Remembering Linus Pauling: The Biographers

A little more than six months after Linus Pauling died, a remarkable gathering took place at Oregon State University. A conference titled “The Life and Work of Linus Pauling: A Discourse on the Art of Biography,” was held in Corvallis over the course of three days and featured presentations by a great many individuals who knew Pauling or had studied his life closely. The keynote address was delivered by Francis Crick on the evening of February 28, 1995; the date that would have been Pauling’s 94th birthday. In the day and a half that followed, reflections were offered by a wide array of former students, family members, and scholars from across the country.

One particular session was devoted to “The Biographer’s Picture of Linus Pauling,” and it is to this set of reflections that we turn our attention today. Included below are observations made by four individuals who, by 1995, had already spent many years researching Pauling’s life and work, and whose insights serve to complicate and sophisticate the scholarly understanding of Pauling as a historical figure and as a human being.


Thomas Hager, author of Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling (1995).

Pauling’s father worked twelve hours a day as a druggist, teaching his son the value of both hard work and the importance of giving a good face to the public, and then died when Pauling was nine. The death of his father was a traumatic and defining event in Pauling’s life, one to which can be traced many of his emotional and intellectual characteristics. He spent a good deal of his life looking for surrogate fathers, father-figures that he at first found among his neighbors — one of whom got him interested in Greek; then his teachers — his high-school chemistry teacher was one; and later among men like Einstein, who served as Pauling’s political father.

It is this nine-year-old boy, bereft of a father, left in the care of a sickly and unloving mother, a mother who did not understand education or science, who constantly nagged her son, and who died in an insane asylum, who became Linus Pauling. It is this boy who developed a steely confidence in himself because no one around him had any. It is this boy, faced with a confusing and heartless world, who would spend his life trying to make sense of things, working to bring order and rationality into the world. It is this suffering boy whose guiding ethical principle was that of lessening suffering.


Ted Goertzel, co-author of Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics (1995).

I believe that the personality patterns which Pauling displayed throughout his life developed in the period after his father’s death when he was nine. He never really allowed himself to express the pain which he felt after his grandfather’s and his father’s deaths, perhaps because his relationship with his mother was not close enough to give him a feeling of security. Her own depression and ill health, coupled with the unfamiliar practical problems of providing support for the family, made it difficult for Belle to be attentive to her son’s emotional needs. She was never as close to him as she was to her daughters. His father had admired him greatly, and encouraged his intellectuality. His mother, because of her illness and vulnerability as a widow, was not able to provide the same degree of support. […]

From nine onwards, Linus channeled his energies into his hobbies and into part-time jobs designed to contribute to the family’s expenses but also to give him a degree of independence from his mother. He was fascinated by the natural sciences, as are many boys of that age, and also discovered that he had a natural aptitude for academic work. He avoided close relationships with adults, whether teachers or relatives, but maintained friendships with other boys who shared his scientific interests and did not pressure him about family obligations.

The preoccupation with science may have had its origins at least in part in a need to sublimate emotional distress, but he was also good at it and realistic enough to recognize that scientific achievement could be an avenue to professional security as well as an absorbing escape from the rigors of everyday life. Whether through death, illness or insensitivity, adults had let him down. He was determined to make his way on his own.

By the age of twelve, Linus Pauling had already developed many of the behavior and personality patterns which he was to maintain throughout his life. He was introverted, intent on pursuing his own interests, and oblivious to conflicting demands from those around him. Emotionally, he was most comfortable when he could rely on a close relationship with one person for intimacy and support. The first special person was his boyhood friend Lloyd Jeffress, the second his wife Ava Helen Miller. His marriage to Ava Helen closely paralleled that of his own parents in its emphasis on closeness between the married couple having priority over parent-child relationships. It was a traditional marriage, with Ava Helen devoting her life to her husband’s career and nurturing their children.

He found that he could use his intellectual brilliance to maintain independence from her and obtain approval from others. He married a woman who gave him the devotion he was unable to get from his mother.

Despite his tremendous success as a young scientist, Linus Pauling was never satisfied. Having won two Nobel Prizes, he felt he deserved a third. When his brilliance as a scientific innovator declined with age, he fell more and more into his second intellectual style [becoming emotionally committed to his ideas and seeking out evidence to support them]. In his later years, his combativeness and defensiveness increasingly triumphed over his brilliance and creativity.


Derek Davenport, chemist and author of “Linus Pauling – Chemical Educator” (1980) and “Letters to F.J. Allen: An Informal Portrait of Linus Pauling” (1996) among other articles.

Pauling had agreed to speak at a G.N. Lewis symposium I had organized for the 1982 American Chemical Society meeting in Las Vegas. Ava Helen Pauling had died shortly before, and Pauling’s secretary called asking that I meet him at the airport. He arrived jaunty as ever and chattered amiably during the short journey to the hotel. We entered the Hilton which was full of gambling, even gamboling, chemists. As we moved to the reception desk the crowd parted and fell silent. It was rather like following Moses across the Red Sea. Linus told the young lady at the counter: “You should have a reservation for Pauling.” After finding the card, she asked sweetly “would that be a Linus Pauling?” “Yes, yes, Linus Pauling.” “How do you intend to pay, sir?” “By VISA card.” “I will need identification, sir.” Pauling was nonplussed. He put on one of his dopiest grins, turned to the silent throngs on the casino floor, threw his arms wide, and implored rather than asked: “Don’t I look like Linus Pauling?” The young lady was unimpressed and insisted on, and got, his driver’s license.

I tell this story for several reasons, but principally to remind us that it was only in later years that he became a legend in his own time and on occasion in his own mind. I first heard him speak in 1948 in London when he was approaching the zenith of his astonishing scientific accomplishments, and half of his long life was already spent. He was the most charismatic chemist I had ever heard but there was no sign of the guru and no evidence of groupies. These came later as a consequence of his political persecution and his advocacy of Vitamin C. We must remember he was a man who did legendary science long before he became the Pauling of legend.


Robert Paradowski, author of The Structural Chemistry of Linus Pauling (1972) and Pauling’s authorized biographer.

At an early stage of the writing of my biography of Pauling, I was having difficulty with what to do about what those close to him saw as his imperfections and failings, but whenever I brought these to his attention, he always defended himself adeptly and managed to mitigate their bite. As time went on, I began to wonder: Did he believe that all these criticisms from family, friends, and colleagues were wrong? So I asked him if he considered himself a saint. He said no, that he was very far from being a saint. I went on to ask what he considered to be his principal faults. He did not want to discuss them, fearing that, because of the subtlety and pervasiveness of human selfishness, the faults he did mention might conceal much deeper ones. I was impressed by his answer, which reminded me of the writings of such great saints as John of the Cross, who saw themselves in a never-ending struggle with their own great selfishness. If Pauling was unwilling to analyze his faults, he nevertheless expected critical analysis from his biographer. As he wrote to me in 1978: “There is no reason why statements critical of me should not be published.” He certainly did not like having his faults pointed out, but when these criticisms were reasonably and compassionately treated, he seemed to accept them, even finding them helpful at times.

A concrete example of these criticisms is Pauling’s egocentrism, which some found charming and others such a pervasive and corrupting part of his personality as to vitiate his worth as a good human being. An example of the first attitude was a member of the Linus Pauling Institute who told me that Pauling had the “knack” of turning whatever anyone said to him into himself in some way. If he could not do this, then he would quickly become bored and uninterested in the conversation. This observer assured me that he did not intend his remarks as a criticism of Pauling; they were simply a matter of objective description. To this person Pauling was, in his vanity, like a child, and no more to be condemned for it than a child would be. It was simply part of his nature, even part of his charm. Another person at the Institute once told me that the reason I got along so well with Pauling was that I was interested in a topic that utterly fascinated Pauling, namely, himself.

On the other hand, Pauling’s self-centeredness was not so attractive to other members of his Institute. One person, whom I interviewed after he had left the Institute, had become discouraged with his relationship with Pauling because he could not get Pauling interested in any of his ideas. According to him, Pauling would pay only perfunctory attention to what he was doing. He recalled that the only time Pauling grew animated in a conversation was when he mentioned molybdenite. Then Pauling’s interest was whetted, and this was, of course, because Pauling had written his first scientific paper on the crystal structure of molybdenite.

Dr. Mina Carson, Resident Scholar

Dr. Mina Carson and Judy Freeman following Carson’s Resident Scholar lecture.

Oregon State University Associate Professor of History Dr. Mina Carson is the third person this year to have presented work supported by the Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries.  A professor of American Social and Cultural History, Carson’s research interests have thus far included the Progressive and New Deal eras, the gay and lesbian movements and the recent history of women in music.  A licensed social worker, Dr. Carson has also written and lectured on the history of psychotherapy in western Europe and the United States.

Her latest project hits closer to home for those of us working in the Pauling collection:  Dr. Carson is in the early stages of researching and writing the first full-length biography of Ava Helen Pauling.

As she is just six months into what promises to be a lengthy project, Dr. Carson has thus far focused on identifying a few important themes that seem to have, at least in part, defined Ava Helen Pauling’s remarkable life.  Certain of these themes include

  • Ava Helen’s transformation into feminism – Dr. Carson’s preliminary research indicates that Ava Helen was not initially what might now be defined as a “complete feminist.”
  • The evolution of both Ava Helen and Linus from their early years as children reared in struggling single-parent homes, to a powerful couple who created a successful bourgeois household.
  • The emergence, in her sixties, of Ava Helen as a charismatic force within the peace and women’s movements, a development which led her to question some the choices that she made earlier in life, especially as concerned her acceptance of a conventional gender role within her marriage and household.
  • Ava Helen’s role in balancing the tensions that likely grew out of the pressures on Linus Pauling’s time, as peace activism began to envelop the scientific work that was his true professional love.

Ava Helen Pauling participating in the Marathon to Athens Peace March, Greece. May 1964.

Dr. Carson’s Resident Scholar presentation also raised a number of questions about how one goes about writing a biography of a figure like Ava Helen Pauling.  For one, there exists the temptation to write about Ava Helen chiefly as a means to shed further light on the life of Linus Pauling.  However, Ava Helen was an important historical figure in her own right and deserves to be treated as such.

On the same token, any biography of Ava Helen must likewise be a biography of the Pauling family – her’s was the life of the activist and the homemaker intertwined – so the work needs to incorporate an evaluation her roles as center of the household, family administrator and social spark plug.

Last but not least, the biographer of Ava Helen Pauling must wrestle with the difficulties of both writing about a person who lived in recent time (Ava Helen died in 1981) and also of trying to get a handle on the basics of Linus Pauling’s extraordinarily complex professional vita.

As Dr. Carson herself attested, much work lies ahead for this project.  We have no doubt, however, that the end result will constitute a major addition to what the chemist and historian Derek Davenport has termed “the Pauling canon.”

The Resident Scholar Program is generously supported by the Peter and Judith Freeman Fund.  Previous Resident Scholars have included Dr. Burtron Davis of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, and Toshihiro Higuchi of Georgetown University.

Paradowski’s Pauling Chronology

Ava Helen, Linus Jr. and Linus Pauling, 1930.

Ava Helen, Linus Jr. and Linus Pauling, 1930.

According to Zelek S. Herman ‘the best biography in my opinion is the short one by Pauling’s only authorized biographer, Robert J. Paradowski who has extensively studied Pauling’s scientific work and who knew him for many years.’ Unfortunately this biography/chronology, though written in English, was published in a hard-to-find Japanese volume. Paradowski’s 1972 University of Wisconsin Ph.D. thesis titled The Structural Chemistry of Linus Pauling is the only compulsively readable thesis that has come my way in a lifetime of sitting on M.S. and Ph.D. final orals. Subsequently Paradowski got to know Pauling intimately, was anointed as his authorized biographer, and has spent the last 20 years accumulating a unique store of knowledge concerning his subject. Since Paradowski writes well and has unusually catholic interests, the book – or rather books, since it will be in at least three volumes – should be well worth waiting for. But for how long? Paradowski tells me he definitely expects completion by the centennial year, 2001…. I hope I live to read it!

Derek Davenport, “The Many Lives of Linus Pauling: A Review of Reviews,” Journal of Chemical Education, 73 (9): A210.  September 1996.

Every year, in celebration of Linus Pauling’s birthday anniversary, we try to release a new project either on or near February 28th.  Nine years ago, we participated in the mounting of a small plaque in Oregon State University’s Education Hall Room 201, which identified the location where Linus and Ava Helen Pauling first met in 1922.  The next year marked the Pauling Centenary and a large day-long conference was held in honor of the occasion.  Since then, most of our birthday releases have come in the form of websites – Linus Pauling Research Notebooks in 2002, The Race for DNA in 2003, Awards, Honors and Medals in 2004, and an expanded version of Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond in 2008.

The 2009 release is Robert Paradowski‘s The Pauling Chronology, a 27-page TEI-based web resource, the content of which Derek Davenport referenced in the 1996 quote above.  The Chronology is being advertised as “the most detailed overview of Linus Pauling’s ancestry, life and work available on the web,” a statement that we feel can be made without hesitation.  As Davenport notes, Paradowski enjoyed the most-unfettered access to Pauling of any of his at-least four biographers, and has compiled what is surely the most extensive compilation of biographical interviews conducted with Pauling and his associates.

Consquently, it is chiefly Paradowski upon whom we must rely to fill in certain scarcely-documented eras of Pauling’s life, particularly his early years as a boy in Condon and Portland, and as a young man at Oregon Agricultural College.

As a web resource, the Chronology likewise addresses certain major topics that have yet to be properly explored by other members of the Pauling online collective (ourselves, of course, included).  Pauling’s historic program of research on the structure of proteins, for instance, while touched upon in The Race for DNA, has not yet received the attention that it deserves, at least in terms of an Internet presence.  The Chronology helps to remedy this situation.  Even moreso, Pauling’s controversial infatuation with vitamin C, as well as the unsteady early history of the institute which bears his name, receive a fair and thorough treatment in Paradowski’s write-up.

Paradowki’s knowledge of subject and skill as a writer shine through in his Chronology, traits which lend ever-increasing urgency to Davenport’s crucial question, “But for how long?”  The centennial year has clearly come and gone with no major biography published and no hints that it might soon be on the way.  No hints, that is, except, perhaps, this passage that Dr. Paradowski used to close the talk that he gave at the 2001 Centenary conference:

Toward the end of [Pauling’s] life, someone had sent him a Bible with gigantic print.  He was having trouble with his vision, but because this book had such gigantic print he was reading the Bible again….  And perhaps he ran into this passage in Ecclesiastes, and I’d like to quote it as my finish:  “Let us search then like those who must find, and find like those who continue to search, for it is written the man who has reached the end is only beginning.”  And that’s the way I feel about my work on Pauling – no matter how much I do, it seems like I’m just beginning.

The Pauling Chronology and the transcribed video of a 1995 talk by Dr. Robert Paradowski are both available via the Linus Pauling Online portal.