Pauling in Graduate School

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

[Part 1 of 3]

“My ambition to become a factor in the advancement of human knowledge can be realized only if I prepare myself properly for my work.”

-Linus Pauling, letter to A.A. Noyes, January 26, 1922

By all measures a successful chemical engineering undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, and wanting very much to continue his education and earn his PhD in chemistry, Linus Pauling wrote to several graduate programs across the country, inquiring in particular about fellowships. Though he had proven himself to be prodigious talent as a student and, already, as a teacher, Pauling’s location in Corvallis didn’t carry a great deal of cache with the country’s elite institutions. And given his family’s shaky financial health, some measure of institutional funding was going to be required if he were to advance in the academy.

Pauling heard back from Harvard first, but was disappointed by their offer, which was for a half-time instructorship. Harvard also suggested that it would take him an estimated five years to complete his degree.  A more promising option was the University of California, Berkeley, an institution that would continue to tempt Pauling in the years to come. But as soon as he received a favorable reply from the California Institute of Technology (CIT), he rescinded all other pending applications, including Berkeley. Pauling had a good feeling about Caltech, and indeed his choice would pay significant dividends for the next four decades.


Once frustrated with chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College because he found it too easy, in graduate school Pauling was both presented with more challenging questions and received more considered guidance from some of the best scientists of the day.  One such man was Arthur Amos Noyes, the chair of Caltech’s chemistry department who also served as Pauling’s contact throughout his application process.

In their correspondence, Noyes encouraged Pauling to develop his coursework independently during his final quarters at OAC. Doing so would enable the bright but undertrained Pauling to enter CIT with the strongest background the he could muster in physical chemistry.  Noyes’ suggestions included building up a solid understanding of both French and German, and also working through a more rigorous physical chemistry text than the one that Pauling was currently using in his class.

This more appropriate text, An Advanced Course in Chemical Principles, was co-authored by Noyes himself, along with a Caltech colleague, Miles S. Sherrill.  Noyes implored Pauling to move through the book, methodically solving all of its example problems, the end goal being to provide Pauling with a better understanding of the field, and to prepare him to pursue both advanced coursework at CIT as well as his own unique research agenda.

The text itself was not merely descriptive, but also guided students through the problems that it presented by giving them the information necessary to solve them. This approach was unlike that taken by other popular texts at the time, which focused instead on leading students more directly to a solution. Noyes believed that his and Sherrill’s approach would help students to internalize what they were learning and assist them in understanding the processes required to arrive at the correct answer.


Noyes’ specific suggestion was that Pauling work through the text in conjunction with the OAC physical chemistry class in which he was currently enrolled, beginning at a point in the book that matched where he was at in class.  Instead, Pauling opted to commence with an independent study of the text during the summer after he graduated from OAC and before he enrolled at CIT.  Doing so, he believed, would allow him to work through the problems systematically and would also help to occupy his time while he was working in the field, assisting with road construction and pavement testing for the Oregon Highway Department. Before he reached the Caltech campus during the third week of September 1922, Pauling had worked through the entirety of book, solving many of its problems by lantern light in his tent.

And just as he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Pauling questioned the accuracy of certain answers posed by the authors of the book.  Upon finally arriving in Pasadena that fall, a first order of business for Pauling was to compare his notes with those of Paul Emmett, his childhood friend and OAC classmate who had likewise entered a course of graduate study in chemistry at CIT.


While Pauling was still at OAC, Noyes passed along a few more ideas that might help in preparing for the rigors of Caltech. In addition to his own physical chemistry book, Noyes also suggested that Pauling read X-Rays and Crystal Structure, authored by Sir William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and likewise advised that Pauling take a mineralogy class at OAC that would cover the fundamentals of x-ray crystallography.

It is interesting to note that, while reading X-Rays and Crystal Structure (once again, put off until the summer of 1922), Pauling wrote to Emmett and told him that he was not learning much from it. The Braggs, of course, eventually became chief scientific competitors of Pauling’s, and the techniques that they described in their book proved fundamental to many of Pauling’s own early discoveries.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

As he tried to help Pauling secure funding for the coming school year, Noyes found himself questioning whether or not Pauling had the experience necessary to receive a teaching fellowship. Wanting to insure his study at CIT, Noyes encouraged Pauling to send further information that might help with finding a grant to cover tuition or even a graduate assistantship, which would promise a “somewhat larger payment.” Noyes assured Pauling that he assumed Pauling would eventually be qualified for a teaching fellowship the next year.

In applying to graduate programs, Pauling expressed full confidence in his capacity to succeed as a student in physical chemistry, due to his strong grasp of mathematics, his previous experience teaching quantitative analysis and his work as a teaching assistant in general chemistry.  But he also believed that the environment at Caltech was top-notch and would provide him with the training that he needed to carry out research, even though he had no prior experience in this area.

Noyes ultimately was able to offer Pauling a prized graduate assistantship, confident in his interest in pursuing pure science and a career in university teaching. Pauling would foster a close relationship with Noyes over the years, and it was Noyes who worked hardest to keep Pauling at Caltech after he had completed his PhD, warding off the advances of G.N. Lewis at Berkeley in particular.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Pauling moved in with Paul Emmett and Paul’s mother in September 1922, and stayed with them for his first school year in Pasadena. During this time, Emmett and Pauling shared the same bed, sleeping in shifts. Pauling’s habits were such that he would stay up late studying while Emmett slept, and around 3:00 AM Emmett would get up to go to the lab, at which time Pauling then went to sleep. During this first year in California, Pauling also took Richard Chace Tolman’s class, Introduction to Mathematical Physics, which helped cement Pauling’s desire to become a theoretical physical chemist.

During his sparse free time, Pauling wrote letter after letter to his girlfriend, Ava Helen Miller, who remained in Corvallis to continue work on her Home Economics degree at OAC. Having expressed a desire to marry at least twice before Linus left for California, only to be rebuffed by their families, the two decided in their letters that they would absolutely be wed once Pauling had finished his first year of classes and just prior to his resumption of more construction work during the summer. Their plan came to fruition in Salem, Oregon on June 17, 1923, and Ava Helen moved to Pasadena that fall to accompany her new husband during his second year as a graduate student.

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