The Peace Prize

At Deer Flat Ranch, 1964.

At Deer Flat Ranch, 1964. Arthur Herzog, photographer.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

Big Sur and Pasadena, October 10, 1963

There was a knock at the door. Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, got up from the breakfast table to greet a forest ranger from the nearby Salmon Creek station in Big Sur, California. The weather was pleasant, typical for fall on this Thursday morning of October 10, 1963.

“Good morning,” said the freshly shaven Pauling. White hair curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck. It had starting thinning at the temples years ago, and now at the age of 62, his receding hairline left the top of his head practically bald.

“Good morning Dr. Pauling,” the ranger said. “Your daughter called the station. She would like to speak with you.”

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, cherished the remoteness and wildness of their second home along the rugged coast of central California. Deer Flat Ranch was a 122-acre parcel of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean that they had purchased with the award money from Pauling’s Nobel Prize. With no electricity and no telephone, it was where they went to slow down from their usually hectic lecturing and travel schedules.

“Do you know what about?” Fear flickered in Pauling’s usually twinkling blue eyes.

The ranger tried to allay his concern. “It’s not serious.”

The ranger knew why Linda had called and he had promised not to ruin the surprise. Pauling likely relayed the news to Ava Helen when he returned to the table where she sat eating breakfast with their two guests.

A head taller than his petite wife, Pauling had found a match in determination and devotion when they’d met as undergraduate students in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1922. For the 40 years of their marriage, they’d lived in Pasadena. In his first 15 years there, Pauling had transitioned from Ph.D. student to chairman of the chemistry department at the California Institute of Technology. While he focused on his research and career, Ava Helen raised their four children. Now their children had families of their own.

The car jostled as they drove the mile of bumpy dirt road between their home and the ranger station. It was unusual for one of their children to try to contact them in Big Sur, and they likely tried to figure out why Linda had called.

“Daddy, have you heard the news?” Linda asked excitedly, when Pauling returned her call.

“No. What news?”

Ava Helen looked on through cat-rimmed glasses.

“You’ve been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!” Pauling, stunned and unable to talk, passed the phone to his wife.

Pauling with Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1960s.

Pauling with Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1960s.

Linus Pauling, and his wife, Ava Helen, arrived at the Norwegian Nobel Institute for their 11:00 AM meeting with Gunnar Jahn. Pauling was likely dressed in a suit and tie. His hair curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck, and at 61 years of age, it had been thin on top for some time now. The petite Ava Helen stood a head shorter than him. Her spirit and conviction matched her husband’s and over thirty-nine and a half years of marriage they had come to see eye to eye on many civil rights and human rights issues.

A year and a half had passed since the 1954 Nobel Prize winning chemist had visited in spring of ’61 to deliver the opening address for the Conference against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Gunnar had become a good friend of the Paulings in recent years. The two men held similar views about nuclear disarmament and Linus appreciated his words of encouragement.

The couple was met by Gunnar’s secretary and taken to his office. As Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he was one-fifth of the panel who determined the recipients for the Nobel Peace Prize each year.

Everyone exchanged greetings before sitting down. Gunnar seemed to speak and move a little more slowly with each passing year.

Eventually Gunnar explained why he had called them to his office. “Dr. Pauling, I tried to get the Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 to you.” Ava Helen and Linus were likely surprised to hear such confidential information.

Gunnar continued, his admiration evident. “I think that you are the most outstanding peace workers in the world. But only one of the four would agree with me. I told them, ‘If you won’t give it to Dr. Pauling, there won’t be any Peace Prize this year.'”

Perhaps Gunnar Jahn slowed down at two months shy of 79, but he still had moxie. During 1962 the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded.

Celebrating in Pasadena, 1963.

Celebrating in Pasadena, 1963.

Nearly a year had passed between the day that the Paulings sat in Gunnar Jahn’s office and Pauling received his daughter’s phone call and learning that in 1963 he was being awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were planning to celebrate that day, but for a different reason. More than 200 nuclear tests by the United States and Soviet Union during 1961 and 1962 had forced the countries’ leaders into diplomatic talks about prohibiting nuclear weapons testing, finally facing an issue that had been in the public debates for decades. The product of those talks, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, went in to effect that same October day in 1963. The treaty allowed underground testing of nuclear weapons, yet outlawed testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater.

Pauling was one of many scientists who had been involved in the public debates around nuclear weapons testing, and he had worked for more than fifteen years to seek an international agreement of disarmament. Enacting the Limited Test Ban Treaty was a first step toward the peaceful world that Pauling envisioned, and the Norwegian awards committee recognized his ceaseless political efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize.

The phone at the ranger station in Big Sur rang with frequent calls, and Pauling responded to reporters’ questions about the prize for the next several hours.

“It is recognition of the work I and other scientists have been doing in educating people about the need for a treaty to end nuclear testing.”

“I have regretted the necessity of taking time from my scientific work for activities in the direction of world peace. But I have no doubt whatever about the correctness of my decisions. I’m glad I’ve done what I have done. I have no regrets.”

“I have no doubt that I shall continue to express my opinion publicly about any issue I feel is important and about which I feel I have something to say.”

He and Ava Helen drove back to their ranch to collect some of their things and then decided to drive the roughly 300 miles to their home in Pasadena. In their rush to get home, they forgot the bottle of champagne they had planned to drink that night to celebrate the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Reporters went to the Pauling’s home in Pasadena. Not finding him there, many waited, ready to take pictures and ask questions.

Pauling arrived ready too. Hours of interviews at the Salmon Creek Ranger Station, along with the long drive home, had given him time to craft responses to the questions reporters asked most.

“Which of your two Nobel Prizes do you consider more significant?” asked a reporter from the Associated Press.

“Today’s, I think, perhaps because I feel so strongly about the need for peace and an end to human suffering from wars,” Pauling responded. “There may be another reason, too. Perhaps it’s because I view today’s prize as a reward for conscience and duty – the earlier prize came as a result of work that I enjoy so much. I have made many sacrifices over the years for the cause of peace. I would have been happier – except for the dictates of my conscience – to work solely in scientific fields.”

Following his curiosity and conscience Pauling achieved high public recognition as both a scientist and political activist. His two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 prize in chemistry and 1962 peace prize – attest to this as do the many other accolades he received throughout his life.

Dinner and a Dance

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

The White House, April 29, 1962

It had been pleasant weather in Washington DC all day. The air was still warm at 8:00 PM when Linus and Ava Helen Pauling arrived at the White House that evening. Ava Helen wore a floor-length cape over her formal dress, and white gloves covered her arms almost to the elbow. Pauling sported a traditional tuxedo.

Pauling and Ava Helen arrived just before the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project. Many heads turned toward the two controversial scientists as they waited in the receiving line to greet their hosts, the President and First Lady, John and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Pauling approached President Kennedy. They stood practically eye-to-eye.

“I’m pleased to see you,” the President said. “I understand you’ve been around the White House a couple of days already.”

Pauling likely grinned and nodded, thinking back to earlier that day when he marched with other protesters in front of the White House, holding a sign that read “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Macmillan, We Have No Right To Test!” Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, had spent the better part of the past decade and a half as an outspoken activist for ending nuclear weapons testing.

He shifted to greet the next person in the receiving line. Jacqueline’s pale mint silk evening gown and bouffant hair defined fashion. She flashed Pauling a large smile and extended her elegantly gloved hand. “Dr. Pauling, do you think it’s right to march back and forth out there where Caroline could see you?”

A hush fell over those nearby. Pauling didn’t quite know how to respond.

“She asked me, ‘Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?'” People nearby laughed and the tension broke. Clearly, Pauling’s message had reached the occupants of the White House, from the family’s patriarch to his young daughter.

Side-by-side for most of the evening, Ava Helen and Pauling, like all couples at this dinner honoring Nobel laureates, were seated at different tables for the meal. She approached her table to find she would be eating with many distinguished scientists, one of whom, Willard Libby, held opinions different from her husband and herself. She immediately decided to refrain from talking to him about politics and peace.

Ava Helen took her seat, and the historian and critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. sat down next to her, pulling his chair onto her chiffon skirt. It possibly occurred to her that this was going to be a long meal.

As they conversed, Ava Helen found Schlesinger to be antagonistic and unfriendly.

“Do you hold the same opinions as your husband?” he asked.

“I do for the most part,” Ava Helen responded. Last summer, she urged Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking mother-to-mother, to keep her children and the world’s children safe by pushing for a continuance of the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons.

“Can I ask you a question?” Schlesinger asked. Without waiting for her response, he continued: “How can your husband accept an invitation to the White House after what he said to the President?” Schlesinger’s question referred to Pauling’s sharply-worded telegram, sent March 1, 1962, a little less than two months earlier.

In the telegram, Pauling asked the President, “Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?” Ire probably fumed from Pauling as he drafted the telegram. He couldn’t believe that President Kennedy was contemplating breaking his 1960 presidential campaign promises to not test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

Pauling’s note continued by referring to the Soviets’ detonation of several nuclear weapons in the atmosphere above Siberia. “In a letter to the New York Times, I state that nuclear tests duplicating the Soviet 1961 tests would seriously damage over 20 million unborn children, including those caused to have gross physical or mental defects and also the stillbirths and embryonic neonatal and childhood deaths from the radioactive fission products and carbon-14.”

Hoping to give President Kennedy some perspective about his decision, Pauling asked in his note, “Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality matching that of the Soviet leaders for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear technology?”

Throughout dinner, Ava Helen remained good-natured with Schlesinger. “There is nothing personal in either the invitation or the acceptance – Just the President of the U.S. having dinner with a Nobel Laureate.”

Looking tall, thin, and handsome in his tuxedo, Pauling likely approached her table after the meal ended, asking “How was your dinner?”

“Arthur Schlesinger is a clout and a boor!” Although she may not have told her husband this in this moment, she wrote down the exchange and her thoughts of Schlesinger after the evening ended.

Pauling would have smiled and thought to himself how lucky he was to have Ava Helen in his life. It was something he expressed aloud many times. He loved her for her pluckiness and devotion, among many other reasons.

The Air Force Strolling Strings played a lively Latin rhythm as the couple made their way after dinner across the main lobby to the East Room for three dramatic readings by the actor Fredric March. Rather than passing by the band, Pauling asked Ava Helen for a dance. Taking her into his arms he deftly guided her across the checkered floor. Her dark, short hair framed her face in waves and her chiffon dress whispered as she moved across the dance floor. Soon other guests joined them, setting aside political controversies for a little fun.


The Petition

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling working on “An Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World”. 1957.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet.

St. Louis, March 15, 1957

Sun streamed in through a stained glass window of the chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on a pleasant and sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-May 1957. About 1,000 people listened to Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, deliver a fiery speech urging an end to nuclear weapons testing. The years of political activities were taking their toll on 56-year-old Pauling. His white hair was thinning and deep wrinkles lined his forehead, yet he still dressed smartly in a suit and tie.

“If you explode a bomb in the upper atmosphere, you can’t control it,” Pauling explained to the rapt crowd. “The fallout radiation, Strontium-90, and similar things, spread over the world, drop down,” he noted with sing-song, rapid delivery. “Everybody in the world now has Strontium-90 in his bones, radioactive material, AND NOBODY had it…15 years ago…10 years ago. Strontium-90 did not exist. This is a new hazard to the human race, a new hazard to the health of people, and scientists need to talk about it.”

Strontium-90 was a particularly insidious component of fallout particles because it behaved like calcium in the body, seeping into bones and teeth and emitting radiation for decades. Scientists knew that large doses of radiation damaged human DNA and caused cancer. However, little research had been done on the health impacts of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation released by fallout. That left scientists concerned about the potential for genetic mutations due to fallout radiation, but they were unable to make definitive statements about health effects should innocent people be exposed to the radioactive particles.

Pauling, however, was confident that there was enough information to support what his conscience already knew: nuclear weapons tests were not worth the risk to one person, let alone humanity.

The assembly greeted Pauling’s message with an uproarious standing ovation. Some people filed out of the chapel. Others lingered. “What can I do?” “What actions can we take?” asked several of the students and faculty members.

These questions got Pauling thinking about a conversation he’d had the day before with Barry Commoner, a fellow activist and professor of biology at the university. Like Pauling, Commoner was outspoken about the need to stop testing nuclear weapons. The men had discussed writing a petition and getting it signed by American scientists. They hoped a public pronouncement would bring attention to the issue by revealing that many scientists agreed about the dangers of fallout. If thought leaders were forced to discuss the matter, then action, preferably ending weapons tests, might be possible.

Sitting around the dinner table at Barry Commoner’s home on the evening after Pauling’s speech, the conversation again turned to what scientists could do. Pauling suggested writing an appeal, sending it to American scientists asking them to sign it.

After eating, some scribbled phrases and others wrote paragraphs for the petition. Pauling turned their ideas into a short statement of 248 words that called for an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs between the three main powers, the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain.

The message proved timely. The next day most major American newspapers announced on their front page: Britain Explodes Its First Hydrogen Bomb in Pacific. These “dirty” bombs were 1,000 times more powerful than the first atomic bombs. They also released a greater amount of radioactive fallout. As of that day—May 15, 1957—all three nations addressed in the petition had tested hydrogen bombs.

Back in St. Louis, the scientists agreed on the final text of their appeal. They mimeographed it, attached a cover letter, and mailed copies of the petition to colleagues with similar politics and passions. Within one week, Pauling received several signed petitions at his house in Pasadena, California.

He prepared more copies of the petition, this time including the names of the first 25 signers. With the help of his wife, students and others at Caltech, they mailed out many copies of the petition, each with the names of the first twenty-five signers.

Envelope after envelope arrived at the Paulings’ house. It’s possible the mailbox overflowed with them because within ten days Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, had signatures from more than 2,000 American scientists. The response overwhelmed them (and likely the mailman too!). Each envelope contained a petition with one, five, ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty or more, signatures. Sheets of paper piled up on the Paulings’ desk.

In early June, Pauling sent a copy of the petition with a list of the 2,000 signatures to Chet Holifield, a California congressman and chairman of the subcommittee studying the hazards of fallout. The press picked up the story, reporting it widely.

The petition also found support overseas. European scientists crossed out “American” in the title and first sentence of the petition, signed the altered version, and returned it to Pauling. Forty Belgian scientists of the Free University of Brussels signed a proclamation declaring their support for the petition.

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, hired a secretary to expand the campaign sending about 500 more letters and petitions to scientists around the world. Their effort more than quadrupled the number of signees.

In mid-January 1958, just eight months after his speech in St. Louis, Pauling and Ava Helen traveled to New York City to present the petition to the head of the United Nations. The next day the front page of New York Times reported “9,000 Scientists of 43 Lands Ask Nuclear Bomb Tests Be Stopped.” Linus Pauling with lots of help from family and friends had converted the passion sparked by one speech into the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade.

The Lucky Dragon

The Lucky Dragon. Image extracted from

The Lucky Dragon. Image extracted from “The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon,” by Ralph E. Lapp.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet.

Bikini Atoll, March 1954.

On March 1, 1954, about three minutes after sunrise, a brilliant orange-colored flash lit up the sky. The sky glowed red and yellow.

“The sun is rising in a strange fashion. Hurry up and see it,” someone yelled.

Sanjiro Masuda suspected it was two to three minutes before the yellow faded. A dull red glow remained, “like a piece of iron cooling in the air,” he recalled. Then, he realized that the color could not be from the sun because it was rising in the west.

Five minutes later, a deafening sound of many thunders roared through the sky. The sailors saw a mushroom-shaped cloud and the sky darkened. “Pikadon,” which means atomic bomb, crossed Masuda’s mind, before he returned to his nets. There was work to be done.

A few hours later, white ash began raining down, covering the boat, the fishermen, and the water all around them. It fell for several hours.

Ash fell in Captain Tadaichi Tsutsui’s eyes, causing them to sting. He inhaled the ash, and the particles stayed in his nose even after blowing it several times. He felt warmer than usual, though he figured it was due to sunburn or windburn.

Bathing the white ash off was hard. The sailors scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Yet the ash stuck to their skin.

Captain Tsutsui’s concern for his crew grew as the day wore on. He ordered the steam trawler’s anchor pulled so they could begin the 2,000-mile voyage home.

The crew ate from the catch, although by the first night, few had an appetite. There was talk of pikadon, but few gave it serious consideration.

Still feeling hot three days later, the faces of some began to turn a dark grey.

Masuda’s face and hands started to swell and his body itched. The parts of his body that were exposed the day of the explosion suffered the most. He collected some of the ash into oilskin paper, intending to give it to someone for analysis when he got home.

Again someone suggested it was pikadon, but not all believed it true.

Some sailors complained of headaches and nausea. More experienced unbearable itching and terrible pain. Huge, irregular blisters started to appear on the skin of some. The men had washed their bodies, but not the gear. Their fishing nets and the boat’s ropes had also been covered with ash, and the men continued to touch it as they worked on the deck during the trip home.

Two weeks after the strange events had begun, the boat docked at Yaizu, about 120 miles southeast of Tokyo. Many of the fishermen were severely sick. All twenty-three went to the nearby Kyoritsu hospital. Dr. Toshisuke Oii prescribed a topical ointment for the burns and then called some experts at Tokyo University. The experts ordered the boat and its cargo quarantined, but not quickly enough.

The Lucky Dragon’s catch, about 16,500 pounds of tuna and shark, was distributed to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and elsewhere. Geiger counters supported what many feared: The boat was highly radioactive. Concerned that radioactive tuna and shark was for sale, health officials frantically hunted for it. Some was recovered. More than 4,000 pounds of suspect fish was buried in Tokyo; in Sapporo City, 14 tuna were buried after two were found to be contaminated.

But some of the catch had already sold. Six families in Sagamihara who had eaten raw tuna experienced stomachaches, numbness and diarrhea.

Eight other tuna boats in the Pacific Ocean along with the Lucky Dragon were also found to be radioactive. One fish merchant, expressing his worries about the impact this event would have on his business, also captured concerns about the global and long-term consequences of fallout. “This is just the catch from the Fortunate Dragon. What of all the rest of the fish in the sea? A tuna can travel 35 miles an hour.”

Masuda and his shipmate Tadashi Yamamoto had the worst burns. Both men were taken to Tokyo University Hospital. Doctors passed a Geiger counter over the top of Masuda’s head. It registered 6,500 counts. His head was shaved and the count reduced to 654. His pain was still tremendous. Pus oozed from his ears and eyes. His face was blackened and blistered. His hands resembled baseball mitts.

The ashes Masuda collected register 40,000 clicks per minute – 400 times higher than the planet’s largest naturally-occurring background radiation.

Japan was frenzied. Nine years had passed since the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pikadon had returned, and now the bombs had greater destructive power.

Details about the explosion that coated the Lucky Dragon in radioactive ash were revealed when the American press started covering the story 17 days after the blast. The United States had detonated a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, a remote collection of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The thermonuclear explosion was 750 times larger than the bomb detonated on Hiroshima, and its power surprised scientists.

The fishermen had been 71 miles from the detonation point and 14 miles outside the restricted area set by the US government. Their injuries were a sign that scientists had more to learn about how radiation spread following a nuclear explosion. The United States continued to test. In less than 60 days after the Bikini Atoll test, the US planned to detonate another bomb. This one would be four times more powerful than the previous weapon.

Summer Creative Nonfiction

Linus Pauling, reading with Linus Jr., 1925.

Linus Pauling, reading with Linus Jr., 1925.

[Ed Note: Over the next three weeks, the Pauling Blog will be presenting five sketches on Pauling written in the style of creative nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet. An introduction to this work, authored by Dr. Gormley, follows below.]

Very few scientists have written about their lives and experiences in the way that Linus Pauling did. Some, but still few, held on to their papers and belongings like he did. Pauling aspired to great things and believed he would achieve them and for this reason threw away few papers that might one day enable him and others to record the events of his life and work.

The amount of materials on both Linus and Ava Helen Pauling housed at Oregon State University’s Special Collections & Archives Research Center may overwhelm the researcher at first, but its wealth rarely, if ever, disappoints. The staff must be commended for recognizing early on the benefits of digitizing the materials in their possession and making it accessible to the public through the internet. I was fortunate to participate in this process by helping to develop one of the documentary histories, It’s in the Blood: A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin, and Sickle Cell Anemia.

Online access to Pauling’s life is a tremendous resource and so are the many books recording aspects of his life. There are a number of biographies on him and recently Mina Carson published one on his wife. There are also several compilations in which scholars have provided excerpts from Linus Pauling’s speeches, recollections, interviews, and the like and interspersed his own words with information about what was happening at the time.

Ava Helen Pauling, reading en route to Europe, 1926.

Ava Helen Pauling, reading en route to Europe, 1926.

After completing my master’s thesis in 2003 and the website It’s in the Blood in 2004, I moved on to another project and had no plans of returning to Linus Pauling. Yet, I found myself doing just that in 2012 when I was awarded a fellowship with the To Think, To Write, To Publish program through Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes. As one of twelve scholars I was paired with one of twelve science writers. Melissae Fellet is a freelance writer with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Our task was to produce an article on a science policy topic and write about it in the style of creative nonfiction. We bounced around several topics before deciding to write about Linus Pauling and his peace activism.

The process has been a rich experience and marks a turning point in my own research and writing. I am indebted to those associated with the fellowship. Many people had a role in this process including Lee Gutkind and Dave Guston who oversaw the To Think, To Write, To Publish program (funded by NSF award #1149107) and our mentor in this process, Gwen Ottinger. Ultimately, Melissae’s commitment to this project and our many, many lengthy conversations have helped me to grow as a writer and communicator and have pushed me in new directions.

About the Authors

Melinda Gormley ( is Assistant Director for Research at the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame. Melissae Fellet ( is a freelance science writer whose work about chemistry and materials science has been published in New Scientist, Chemical & Engineering News, and Ars Technica.

Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet have published “The Pauling-Teller Debate: A Tangle of Expertise and Values” in the summer 2015 volume of Issues in Science and Technology. (See The article and these blog posts are the result of support from the National Science Foundation award 1149107. The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.