Becoming Dr. Pauling

Pauling posing at lower campus, Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1917.

Pauling posing at lower campus, Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1917.

Linus Pauling’s 114th birthday, which was observed last weekend, dovetails nicely with the seventh anniversary of the creation of this blog, which we celebrate today. Milestones of this sort tend to get us thinking about our connection with Pauling here at Oregon State University and the transformative experience that he enjoyed as an undergraduate, more than ninety years ago.  Though he left Oregon in 1922 and would never reside in his home state again, the roots of the Linus Pauling who would deeply impact so many corners of twentieth century history can be concretely traced back to his youth in the Beaver state and, importantly, to his tenure as an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College.


During Pauling’s teenage years, questions regarding his future and the feasibility of professional training began entering his mind. As he weighed his options, Pauling had several things to consider. Of primary importance was the absence of his father, Herman, who had died in 1909, leaving the family’s financial situation teetering on the brink and erasing a vital male mentor from young Linus’s life. Though plagued with emotional insecurities, and despite being forced to hold a job from an early age to help supplement the family income, Linus still managed to discover his true passion, chemistry, as a thirteen year old high school freshman.

geballe

In a 1954 interview, Pauling credited Miss Pauline Geballe, a teacher at Portland’s Washington High School, for having helped him to discover his love for chemistry. Always a precocious child, Pauling began seizing every opportunity to learn more once his interest was sparked, and he took as many math and science courses as he could while in high school. Though a success at Washington, he knew that there was still much more to learn. At the time, chemistry was a booming professional field in the United States, and Pauling was aware that pursuing a degree in that area would pay off financially while hopefully satisfying his intellectual curiosity.

And yet, as he pondered his future, Pauling’s internal dialogue was haunted by his lingering insecurities. Believing that a college education was a privilege reserved for competent individuals, he at times felt unworthy of an opportunity of this sort. Eventually Pauling was able to overcome his fears and enroll at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC, currently Oregon State University), the state’s land grant institution and, realistically, the only college that he could afford. (Tuition was free for Oregon residents, and student fees amounted to around $10 per term, depending on the courses that one took.)

Fear flooded Pauling’s mind as the time came to face a new and unfamiliar environment. A month and a day before entering OAC, Pauling wrote in his diary:

Paul Harvey is going to OAC to study chemistry – Big manly Paul Harvey, beside whom I pale into insignificance. Why should I enjoy the same benefits he has, when I am so unprepared, so unused to the ways of man? I will not be able on account of my youth and inexperience, to do justice to the courses and the teaching placed before me.

Paul Harvey, as seen in the 1919 Beaver Yearbook.

Paul Harvey, as seen in the 1919 Beaver Yearbook.

It is interesting to note that finances – though a logical worry for someone in Pauling’s situation – are not what seemed to have troubled him the most. More salient is the link between experience, or “manliness,” and the benefits of an education. Pauling began college at the age of 16 and he clearly thought of his youth as an obstacle that put him at a disadvantage. OAC, however, gave Pauling more than academic knowledge; it changed the way that he thought about himself. Rather than asking why he should enjoy the benefits of a higher education, Pauling left OAC brimming with confidence, in search of new opportunities as a professional and as an intellectual.


Young Pauling, ca. late 1910s.

Young Pauling, ca. late 1910s.

To think that Pauling began his academic experience as a timid and uncertain individual may come as somewhat of a surprise; particularly so because Pauling is now remembered as an outspoken, larger-than-life figure. From the vantage point of today one might also suggest that, as he entered college, Pauling should not have felt like he lacked experience. He had, after all, just about exhausted most of the employment and educational opportunities then available to a young man of high school age. Quite early on in life, Pauling had been given the responsibility of watching the family drugstore whenever his father needed to be absent. Later on, in his free time, Pauling and his friends devised any number of new schemes to remain employed, even seriously contemplating the possibility of opening a private chemical laboratory. And in school, Pauling seized every opportunity to broaden his horizons.

Looking into the records from Pauling’s undergraduate years, one might surmise that his feelings of unworthiness were overcome largely because of the OAC experience itself. In college he would develop his character and identity.  And he would escape the shell of the boy who lost his father at the age of eight and who was raised by a harried mother whom, in his later estimation, didn’t understand him very well.


"A prodigy, yet in his teens."

“A prodigy, yet in his teens.”

As the young Pauling settled in at Oregon Agricultural College, he found himself first overwhelmed by the diversity of courses that were required of chemical engineering students and, eventually, dissatisfied with the quality of coursework that was offered. Pauling realized pretty quickly, however, that he “deserved” to be in college as the successes that he had enjoyed in his high school courses continued in the OAC classrooms and labs. It is also clear that, by the time Pauling graduated, students and professors alike recognized his academic talent: OAC’s 1922 yearbook refers to Pauling, by then a senior, as “a prodigy, yet in his teens.”

By the time that he had graduated, Pauling’s overwhelming sense of his academic experience was that of dissatisfaction with the limitations from which OAC suffered at the time. Students were required to learn only the basics of chemical engineering and most of his professors lacked professional experience in the chemical industry. Most of the department’s professors did not have a doctorate, and of those who claimed a post-graduate education, at least one was lying.

Known then as the "Chem Shack," OSU's refurbished Furman Hall now houses the College of Education.

Known then as the “Chem Shack,” OSU’s refurbished Furman Hall now houses the College of Education.

There were faculty members at OAC, however, who were aware that professions in the sciences were changing and that both a research infrastructure and a chemical industry based in the United States were on the ascendance. OAC professors like Floyd Rowland did their best to expose their students to the latest findings and research methodologies in the field. Indeed, Rowland, the head of the chemical engineering program, so impacted his students that nine out of the twelve in Pauling’s graduating class went on to pursue post-graduate education – at that time, a near unimaginable success. So while Pauling’s hunger for an academic challenge was not quenched as an undergraduate, he surely began to discover his true potential at OAC, and he had at least a few people on campus helping him down that path.


Pauling with a few of his Gamma Tau Beta fraternity brothers.  Pauling, at left, wears his "rook lid," required apparel for all OAC freshman boys at that time. Ca. 1917.

Pauling with a few of his Gamma Tau Beta fraternity brothers. Pauling, at left, wears his “rook lid,” required apparel for all OAC freshman boys at that time. Ca. 1917.

Concerning the social side of Pauling’s undergraduate experience, it is known from his letters and reflections in later years that his involvement in the fraternity system was very important to the development of his personality. Pauling credited the OAC Chapter of Delta Upsilon for bringing him out of the isolation from his peers that he had felt as a child and had initially experienced upon moving to Corvallis.

His involvement in the Greek system began when he was invited to join Gama Tau Beta. Pauling later suggested that this likely came about because the house needed to bolster its grade point average and knew that Pauling would provide a big boost. Whatever the reason for Pauling’s invitation, he joined and he greatly benefited from the company of new found brothers.

Over time Pauling became a house leader. One of his main goals is this capacity was to broaden the connections of his fraternity by proposing that the house join a nationwide brotherhood, the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Once his house brothers accepted the proposition, Pauling almost single-handedly took care of moving the transition forward. In his later years, Pauling discussed the impact that fraternity life had made on his college experience, noting that

up until the time that I became a member of Gamma Tau Beta there was no one who strove to teach me how to get along with my fellow human beings.

So while Pauling was discovering his academic and professional potential through his classroom experience at OAC, his shyness was also being overcome by the social mentorship that he received from his fraternity brothers.  When he left Corvallis, Pauling was well on his way to becoming the confident individual that many came to know over the ensuing decades.


A very early - perhaps the earliest - photo of Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling together, 1922.

A very early – perhaps the earliest – photo of Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling together, 1922.

OAC provided a wealth of opportunities for Pauling to cultivate his talents and discover his potential, but probably the most important outcome of his undergraduate experience was the relationship that he developed with Ava Helen Miller.

As we’ve seen, Pauling’s academic prowess was noted by students and faculty alike, so much so that, during his junior year, Pauling was hired as an instructor and assigned to teach freshman-level chemistry. He was eighteen years old at the time.

On January 6, 1922, Linus entered a classroom nervous, but basically ready, to teach a class of Home Economics majors. The era being what it was, this class consisted entirely of female students. Feeling a need to establish his authority from early on, Pauling decided to ask a tough question. He ran his finger down the registration sheet, looking for someone to call on in response to the inquiry, “what do you know about ammonium hydroxide…Miss Miller?”  Ava Helen responded with a quite satisfactory answer – the class had studied this compound during the previous term – and thus began a relationship that steadily developed into a romance. In the months that followed, the connection between the two quickly developed and, before long, the young couple was engaged.

Posing together on graduation day, 1922.

Posing together on graduation day, 1922.

Linus’s early relationship with Ava is of notable importance because it bridges two periods in his career: the end of the OAC chapter and the beginning of his long run at Caltech. Linus graduated from OAC in June 1922 and moved on to Pasadena while Ava Helen stayed in Corvallis for more schooling, the couple’s desire to wed temporarily squelched by both sets of parents. Separated for one year, the two wrote to each other nearly every day, and in these letters Linus expressed his true self to Ava Helen in a way he had not done (and never would do) with anybody else.

Later on, in marriage, the two would inspire each other to take their work even further. Ava Helen’s interest in world affairs would propel Linus’s awareness of the need for peace activism, and Linus’s dedication would inspire Ava Helen to become a leader in countless social justice organizations. As a friend of the duo wrote in 1960 “the Paulings don’t stand in each other’s shadow, they walk in each other’s light.”  For us, as we reflect on the milestones of today, it is gratifying to know that this hugely important couple owed their introduction to the little land grant school in Oregon’s Willamette Valley – a fertile space then, as now, for the transformation of bright young minds.

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Fraternity Life

“I was one of the founding members of the Oregon State Chapter of Delta Upsilon, and was present at the installation – in fact, I had prepared the petition that was submitted to the fraternity, and was successful in getting the fraternity to set up the Oregon State Chapter.”

– Linus Pauling, 1988

Linus Pauling’s undergraduate career was characterized by the emergence of a number of the qualities that are now strongly associated with his personality. It was during this time that Pauling began to build his reputation as a confident, determined, and sometimes stubborn individual of great intellect. However, when Pauling first arrived here at Oregon State University – or Oregon Agricultural College as it was then known – not only was he lacking confidence, but his social skills were also in need of some improvement. Fortunately, Pauling found help with these matters from his Gamma Tau Beta and Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers.

Pauling’s fraternal associations began during his sophomore year at OAC when he was invited to join Gamma Tau Beta (probably, he later said, to help bolster the house grade point average). He accepted the invitation, and was quickly integrated into fraternity life with his newfound brothers. They gave him the rather dubious, but apparently affectionate, nickname of “Peanie” and always made sure to include him in house activities. For Pauling, social interaction of this caliber was new.

Unfortunately for Pauling, however, the younger members of Gamma Tau Beta were required to go out on a date each week. If this requirement wasn’t met, the offender would be subjected to the punishment of being submerged and held underwater in a bathtub filled with cold water. This punishment, called “dunking,” was a Greek custom, and it wasn’t long before it was administered to the then shy and short-on-money Pauling. Before being dunked, he decided that enduring the punishment once was probably enough, and put his scientific mind to work. He began to breathe deeply in order to saturate his blood with oxygen. When he was put in the tub, he let the seconds tick by until he had been under for an entire minute. Soon, his fraternity brothers became frightened and, thinking that something disastrous had occurred, quickly pulled him out. Pauling, of course, was fine, and never again had to worry about being dunked.

Hazing rituals aside, Pauling seemed to enjoy fraternity life and came to regard it as having served a crucial role in his maturation. Pauling comments on this fact in a letter to Thomas D. Hansen, the Executive Director of Delta Upsilon, written on June 14, 1988:

The Oregon State Chapter of Delta Upsilon and its predecessor, the local fraternity Gamma Tau Beta, played an important role in my life. My father had died when I was nine years old, and, up to the time that I became a member of Gamma Tau Beta, there was no one who strove to teach me how to get along with my fellow human beings. As a result, I was rather quiet and withdrawn, to such an extent that I had few friends. My brothers in Gamma Tau Beta and Delta Upsilon helped me to develop my personality and to communicate with other people more effectively. In particular, they encouraged me to participate in the college activities in public speaking and oratory and to develop my confidence in my abilities.

As it turns out, Pauling would become an important character in the evolution of Gamma Tau Beta. Sometime during his first two years as a member, he drafted a petition calling for the affiliation of Gamma Tau Beta with Delta Upsilon. In 1922, during Pauling’s senior year at OAC, the request was granted and the Oregon State Chapter of Delta Upsilon was officially installed.

Delta Upsilon chapter petition.

Delta Upsilon chapter petition.

Even in his later life, Pauling remained a proud member of Delta Upsilon. He stayed in contact with many of his fraternity brothers, and, whenever possible, would take time out of his extraordinarily busy schedule to attend fraternity reunions, anniversary banquets, and other events. In 1988, Pauling received the Delta Upsilon Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

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.

Oregon 150