Pauling in Graduate School

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

[Part 1 of 3]

“My ambition to become a factor in the advancement of human knowledge can be realized only if I prepare myself properly for my work.”

-Linus Pauling, letter to A.A. Noyes, January 26, 1922

By all measures a successful chemical engineering undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, and wanting very much to continue his education and earn his PhD in chemistry, Linus Pauling wrote to several graduate programs across the country, inquiring in particular about fellowships. Though he had proven himself to be prodigious talent as a student and, already, as a teacher, Pauling’s location in Corvallis didn’t carry a great deal of cache with the country’s elite institutions. And given his family’s shaky financial health, some measure of institutional funding was going to be required if he were to advance in the academy.

Pauling heard back from Harvard first, but was disappointed by their offer, which was for a half-time instructorship. Harvard also suggested that it would take him an estimated five years to complete his degree.  A more promising option was the University of California, Berkeley, an institution that would continue to tempt Pauling in the years to come. But as soon as he received a favorable reply from the California Institute of Technology (CIT), he rescinded all other pending applications, including Berkeley. Pauling had a good feeling about Caltech, and indeed his choice would pay significant dividends for the next four decades.


noyes-sherril-1

Once frustrated with chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College because he found it too easy, in graduate school Pauling was both presented with more challenging questions and received more considered guidance from some of the best scientists of the day.  One such man was Arthur Amos Noyes, the chair of Caltech’s chemistry department who also served as Pauling’s contact throughout his application process.

In their correspondence, Noyes encouraged Pauling to develop his coursework independently during his final quarters at OAC. Doing so would enable the bright but undertrained Pauling to enter CIT with the strongest background the he could muster in physical chemistry.  Noyes’ suggestions included building up a solid understanding of both French and German, and also working through a more rigorous physical chemistry text than the one that Pauling was currently using in his class.

This more appropriate text, An Advanced Course in Chemical Principles, was co-authored by Noyes himself, along with a Caltech colleague, Miles S. Sherrill.  Noyes implored Pauling to move through the book, methodically solving all of its example problems, the end goal being to provide Pauling with a better understanding of the field, and to prepare him to pursue both advanced coursework at CIT as well as his own unique research agenda.

The text itself was not merely descriptive, but also guided students through the problems that it presented by giving them the information necessary to solve them. This approach was unlike that taken by other popular texts at the time, which focused instead on leading students more directly to a solution. Noyes believed that his and Sherrill’s approach would help students to internalize what they were learning and assist them in understanding the processes required to arrive at the correct answer.

noyes-sherril-2

Noyes’ specific suggestion was that Pauling work through the text in conjunction with the OAC physical chemistry class in which he was currently enrolled, beginning at a point in the book that matched where he was at in class.  Instead, Pauling opted to commence with an independent study of the text during the summer after he graduated from OAC and before he enrolled at CIT.  Doing so, he believed, would allow him to work through the problems systematically and would also help to occupy his time while he was working in the field, assisting with road construction and pavement testing for the Oregon Highway Department. Before he reached the Caltech campus during the third week of September 1922, Pauling had worked through the entirety of book, solving many of its problems by lantern light in his tent.

And just as he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Pauling questioned the accuracy of certain answers posed by the authors of the book.  Upon finally arriving in Pasadena that fall, a first order of business for Pauling was to compare his notes with those of Paul Emmett, his childhood friend and OAC classmate who had likewise entered a course of graduate study in chemistry at CIT.


sci1.001.38-lauephotos-900w

While Pauling was still at OAC, Noyes passed along a few more ideas that might help in preparing for the rigors of Caltech. In addition to his own physical chemistry book, Noyes also suggested that Pauling read X-Rays and Crystal Structure, authored by Sir William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and likewise advised that Pauling take a mineralogy class at OAC that would cover the fundamentals of x-ray crystallography.

It is interesting to note that, while reading X-Rays and Crystal Structure (once again, put off until the summer of 1922), Pauling wrote to Emmett and told him that he was not learning much from it. The Braggs, of course, eventually became chief scientific competitors of Pauling’s, and the techniques that they described in their book proved fundamental to many of Pauling’s own early discoveries.


A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

As he tried to help Pauling secure funding for the coming school year, Noyes found himself questioning whether or not Pauling had the experience necessary to receive a teaching fellowship. Wanting to insure his study at CIT, Noyes encouraged Pauling to send further information that might help with finding a grant to cover tuition or even a graduate assistantship, which would promise a “somewhat larger payment.” Noyes assured Pauling that he assumed Pauling would eventually be qualified for a teaching fellowship the next year.

In applying to graduate programs, Pauling expressed full confidence in his capacity to succeed as a student in physical chemistry, due to his strong grasp of mathematics, his previous experience teaching quantitative analysis and his work as a teaching assistant in general chemistry.  But he also believed that the environment at Caltech was top-notch and would provide him with the training that he needed to carry out research, even though he had no prior experience in this area.

Noyes ultimately was able to offer Pauling a prized graduate assistantship, confident in his interest in pursuing pure science and a career in university teaching. Pauling would foster a close relationship with Noyes over the years, and it was Noyes who worked hardest to keep Pauling at Caltech after he had completed his PhD, warding off the advances of G.N. Lewis at Berkeley in particular.


Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Pauling moved in with Paul Emmett and Paul’s mother in September 1922, and stayed with them for his first school year in Pasadena. During this time, Emmett and Pauling shared the same bed, sleeping in shifts. Pauling’s habits were such that he would stay up late studying while Emmett slept, and around 3:00 AM Emmett would get up to go to the lab, at which time Pauling then went to sleep. During this first year in California, Pauling also took Richard Chace Tolman’s class, Introduction to Mathematical Physics, which helped cement Pauling’s desire to become a theoretical physical chemist.

During his sparse free time, Pauling wrote letter after letter to his girlfriend, Ava Helen Miller, who remained in Corvallis to continue work on her Home Economics degree at OAC. Having expressed a desire to marry at least twice before Linus left for California, only to be rebuffed by their families, the two decided in their letters that they would absolutely be wed once Pauling had finished his first year of classes and just prior to his resumption of more construction work during the summer. Their plan came to fruition in Salem, Oregon on June 17, 1923, and Ava Helen moved to Pasadena that fall to accompany her new husband during his second year as a graduate student.

Pauling’s Senior Class Oration

Illustration for the Forensics Club section of the 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

Illustration for the Forensics Club section of the 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

[Continuing our examination of the culture of oratory at Oregon Agricultural College during Pauling’s undergraduate years. Part 2 of 2]

This coming Saturday, Oregon State University will host its 146th commencement exercises.  As the campus buzzes with students finishing their finals and seniors looking forward to the pomp and circumstance that awaits, we turn our attention back to Linus Pauling, and a noteworthy speech that he gave just five days before he completed his undergraduate studies in Corvallis.


It is not given to every man to be unusually successful, to be extraordinarily talented, or to be exceptionally gifted to render services to the world. We can do no more than we are able, but by doing as much as we are able, by doing our best, we shall be accomplishing our task, and repaying our debt. For our college has given us something which will allow us to do more than we otherwise could; and we must do more than we otherwise would.

-Linus Pauling, Senior Class Oration, May 31, 1922

As we learned in our previous post on oratory at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC), forensics was an art form held in high esteem by the culture of the early in the twentieth century. The presence of a reputable orator at an institution symbolized a high level of cultural competence. For this reason, most colleges and universities of the time prioritized this activity and provided their students with the necessary tools to become competent public speakers. Consequently, being chosen to deliver a speech at any given event was considered to be an honor, and especially so at a high profile event.

During Linus Pauling’s years at OAC his close and lifelong friend, Paul Emmett, was heavily involved in the school’s forensics club, a likely reason why Pauling chose to join during his junior year. That year, Pauling entered competitive oratory for the first time and was chosen to represent his class in the inter-class competition, where he finished as a runner up for the title of college orator.

Although he came in second, Pauling’s achievement was impressive for a beginner, as oratory’s popularity and competitive nature was rapidly increasing at the time. Indeed, the year before Pauling joined the forensics club, the college had established a speech department and went from training only a handful of public speakers to a group of fifty to seventy-five orators per year, participating in ten annual competitions.

After 1921 Pauling no longer shows up in OAC’s forensics club records, but his participation in oratory at the school surely continued. Most notably, Pauling was chosen to deliver the senior class oration, an indication that his status as a prominent and respected speaker remained intact.

"Seniors Attend Farewell Convo," OAC Barometer, June 2, 1922.

“Seniors Attend Farewell Convo,” OAC Barometer, June 2, 1922.

Delivered on May 31, 1922, six days before commencement, the speech that Pauling prepared urged his fellow classmates to use the knowledge that they had gained at OAC to attack the problems facing society. Where his junior year oration, titled “Children of the Dawn,” felt simplistic and perhaps overly optimistic, Pauling’s senior class talk was characterized by its emphasis on personal responsibility and the “problems of the state,” a term that referred to the social and political issues that had emerged from the destruction of World War I. “Our lives are to stand as testimonials to the efficacy of the work that our college is doing,” Pauling said. “Education, true education, such as our own college gives us, is preparation both for a life of appreciation of the world and for a life of service to the world”

Another point that Pauling stressed in his address to the senior class was that of “repaying OAC.” It this, one might surmise that Pauling was speaking both of value gained from OAC and from the system of higher education as a whole. It is important to point out that the systematic killing of troops that characterized World War I had fractured the public’s feelings about research in the sciences. As noted by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, a common argument at the time was that science was the cause of the war’s deadly nature. Out of this experience, numerous questions lingered. Should education work to propel science and technology? Was further development of science potentially harmful to society?

In this context, Pauling’s calls for individual responsibility and service to society can be viewed as a reaction against the negative connotations then being ascribed to various educational pursuits. And so it was that Pauling took pains to point out that OAC, Oregon’s land grant institution, “has contributed in a wonderful way to solving the multitude of problems arising in the state.” Likewise, near the conclusion of his talk:

This, then, is the way we can repay OAC – by service. Our college is founded on the idea of service, and we, its students, are the representatives of the college. It is upon us that the duty falls of carrying out that basic idea. We are going into the world inspired with the resolution of service, eager to show our love for our college and our appreciation of her work by being of service to our fellow men.

In emphasizing the idea that knowledge acquired at OAC was a tool that could be used for the benefit of society, Pauling’s speech makes the argument that the development of knowledge in any field cannot be intrinsically evil. Rather, each educated individual has the opportunity to render their knowledge in either beneficial or harmful ways to the greater population and, in Pauling’s view, bears a responsibility to use their talents for the improvement of society.


Pauling's senior class photo (lower left) and inscription (upper right), 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

Pauling’s senior class photo (lower left) and inscription (upper right), 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

The contents of his two major orations at OAC suggest that, even at the earliest stages of his career, Linus Pauling had developed a sense of the values that he intended to promote. For one, he was sure that the pure and applied sciences were important to improving the quality of life of all people. Pauling was also conscious of science’s potential for harm however, and as an undergraduate he began to promote the idea that the privileges of education carry with them with a responsibility to contribute to the greater good.

As Pauling’s career advanced, so too did his positive view of the future of science. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, Pauling took the opportunity, during his Nobel address, to once again exclaim that those who have received the opportunity to study the physical world should devote themselves to becoming responsible citizen-scientists. An extension of ideas first expressed in the OAC Men’s Gymnasium in 1922, Pauling pointed out that scientists who were conscious of the possibilities that their knowledge opened up were morally obligated to share their knowledge of the physical world in ways that benefited humankind.

Children of the Dawn

children-dawn

[Post 1 of 2 focusing on the culture of oratory at Oregon Agricultural College during Pauling’s undergraduate years.]

Early in the 20th century, Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) – the institution now known as Oregon State University – was in the midst of rapid expansion and development. As new buildings sprung up and the student population steadily increased, the college was gradually acquiring all the markings of a venerable institution.

Prior to 1920, however, one such marking was still missing: a speech department. Viewed through a contemporary lens, it may be difficult to imagine the extent to which colleges of Pauling’s era prioritized and emphasized their linguistics departments. It is nonetheless true that, through the first half of the 20th century, the presence of eloquent orators on campus was a symbol of an institution’s cultural status.

Indeed, the focus on both oratory and debate at O.A.C. was, at this time, at least equal to the campus’ focus on athletics, music or drama. The college’s Forensics Club was regularly featured in the annual Beaver yearbook, with several pages dedicated to narrating club competitions. Likewise, the Barometer, OAC’s student newspaper, would at times publish up to six columns reporting on oratorical competitions in a single issue of the paper.

Oratory was so widely followed and competitive that an insert in the 1907-1908 Rooter’s Club booklet featured a cheer specifically created for OAC’s orators. Finally, in 1920, OAC established a speech department for the first time and thus was able to prepare a forensics team than was stronger than ever before.

"O.A.C. Yells" included in the 1907-1908 Rooter's Club book. Note the second  cheer written specifically for competitors in speech competitions.

“O.A.C. Yells” included in the 1907-1908 Rooter’s Club book. Note the second cheer written specifically for competitors in speech competitions.

The new speech department was a major asset to the college in part because speeches were used for more than oratorical competitions; oratory was a convention used to enhance the experience of nearly all campus events. Orators, for instance, might address the general student body or the college’s athletes before an athletic event in order to raise confidence and excitement in competitors and spectators alike. As stated in The O.A.C. Alumnus, a 1920s publication of the college alumni association, “forensic men and women [gave] athletics every ounce of support” by delivering lengthy and spirited pep talks. Once the game had started, oratory was also used to engage in “verbal combat” with students from other institutions.


Beaver Yearbook page devoted to a 1920 "triangular debate" between OAC, Reed College and the University of Oregon. Paul Emmett is pictured at right.

Beaver Yearbook page devoted to a “triangular debate” between OAC, Reed College and the University of Oregon. Paul Emmett is pictured at right.

The early 1920s coincided with Linus Pauling’s final years as an OAC student. Not surprisingly, his early experiences as a public speaker were heavily influenced by the high value that was placed on oratory within the student culture that surrounded him.

Even before entering any competitive event, Pauling had gained significant experience speaking to groups while teaching entry-level chemistry to fellow OAC undergraduates. During this same time period, Pauling’s close friend, Paul Emmett – later to become one of the world’s great catalysis chemists and, later still, Pauling’s brother-in-law – became quite active in the OAC Forensics Club and subsequently introduced Pauling to the thrills of competitive oratory. Emmett represented OAC in the 1920 triangular debate, an annual competition involving three colleges. The following year, both Emmett and Pauling were featured in the forensics section of The Beaver yearbook, Emmett as a debater and Pauling as a runner-up in the college-wide oratorical contest discussed below.

By founding a department dedicated to public speaking, OAC was able to provide members of its Forensics Club with a better training infrastructure. Importantly, Professor George Varney served as coach of the Forensics Club starting in 1920. Varney was a new arrival to the college but was known for having trained orators at different institutions, including a state champion. However, when Linus Pauling decided to compete in the annual inter-class oratorical contest, he sought the help of his own personal coach, an English professor whose past experience as a preacher qualified him to train students in the art of public speaking.


Pauling (bottom row, second from left) as depicted in the Beaver yearbook with fellow members of the class of '22.

Pauling (bottom row, second from left) as depicted in the Beaver yearbook with fellow members of the class of ’22.

Competing for the Juniors in OAC’s inter-class speaking competition, Pauling presented a grand interpretation of the status and future of civilization in the 20th century. Titled “Children of the Dawn,” (which he meant to refer to members of his generation) Pauling’s speech contained both analysis of the past and speculation on the future.

The piece opens with a poetic description of a dream, one in which humanity and Earth are only specks within the greater universe. In Pauling’s dream, humanity had developed so effectively as to reach beyond Earth to understand the entire universe. This dream, Pauling reveals, is an allegory for the possibilities that he saw as lying ahead for his generation.

From there, the speech chronicles the development of science and thought since ancient times in order to demonstrate the talk’s main argument: that Darwin’s theory of evolution can be applied to society, science and civilization. In this, Pauling describes the developments of the past as necessary steps to completing a “Great Design,” by which he means an entire universe that is progressing in accordance with the principles of evolution.

Pauling’s optimism and use of poetic language makes for an inspiring oration. The speech concludes on an even more hopeful note by suggesting that the youth of the day were privy to only the germs of unimaginable achievements yet to come. “It is impossible for us to imagine what developments in science and invention will be witnessed by the next generation,” Pauling wrote. “We are not the flower of civilization. We are but the immature bud of a civilization yet to come.”

William Black

William Black

Impressive as Pauling’s first competitive oration was, he wound up tying for second place in the OAC competition, losing top honors to William Black, a senior and three-time participant in the event. Contrary to Pauling’s idealistic and relatively simple premise, Black’s oration, titled “Our Tottering Civilization,” presented an elaborate and frankly racist view of the times. Black’s main argument was that interactions with “peoples of color” would be the demise of civilization as a whole. Black further suggested that in order to safeguard its civilization, the white race needed to secure its natural resources and keep people of color at bay. Black likewise worried that European culture could be lost forever if other cultures were to gain further sway over world social, political and economic affairs.

At the time, China and Japan had undergone periods of rapid modernization and immigrants from east Asia were very well established as active participants in the U.S. economy. The arguments issued in “Our Tottering Civilization” largely stem from a fear that further development of these cultures, both in and beyond the United States, could eventually lead to the subjugation of Western ideals. Black’s oration concludes by exhorting white nations to join forces against the further development of “colored” nations. Despite the fact that Black’s speech is overtly racist, it eventually won second place in the state-wide intercollegiate oratory contest, perhaps because of the complexity of the issues that it dealt with, or maybe because Black was an especially compelling speaker in person.


This episode in Linus Pauling’s life, in which he battles for the crown of top college orator, offers an interesting glimpse into the culture of the early 20th century. While many elements of the era would appear almost foreign in a contemporary context, they do offer important evidence of the values and training that Pauling was exposed to long before becoming a world-renowned peace activist and public speaker.  Next week we’ll examine another important talk that Pauling gave as an undergraduate; one that has special relevance to events happening right now on the OSU campus.

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.

Cousin Merv

Mervyn Stephenson with his three sisters, Condon, Oregon, ca. early 1900s.

Mervyn Stephenson with his three sisters, Condon, Oregon, ca. early 1900s.

[Ed. Note: The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center (SCARC) is, of course, home to the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, a collection of some 4,400 linear feet held in 2,230 archival boxes.  Also included among the 1,100 collections held in SCARC is the Mervyn Stephenson Collection, which consists of eight file folders. Stephenson was Linus Pauling’s older cousin and was an important early influence in Pauling’s life. We spend a lot of time sifting through the Pauling Papers as we prepare these posts, but we thought it might be fun to engage with MSS Stephenson for a short while and learn a bit more about a man who, in some respects, served as a kind of surrogate big brother for Linus Pauling.]

Part 1 of 2

If he’s lucky, every young boy has his partner when he plays ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ or when he roams the streets getting into mischief. For Linus Pauling, his cohort in crime was his older cousin, Philip Mervyn Stephenson, also referred to as Merv but who also liked to be called Steve. He was born on March 23, 1898 in Condon, Oregon to a Condon native, Goldie Victoria Darling Stephenson, who married an English immigrant, Philip Herbert Stephenson.

Mervyn was about three years older than Linus, but when they were young school boys, the gap made no difference. The Paulings lived in Condon, off and on, until they moved to Portland for good when Linus was eight years old, and it was in Condon that Pauling and Stephenson spent the most time together. As they wandered the town together and explored its hills and gullies, they hunted rabbits, swam in streams, collected arrowheads and, in the winter, took sleigh rides. In later years, Pauling also recalled watching with his cousin as the area’s wheat was being harvested and bringing water to the farmhands.

Sometimes Mervyn’s father asked him to mind the store that he owned. Stephenson and Pauling looked forward to these occasions because these were times where they could sneak sweet treats and other good things to eat. Being left alone to watch the store also led to a few hilarious run-ins. One day the chewing tobacco was left out. The boys decided to try a small piece, probably swallowed a bit, and both got sick. Needless to say, neither of the boys’ fathers were pleased.

Another time, Pauling was asked by his father to watch the family pharmacy. Stephenson, of course, joined and the two decided to try the port wine—it was used for several prescriptions that Herman Pauling wrote. The boys tried a bit of wine, soon became drowsy, and fell asleep in the back of the store. The two got in trouble, once again, and that was the last of their major stunts. By 1909, after the Paulings moved to Portland, time spent with Mervyn never held the same childhood aura or imagination.


Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

The Stephensons bought a family car in 1912 and, at the age of 14, young Mervyn immediately learned to drive. People in town called him a fast driver, and his father had only to call the local store or neighbor to see where his son had gone, because Stephenson would have most likely zipped by in the new car. Stephenson would also frequently hike down a nearby canyon with other kids from Condon and was a big fan of the regional county fairs. He was an adventurous young man and went on numerous excursions, including following local legends in search of a secret lake in the woods.

As he grew up, Mervyn’s parents thought him to be too thin and “understrength” for his own good. To combat this, they would send him, sometimes for a month at a time, to Charles and Nell Underwood’s house, where they would feed him well and work him hard in hopes that he might gain weight and muscle. It was here that Stephenson collected many arrowheads for his collection.

Mervyn was also becoming an upstanding citizen. He was, for one, the lead organizer of the athletic boys club of Condon until he left for college. More importantly, in 1912, (the same year that the family bought their car) he was marked as a town hero for being the first on the scene of a fire in a hotel. Mervyn had heard the siren in the middle of the night, rushed over to the fire station, and then hurried to the hotel to help. The town awarded him with a prize of one dollar for acting promptly and courageously.

Around the time of Mervyn’s graduation from Condon High School in 1915, Professor Gordon Skelton of Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) came to town to recruit students. He met Stephenson and they talked about what he might want to study should he attend OAC. After their conversation, Skelton had convinced Stephenson to give Corvallis a try and to major to civil engineering. Mervyn visited the Paulings on his way to OAC, and he talked with young Linus, at the time fourteen years old, about his plans to study highway engineering. The two also discussed other programs available at OAC and from this conversation Pauling learned that the college offered chemical engineering, which he believed to be the profession that chemists pursued.


Mervyn Stephenson (far right) with OAC classmates, 1917.

Mervyn Stephenson (far right) with OAC classmates, 1917.

Mervyn worked very hard as a freshman. Room and board ran to about twenty dollars a month, and he found a campus job that paid twenty cents an hour. He made it through his first year working full time with a full class schedule. During summer break, he was hired by the county to work on road construction, and that helped to make ends meet.

Stephenson concentrated on his ROTC training during in his second year at OAC; he moved up as a cadet captain and continued to progress forward. This year was also exceptionally tough because, midway through, his parents were divorced. His sister and mother then moved to Portland. That summer he worked on his first bridge, and as the break came to a close he was offered a job to continue to work on bridges. In order to take the job he would have to take a year off college. He would be paid a fair sum, but following the advice of his father, he decided to finish school and then pursue a career.

The United States was in the middle of World War I through Stephenson’s third year at college. As such, Stephenson transferred from the ROTC to the SATC (Students Army Training Corps) to receive training for combat, if needed. This same year, Linus Pauling, though only sixteen years old, began his studies at OAC. The only reason why Pauling’s mother, Belle, allowed him to go to college at such a young age was because she knew that Mervyn would be there for him.

Little did she know that no college junior wanted to spend his time watching over a sixteen-year-old freshman. According to Pauling’s recollection, soon after Belle left to return to Portland, Stephenson gave Pauling some advice about being in college, and then left him to fend for himself in the boarding house where they were supposed to be living together. Pauling did not stay past the first year in the boarding house, due to the cost of rent, and he did not see much of his cousin while in college.

In Stephenson’s handwritten memoir, titled P.M. Stephenson’s Life Stories, he recalled living with Pauling the entire first year and never mentions leaving Pauling behind. On the contrary, the manuscript focuses mostly on Pauling’s brilliance, describing a young man who would finish assignments quickly and then immediately find something more to teach himself. We learn from the memoir that one of the scholarly hobbies that Pauling picked up as an undergrad was teaching himself Greek. Stephenson was impressed, but being a more veteran college student, he spent ample time studying and his free moments socializing. Perhaps it was these diverging interests that led the two cousins to spend so little time together.


Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

The two young men were very much together in the summer of 1918 when they left for San Francisco for intensive officer training at the Presidio military base. Stephenson recalled Pauling as having been a strong supporter of the war effort while at the camp. With the completion of his officer training, Stephenson was promoted to the rank of cadet major. He was then one of ten men at OAC to receive recommendation for commission as second lieutenant in the Officer’s Reserve Corps. That summer the cousins also worked together when they stayed in Tillamook, on the Oregon coast, with Stephenson’s mother. The two worked in a shipyard for the summer, building wooden-hulled freighters and taking small holidays in their off hours to go with Stephenson’s mother and sister to the resort town of Bayocean.

Stephenson’s senior year looked as if it would begin with a move overseas to serve in the war. Mervyn had received his second lieutenant commission and was notified that he would report to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but his orders were never received because the war ended on November 11 of that year. He finished his senior year in due course, graduating from OAC’s College of Engineering, and was granted membership in the Zeta chapter of the Sigma Tau engineering honorary society. Mervyn and Linus then parted ways as Pauling continued his studies and Stephenson moved forward in his career as a bridge builder all across Oregon.

Think Independently: Pauling’s Years at OAC

 

Linus Pauling on OAC graduation day, June 1922.

Linus Pauling on OAC graduation day, June 1922.

[Ed Note: Last Saturday, Oregon State University graduated its largest class ever.  In honor of the class of 2014, we’re taking a quick look back at Linus Pauling’s years as an undergraduate at what was then known as Oregon Agricultural College.]

It might be said that brilliant ideas start with reflections on problems of daily life. The undergraduate story of young Linus Pauling traces the growth of a remarkable talent emerging from an interest in tackling the familiar problems of ordinary life. Pauling enrolled in Oregon Agriculture College (OAC) at the young age of 16 in the Fall of 1917 and graduated from OAC with a B.S. in chemical engineering in June 1922. In those five years, he matured in a significant way, both socially and academically. In school, he not only earned A’s in all of his chemistry and mathematics courses, he also stoked his passion for science and even began to approach the burgeoning field of physical chemistry – a landscape of study that he would one day play a major part in defining.

At OAC and in the decades that followed, a main propellant of his growth and success was Pauling’s persistence in thinking independently. Years later, Pauling famously suggested to a crowd of young people that, “When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect – but do not believe him. Never put your trust into anything but your own intellect.”  The kernel of that idea was apparent during young Pauling’s stint in Corvallis.

Pauling at the Oregon coast with his cousin Rowena, 1918.

Pauling at the Oregon coast with his cousin Rowena, 1918.

One quality shared by most successful scientists is that they love and excel at thinking. At an early age, Pauling started to show the signs of an independent thinker, always seeking to dig deeper into a question once he was drawn to it. Pauling’s grandparents lived in Oswego, Oregon close to the newly built Portland Cement Company. On weekend visits to his grandparents, Pauling, aged 14, frequently went to the cement plant’s laboratory and spent hours there bombarding the chief chemist with questions. Many years later, Pauling remembered this patient individual as “a man who was not very interested in chemistry, but who served as scoutmaster and who was willing to talk with me and to answer my questions.”

Pauling continued to pursue this interest during his college years. In the summer of 1919, mostly due to his need to earn money to pay for school but likely also motivated by his early contacts with the cement industry, Pauling secured a summer job in southern Oregon as a blacktop pavement inspector. His main task was to monitor the quality of the bitumen-stone mixes comprising the pavement. In June 1920, these activities were crystallized in his first scientific publication, “The Manufacture of Cement in Oregon,”  which appeared in The Student Engineer. In his three-page article, Pauling specified the process by which cement was produced, from crushers cutting large rocks as a first step to the kilns yielding the final, small round particles for cooling in the finishing mill.

Freshman fun at OAC, 1918. Photo by Linus Pauling.

Freshman fun at OAC, 1918. Photo by Linus Pauling.

Pauling’s digging into the cement industry was an indication of his ability to think independently and pursue a problem persistently, a set of traits that informed his academic work as well. His course reports from the metallography lab in the spring of 1921 also provide a nice glimpse into his scientific acumen and his growing confidence. The reports are not written in the formal and impersonal manner that one might to expect to find. Instead, quite often, Pauling used plain terms and interjected many of his own thoughts in the write-ups. From item to item, a personal voice is easily identified and the reports make for engaging reading. One interesting example is the concluding paragraph to Pauling’s report on “Preparation and Examination of Specimens” (April 25, 1921), which is typically lighthearted and even boastful.  Presumably addressing his professor, Pauling writes

I have made free use of technical terms throughout on the assumption that you would understand them, but in case you do not, I refer you to my experiment on metallography the first quarter of this year, in which complete definitions are given. I have also attempted to use words of one syllable to as great an extent as is practicable in order to prevent any mental strain. Let me repeat that, for a really good article, you should read my previous experiment.

When approaching a lab topic, Pauling early on developed the habit of consulting all of the relevant literature that he could find in developing a general picture of the status of current research on that topic. In his reports, he often gave his opinions of the literature in a very frank manner. See, for example, this aside included in a 1921 report titled “Heat Treatment and Tests of Specimen and Case-Carburizing.”

Quite often in reading, I wonder where people find all the things they do to write about. Just about as often I wonder what the idea of writing so much is, and why it is necessary to really do it. Then again I find the secret. It is this. All this writing is necessary because we are acquiring so much knowledge that we are behind in writing it down as it is, and there is still room for more books. I wish that someone would prepare (or rather, had already prepared) a short concise article on heat treating steels covering about five such pages as this. His work at least would be considered useful by me.

While sharpening his scientific toolkit at the theoretical level, the undergraduate Pauling also loved the mathematical rigor required by many technical tasks. In pursuing these tasks, he developed a stickler’s personality, one that reveals itself time and again in his correspondence over the years.

One such early example is dated March 15, 1920, in a letter from Pauling to Dr. George Smith, the author of a chemistry textbook.  In it, Pauling – who had just turned 19 years old – points out a tiny technical error. On page 11 of the textbook, Smith talked about errors in weight measurement. Using the tools of the day, Smith pointed out that weighing the same sample of a given substance twice would always yield two results which were very slightly different, meaning that there is always a built-in percentage error in weight measurements.

Smith went on to explain how observers calculated errors of this sort in weighing mixtures, using as an example the measurement of the weight of a sample clay which contained in it 0.2% of magnesium oxide. Here Pauling found a point of disagreement; he thought the calculation of the percentage error of the magnesium oxide was problematic. In his text, Smith stated that if the measuring error was 0.1% in total, then for the impurity in the sample, which was 0.2% of the total clay, the percentage error would be 0.0002%. Conversely, Pauling thought the error in the weight of the impurity should be compared with the impurity itself, and that the percentage error would thus be 0.1%, instead of 0.0002%.

Ready to take on the world. 1922.

Ready to take on the world. 1922.

A few days later, on March 22, Smith wrote back to his young correspondent in a very pleasant tone, saying that although he did not agree that this was an error, he admitted that the example was confusing and  needed further clarification. What’s more, at the end of the letter, Smith enthusiastically mentioned that he was looking forward to meeting Pauling at the upcoming meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Before and during his years at OAC, Pauling thought independently about scientific problems, making every effort to find answers that were satisfying to him. He doggedly queried expert opinions, widely searched the available literature, and critically judged the information that he gathered. Only then would he put forward and test his own proposals. He was interested in industrial problems and theoretical questions alike. He was engaged with topics in the lab and gradually developed an acute scientific insight.  And by the time he left Oregon Agricultural College, he was well-poised to do great things as a scientist.

Pauling’s First Publication

The Student Engineer, Vol. XII, No. 1

These tests show that Oregon cement is not inferior to California cement, nor, in fact, is it far excelled by any.  So it is not a hardship in this case to ‘Patronize Oregon Industries.’ The cement industry has come to stay.

-Linus Pauling, 1920.

In December 1989, the Oregon State University Special Collections received a rather run-of-the-mill letter from Linus Pauling, who had donated his papers some three years earlier and was in the habit of regularly corresponding with the repository. In this letter, Pauling noted

In early 1920 I wrote a paper on the manufacture of cement in Oregon, published in The Student Engineer (Oregon Agricultural College) . . . I am sending the copy of The Student Engineer under separate cover.

Considering the fact that Pauling published over 1,100 papers during his lengthy and illustrious career, a publication such as this normally would not be given any special attention. However, it turns out that this short article – officially entitled “The Manufacture of Cement in Oregon” – is Linus Pauling’s first published work.

In 1920 Pauling was not your typical 19 year old. In normal circumstances, he would have been a junior at O.A.C. (now Oregon State University), but due to financial problems he was not able to return for his third year. Instead, he accepted a job offered to him by the college’s chemistry department (one that was unexpectedly short a few faculty members), and spent the year as a full-time assistant instructor in quantitative analysis – a course that he himself had taken only the year before. Despite his age, it was evident that Pauling’s academic maturity clearly had risen far above his peers. He quickly proved an able “boy professor.”

In the 1989 letter, Pauling provided further insight into his introduction to the science behind cement.

When I was about 14 years old, the Oregon Portland Cement Company built a plant at Oswego, Oregon. I spent the weekends in Oswego, where my grandparents lived. I immediately began to spend much time in the laboratory of the cement plant. The chemist was a man who was not very interested in chemistry, but who served as scoutmaster and who was willing to talk with me and to answer my questions.

It seems then that while many of his classmates were likely going to great lengths to avoid learning on a weekend, Pauling willingly spent his free time gobbling up new information from any source that he could find. Clearly, his passion for furthering his knowledge in any subject that caught his interest began very early in his life.

Linus Pauling, 1920.

(It is also worth noting that, overlapping his employment with the O. A. C. chemistry department, Pauling spent the better part of three years working off and on for the Oregon Department of Transportation as a pavement inspector – another example of an early practical application of his interest in scientific topics.)

Understandably, the time that he spent at the Oswego plant made Pauling very knowledgeable on the subject of how cement is manufactured, a fact that is immediately clear upon reading his article. The young author writes with authority on the subject, simplifying a process that is undoubtedly considered not-so-common knowledge. And although the processes involved are not as complicated as, say, the manner in which a protein configures itself into an alpha helix, the procedure requires a fair number of steps, all of which Pauling methodically describes with his signature precision and thoroughness – skills that he had begun to refine even in his adolescence.

Although Pauling’s first publication may not be his most interesting and is undoubtedly nowhere near his most prominent, its genesis is certainly a fascinating story.   Scans of the full text of this article are included below.

p.3

p.4

p.5