. Women needed to defend their community against any environmental hazards, like nuclear fallout or toxic pesticides. A 1962 poster advertising the group Women for Peace capitalized on these concerns, noting that fallout caused cancer in children and took money away from important social programs. A basic understanding of science became an integral part of a woman’s post-college education.

While she was initially booked for public events as “Mrs. Linus Pauling,” Ava Helen quickly developed her own persona as a public speaker. She spoke almost exclusively to middle class and educated women; commonly appearing at a luncheon for faculty wives or a tea for WILPF members. Ava Helen demurely called herself an “educated layman.” But this was certainly an understatement; Ava Helen had kept pace with her husband for many years. She enjoyed attending scientific conferences with her husband and learning about new scientific studies. Yet the lecture programs written for Ava Helen’s speeches only noted her background in chemistry, stressing her experience in laboratories. At first, it seems odd that Ava Helen would choose to downplay her education and highlight her practical experience. But most of the women who comprised her audience wouldn’t have had a formal scientific education. Some of them might have worked in scientific laboratories during World War II. Many had read articles about the importance of women in laboratories from popular magazine articles. By focusing on her practical experience, Ava Helen carefully aligned herself with her audience.

Rachel Carson.

Interestingly, Ava Helen’s public persona was similar to the persona of Rachel Carson, another successful popular science educator in the 1960s. Ava Helen deeply admired Rachel Carson and called her “fearless and brilliant.” Both Carson and Pauling promoted a “socially engaged understanding of natural sciences.” In David Hecht’s examination of Rachel Carson’s public image, he identifies her as one of the leading non-scientific icons of the environmental movement. Ironically, Hecht notes that Carson increased her scientific credibility among readers by portraying herself as a scientific outsider. As discussed above, Ava Helen had fashioned her self image in a similar way. In fact, both Carson and Pauling framed themselves not as scientists, but as “quiet teacher types.” Depictions of Rachel Carson in popular periodicals labeled her as “shy, courageous, … dutiful, ethical, or quietly farsighted [and] functioned as nonscientific elements in credentialing her as an authority.” Articles about Ava Helen ascribed the same feminine characteristics onto her. Journalists were intrigued by Ava Helen’s “quiet, mischievous strength.” They took great care to stress Ava Helen’s petite physical appearance, her devotion to family, and her supposed affinity for domestic tasks. They also emphasized her strong ethical feelings and earnest desire to educate other women. By stressing the femininity of their subjects, these articles made both women seem familiar, approachable, and trustworthy. Their non-scientific appeal allowed both Carson and Pauling to “bridge the relationship between science and its publics…and [show that] nonexperts could play actual roles in making science, not simply directing its use.”

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