Pauling’s OAC: A Maturing Relationship with Chemistry

Linus Pauling, 1920.

[A look back at Linus Pauling’s undergraduate experience from 100 years ago; part 2 of 3.]

By the fall of 1920, Linus Pauling was connected to an academic trajectory that he would continue to pursue for the rest of his life. That said, during his years at Oregon Agricultural College, he was compelled to advance his studies in chemistry through rather unorthodox means. Because OAC was a land grant institution, the practical and applied sciences were the main point of emphasis within the college’s curriculum. Further, because the state of Oregon discouraged (and later mandated against) redundancy in the majors offered by its two largest institutions of higher learning, and because the University of Oregon already offered a degree in chemistry, Pauling’s only real option as a Beaver was to major in chemical engineering.

Partly as a result of these circumstances, much of the chemistry that Pauling had learned so far was fairly out of date. Not surprisingly, Pauling had found many of his classes to be dull and, at times, rote in their emphasis on solving problems of interest to engineers rather than academic chemists. But by the fall of 1920, having spent the previous year teaching, Pauling re-enrolled at OAC with a boost in confidence and a willingness to seek out opportunities in non-traditional ways. Fortunately, the school year reciprocated, offering key new acquaintances who broadened horizons for the precocious young student.


Throughout his studies in chemistry, the young Pauling often found himself questioning aspects of what he was learning and seeking to uncover more. For example, Pauling was intrigued by magnetism and puzzled over questions of why certain materials with similar physical structures varied in their degree of attraction to one another.

The courses that Pauling had taken to date were not providing answers to these questions. As a chemical engineer in training, he was learning that different substances expressed different levels of magnetism, but he had no insight into why. Prior to his junior year, Pauling may well have been resigned to the notion that these were unanswerable questions. However, more satisfactory solutions soon emerged with the help of a few influential professors.

OAC alumni inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, 1924. John Fulton stands in the back row, second from right.

Though he had saved up enough money to return to school, Pauling still needed to earn a wage to pay for on-going expenses, so he took up a job as an assistant to OAC Chemistry Professor Samuel Graf. Even though the job consisted mostly of working through computations, it also allocated time for Pauling to engage with the scientific literature. OAC’s Chemistry head, John Fulton, helped facilitate this by giving Pauling a few of his own chemical journals, and during his stint as Graf’s assistant, Pauling began to consume these journals with relish.

It was in this setting that Pauling first encountered the work of G.N. Lewis and Irving Langmuir, both of whom were exploring some of the most exciting questions in subatomic chemistry. While their publications did not answer all of Pauling’s questions, (many of which were in their earliest stages of formation) reading Lewis and Langmuir made Pauling realize that this new field of subatomic chemistry could solve problems, many of which he had not even realized existed.


While the history of the field of subatomic chemistry is quite complex, many of the ideas that Lewis and Langmuir were developing emerged because of headways that the Danish chemist, Niels Bohr, made with the formalization of his quantum theory in 1918. At OAC all of the chemical engineering courses were physical and practical in their orientation. The kind of theoretical work that Bohr, Lewis, and Langmuir were doing was novel – and not being taught at OAC – but making its acquaintance equipped Pauling with new tools to explore some of the questions that he was pondering as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. This breakthrough renewed Pauling’s fervor for chemistry and his determination to pursue it for a career.

Pauling’s moment of insight was especially well-timed in that it corresponded with another interaction that he had with an OAC professor, one where he learned about the availability of graduate fellowships at the California Institute of Technology. The fellowship announcement bore the imprimatur of Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes, among the country’s leading physical chemists and a mentor to several promising young scholars. It is no surprise then, that the flyer caught the eye of Pauling almost immediately and helped to steer him toward graduate studies in Pasadena.

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