Pauling’s Best Friend: Lloyd Jeffress

Lloyd Jeffress, extracted from Physics Today, December 1977.

Photo of Lloyd Jeffress, extracted from Physics Today, December 1977.

As a child, Linus Pauling had relatively few friends. After moving from Condon, Oregon to Portland, the death of his father and subsequent poverty forced him to work when not in school. The remainder of his time was consumed with studying and household chores, leaving little room for companionship. Pauling, even as a boy, was also exceedingly introspective and self-reliant, capable of quietly entertaining himself without supervision. Nevertheless, even the busiest and most independent children need friends.

In 1913, while walking home from school, Pauling began talking with another young boy, Lloyd Jeffress. The two quickly discovered a mutual interest in science and natural phenomena, and Lloyd invited Linus to his home to view a chemistry experiment. Pauling readily agreed and, within the hour, Lloyd was performing a series of basic chemical reactions that bubbled, fizzed and smoked, transfixing the young Pauling. It was on this day, in Lloyd Jeffress’ little Portland bedroom, that Pauling decided to become a chemist.

From that point on, the two boys were inseparable. When not at school or work, they were performing crude, and sometimes dangerous, experiments in the makeshift lab that Linus built in the Pauling basement. Using donated or pilfered chemicals, the boys created noxious gases and exploding powders while dreaming of getting rich as corporate chemists.

Video Link: Watch Pauling recount his and Jeffress’ early chemical experiments

As an adult, Linus Pauling often told a story of Lloyd Jeffress to friends and interviewers. At the age of fifteen, Pauling had imagined himself as a chemical engineer, working for one of the United States’ major companies. When Pauling told his grandmother this, Lloyd chimed in saying, “No, he is going to be a university professor.” Jeffress’ words proved prophetic, as Pauling spent more than thirty years as a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Following high school, Linus and Lloyd both attended Oregon Agricultural College, where Pauling studied chemistry and Lloyd majored in electrical engineering. Jeffress, however, developed an interest first in physics and later in the medical field, eventually graduating from the University of California with a Ph.D. in psychology, while Pauling, of course, took at job as a chemistry professor at Caltech. Despite the divergence in their interests, the two stayed in intermittent contact for the following sixty years.

Lloyd Jeffress served as best man at Pauling's wedding.  Linus and Ava Helen also gave their second-born son the name Peter Jeffress Pauling.

Lloyd Jeffress served as best man at Pauling's wedding. Linus and Ava Helen also gave their second-born son the name Peter Jeffress Pauling.

With Pauling at Caltech and Jeffress at the University of Texas in Austin, it was difficult for the men to meet. They visited one another as regularly as their schedules would allow, sometimes engaging in the tomfoolery of their youth. In a short manuscript written after Lloyd’s death, (see below) Pauling recounts their deceiving the guests at an academic event with Lloyd’s “mind reading” abilities, a hoax successfully planned and orchestrated by the pair. He also tells readers of Lloyd’s wedding, a hurried affair conducted by an unknown minister in Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s small California apartment with only the Paulings to act as witnesses.

Jeffress, like Pauling, was a highly successful member of the academic community. Though his career began slowly, the breadth and depth of his research expanded considerably as he aged, with the vast majority of his papers being produced after his 50th birthday. As an expert in experimental psychology, focusing on psychoacoustics, he served as the chairman of the University of Texas psychology department, and even worked with various military-based programs.

Additionally, his longstanding interest in physics led him to take over some physics classes while serving in the university’s psychology department. Perhaps more surprising, his experience with wave transference resulted in work on mine-detecting devices for the United States military. Over the course of his career, Jeffress earned a series of awards and commendations for his excellence as an educator and for his contributions to the field of psychoacoustics. Pauling personally took great pride in his friend’s successes, expressing special interest in his scientific papers.

Following Lloyd’s death, Pauling was asked to write a brief narrative of their relationship as part of a tribute. In it, Linus described their meeting as boys and their lifelong friendship. In closing, he stated “I have many friends, but I continue to think of Lloyd Alexander Jeffress as my best friend.”

For more on the life of Lloyd Jeffress, please see Pauling’s typescript below, as well as this lengthy memorial resolution (PDF link) prepared by members of the University of Texas faculty.  For more on Pauling’s links with Oregon, check out our continuing Oregon150 series.

“Life with Lloyd Jeffress,” by Linus Pauling, June 5, 1986.

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Oregon 150

Portland, OR: Pauling’s Teenage Years

Lucile, Linus, Belle, and Pauline Pauling, 1916.

Lucile, Linus, Belle, and Pauline Pauling, Portland, Oregon, 1916.

“This activist loves Oregon more than he loves life.”
– Tom McCall

Portland, the largest city in Oregon, sits at the convergence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers on Oregon’s northern border. Known for its microbreweries, environmentalists, and growing nightlife, Portland is nationally recognized as an epicenter of West Coast progressive culture. However, a century ago, the city held a very different position in the national consciousness.

As a part of the great West, early 20th century Portland was largely seen as an untamed and uncivilized part of the continent, full of opportunities and dangers. Aside from an impoverished and rather seedy Japan Town (located in the same area as Portland’s modern Chinatown) and a thriving red light district, the city was an industrial center and little else. Due to its convenient access to Oregon’s primary rivers, which in turn provided a direct line to the Pacific Ocean, Portland became a hub for the state’s shipbuilding and logging sectors. Oregon’s booming timber industry single-handedly supported much of the state’s economy, providing work in mills, producing lumber for shipbuilders and helping stoke the fires of Portland’s fledgling steel industry.

It was in this young industrial center that Linus Pauling spent his teenage years, immersed in a culture of blue-collar labor and near-poverty. He spent his youth in pursuits appropriate to his surroundings; dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes and fantasizing about life as a successful corporate chemist. Pauling was the product of his environment – bright, industrious, and a capitalist to the core.

Though born in Portland, Pauling was not always an enterprising city boy in a smog-choked factory town. In 1905, his family moved to Condon, Oregon, a small watering hole in north central Oregon frequented by cowboys and nomadic Native American tribes, a veritable Wild West to the young Linus. Here, he spent his early years playing on the expansive prairie, climbing trees and wading through creeks. When his father’s drugstore was sold out from underneath the family, however, the Paulings were forced to leave Condon and return to Portland.

Shortly after moving back to the city, Pauling’s father, Herman, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Linus, his two sisters, and his mother, Belle, were left to fend for themselves. Belle sold the drugstore Herman had just opened in Portland and purchased a house with the proceeds. Unfortunately, she had no practical business skill and grossly overpaid for the six bedroom home. In an attempt to keep her family afloat, she took on boarders, though even with the revenue from her tenets, Belle’s income was not enough to support herself and the children. Moreover, the shock of Herman’s death and the added stress of her difficult financial situation pushed Belle into a state of deep depression which was worsened by pernicious anemia, a blood disease which sapped her strength and left her bedridden.

By the time he had turned thirteen, Linus and his sisters had taken over many of the duties of the boarding house. At his mother’s encouragement, he began working outside jobs for extra income. He sold meat in a butcher shop, tended reels in a movie theater, delivered milk in a horse drawn wagon, and transported special delivery packages for the Portland postal service. The money he earned went straight to his mother, who in turn used it to purchase necessities for the family. Unsurprisingly, Pauling disliked having to give up his hard-earned wages and, in the years to come, disagreements over finances would prove to be a continuing source of friction between Linus and his mother.

Linus’ chief respite from the grim realities of his family life was his intellect. At the age of thirteen, Pauling was first introduced to chemistry by his best friend, Lloyd Jeffress. After watching Lloyd demonstrate a few small chemical reactions with a homemade chemistry set, his own course was set. Linus  had previously built a small room in the basement of his mother’s boardinghouse to house his mineral collection – this space quickly became his laboratory. Soon he was collecting chemicals and supplies with which to conduct his own “experiments.”

Indeed, academic pursuits often served as Pauling’s escape from his difficult adolescence. At the age of sixteen, he chose to formally pursue an academic career and leave Portland altogether. He moved to Corvallis, Oregon in the fall of 1917 where he enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College. There, he embarked on a course that would eventually earn him two Nobel prizes and worldwide acclaim. It should be remembered, however, that Pauling’s life in Portland shaped much of who he was as a scientist and an activist. His difficult youth instilled in him a work ethic and sense of determination that characterized his career and led to some of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century.

For more information about Linus Pauling and his life in Oregon, visit the Linus Pauling Online portal or check out the other posts in our Oregon 150 series.

Oregon 150