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.

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A Feminist and an Educator

Ava Helen Pauling at home, 1977.

[Part 3 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

Ava Helen the Educator

As a public speaker, Ava Helen sought to both educate and empower her audience. She deftly wove scientific facts, sociological theories, and inspirational prose into an entertaining speech. A survey of the speeches which remain in the Pauling Papers at Oregon State University offer a glimpse of the scientific topics which Ava Helen covered; a range which included ecology, chemistry, physics, and biology. Most of her speeches were focused on the dangers of radiation and many would have fit well into the National Committee on Atomic Information’s collection of educational atomic literature. In one such speech, “High Energy Radiation and the Human Race,” Ava Helen discussed the history of radioactivity. Drawing on then-current studies, she clearly explained how radiation affects the human body. “High Energy Radiation,” like all of her speeches, was tailored to a female audience. Throughout the speech, Ava Helen beseeched fellow mothers to think about the health of their own children:

[Scientists] from the Atomic Energy Commission estimated the total genetic hazards of carbon-14 produced by the explosion of atomic bombs…their estimates are 500,000 children with gross physical and mental defect, 1,900,000 still born and childhood deaths, and 4,500,000 embryonic & nonnatal deaths.

Ava Helen utilized hard statistics and emotional appeals to connect the women in her audience to the dangers of atomic weapons. Her desire to educate women on radiation dangers extended beyond the lectern. Ava Helen, like many women who were allied with the NCAI, also promoted scientific education by creating public informational displays on atomic energy and arranging showings of scientific educational films. She distributed literature, such as pamphlets and booklets, on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Only two educational pamphlets on the dangers of atomic warfare survive in Ava Helen’s personal papers.

As Ava Helen’s reputation as a dynamic lecturer grew, she started to speak to her audiences on more general scientific topics. She became interested in the environment in the 1970s and gave speeches on water pollution and habitat loss. She asked audiences members to consider how their actions affected the quality of local drinking water. She also appeared on radio stations and gave short speeches on various scientific topics. Only one transcript of these broadcasts survives – on the science of making bread.

Ava Helen the Feminist

Ava Helen wanted to both educate and empower her audiences. She paired the democratic vision of the atomic scientists with the egalitarian beliefs of the feminists. Ava Helen earnestly believed that social equality for women was key to creating world peace. “I believe that we can only make real progress towards a better world if men and women work together,” she told an audience in the early 1960s. The peace movement had successfully united intelligent and motivated women towards a common goal. Ava Helen recognized the potential strength of the women’s peace movement and wanted to see that energy channeled toward women’s liberation.

Ava Helen at a women’s group meeting, ca. 1950s.

Ava Helen had certainly witnessed gender discrimination throughout her life. She had especially seen it within in the academic community. In a private interview in the 1970s, she confided her fury regarding the treatment of Rosalyn Franklin, who greatly contributed to the discovery of DNA. “If only women’s lib had come along a few years earlier,” she lamented. “If ever there was a woman who was mistreated, it was Rosalind Franklin…. She didn’t get the notice that she should have gotten for her work on DNA. She died.”

Ava Helen could personally empathize with Franklin. Both women had been denied the highest public honor for their contributions to society, a Nobel Prize. Linus Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, which both delighted and disappointed the Paulings. Although Linus certainly deserved credit for galvanizing the scientific community towards peace, Ava Helen had worked within the peace movement for at least as long. She was thrilled for him, but they were both saddened that the prize hadn’t been awarded jointly. Publicly, Linus gave Ava Helen full credit. As he accepted the Nobel, Linus told the crowd, “In the fight for peace and against oppression, [Ava Helen] has been my constant and courageous companion and coworker.” Still, the entire incident highlighted Ava Helen’s growing frustration with the accepted status of women.

Ava Helen was especially appalled by the lack of social progress in the United States. She angrily observed in a 1964 speech

Discrimination against women is still very real and nowhere more than here in the United States, which lags woefully behind the more advanced Western Nations and indeed in many respects behind the socialist countries.

Determined to rally the spirit of American women, Ava Helen traveled nationally to colleges, churches, and women’s clubs to spread the word.

Ava Helen loudly urged the women in her audience to stand up for themselves. “Women have equal capacity with men in brain power, talents, and capabilities,” Ava Helen proclaimed in a 1964 talk. “Indeed, in the matter of courage, sensitivity, and fearlessness, they may be superior.” Ava Helen especially wanted her female colleagues to pursue careers and to advocate for equal pay. She applauded President Kennedy’s 1961 Commission on the Status of Employed Women, which revealed discrimination across virtually all work fields. Ava Helen encouraged women to pursue non-traditional careers in medicine and science. “In every field of human endeavor… writing, science, engineering, woman has shown that she has ability,” Ava Helen told her audience. She famously suggested that the first scientists were women. She eagerly cited studies showing the equal intellectual abilities of boys and girls. She celebrated the appearance of women scientists, like Rachel Carson. In a speech given at a medical conference in the 1970s, Ava Helen applauded the appearance of women-run women’s health clinics. Like her suffragette mother before her, Ava Helen actively promoted equality between men and women.

Conclusion

“No woman wants to be put up on a pedestal, where she can be easily ignored and neglected,” remarked Ava Helen during one of her speeches. “She wants to be taking and doing her part in the affairs of the world with her feet on the ground and sharing in and contributing to the life around her.”

Ava Helen speaking at the Quilapayun Concert in Tribute to Victor Jara, Eugene, Oregon, 1979.

Despite her earlier misgivings about a woman’s role in life, Ava Helen leapt onto the world stage and become a political player. By the late 1970s, almost half a century after she had been a starry-eyed student in Germany, Ava Helen had finally become a respected public citizen within the international peace community. During the Cold War, Ava Helen had transformed from a frustrated suburban hausfrau into a confident public speaker. She became a dynamic player in two social revolutions that dared Americans to challenge their previously accepted conceptions about the roles of scientists and women. Although Ava Helen eventually accepted her own role as a non-scientist, she encouraged other women to pursue their own scientific careers. She became a role model for other women within her own community, who were interested in pursuing lives outside of domestic circles. Although Ava Helen modestly downplayed her own abilities, her insightful speeches won the admiration of American women. When a newspaper reporter asked Ava Helen what it was like to live with a genius, a friend of the Paulings piped up, “Ask Linus. He’s been living with Ava for years.”

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling, 1950.

[Part 2 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

The Dawning of the Cold War

While Ava Helen was busy volunteering for radical women’s groups in the 1940s and 1950s, she became a participant in another revolutionary group: the Atomic Scientists’ Movement. The bombing of Japan at the end of World War II left American physicists with very mixed feelings. Initially many American physicists were simply relieved to no longer be at war. I.I. Rabi, a scientist who served as the director of the defensive radar developments at MIT and worked on the Manhattan Project, remarked that he was “frankly pleased, terrified, and to an even greater extent embarrassed when contemplating the results of [my] wartime efforts.” A survey of physicists in September 1945 revealed that 66.5% of physicists approved of the government’s decision to bomb Japan.

Gradually however, these feelings of relief turned into remorse and anxiety. After all, as historian Alice Kimball Smith noted in her study of the physicists, “Scientists are for the most part human and sensitive, and if rationality served them well, it spared very few of them, sooner or later, from feelings of direct responsibility.” Even scientists like Linus Pauling, who had nothing to do with the construction of the bomb, felt in some way accountable for the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As historian Jessica Wang explains in her journal article. “Scientists and the Problem of the Public:”

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 provided a grim counterpoint to the elation with which Manhattan Project scientists had celebrated the Trinty Test a month earlier. Even as the war ended, scientists began to imagine the terrifying possibilities of the next great war.

As American soldiers returned from the battlefront, physicists returned to their pre-war duties within research laboratories. It took months for many of these physicists to process the full implications of the Manhattan Project. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear began to ferment within the minds of American physicists. “As more information began to accrue about the real-world effects of the bomb, including the new threat of widespread radiation poisoning,” historian Thomas Hager summarized in his Pauling biography Force of Nature, “a sense of guilt spread across the scientific community – especially that portion involved in designing and building new weapons.” As the radioactive fallout of Hiroshima settled across the Pacific Ocean, American scientists started to take sides in the new Cold War.

The Awakening of Atomic Activists

A small group of plucky, prominent physicists, including Eugene Rabinowitch, H.H. Goldsmith, Harold C. Urey, Leo Szilard and Katherine Way advocated for international nuclear disarmament. They organized the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) in October 1945. The FAS united small pockets of concerned scientists, such as the Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists and the Association of Los Alamos. The FAS intended to lead inquiries into the implications of atomic energy, shape national and international atomic policy, and raise national awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy. But members of FAS had an even larger ambition in mind. They sought to redefine scientists as “part of a larger public, within which [scientists] participated as equals, but offered their expertise for the purpose of information, consideration, and criticism.” Previously, scientists were isolated in laboratories and separated from the cultural implications of their technology. The FAS sought to forge a partnership between scientists and the general public. Scientists, they concluded, neither “could be or should be separated from the social and political ramifications of technological innovation.” And, by continuation, an informed public would be an empowered public that could wisely navigate through the emotional rhetoric that shaped atomic legislation.

The FAS facilitated the conciliation between scientists and the public through a strong public education campaign. The National Committee on Atomic Information, a subset of FAS that organized in November 1945, was the public face of the Atomic Scientists movement. The NCAI reached out to “labor movements, educational organizations, religious groups, and professional associations for cooperation and assistance in appealing to the public.” It connected local scientists at speaking engagements with youth groups, women’s clubs, and religious centers. The NCAI sponsored educational science fairs and distributed study kits, educational films, pamphlets, and moralistic plays. Atomic Information, the public mouthpiece for NCAI and FAS, was first printed in March 1945 and was sent out to 10 million addresses. It presented serious scientific articles alongside quirky cartoons and enthusiastic political commentary.

Charles Coryell and Linus Pauling, 1935.

The Paulings quickly became active participants of the Atomic Scientists Movement. Many of the scientists involved in the movement were good friends of the Paulings. Charles Coryell, one of the young men who founded FAS, was one of Linus’ former students. The Federation of Atomic Scientists recruited Linus as a high profile public speaker as it lobbied Congress for a civilian Atomic Energy Commission in the spring of 1946. That same spring, the director of the NCAI, Daniel Melcher, approached Albert Einstein with the idea of creating a fundraising society, chaired by scientific stars like Einstein, that would raise monetary support for the FAS directly from the American public. This society, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, became incorporated in October of 1946. Linus Pauling eagerly accepted their invitation to join and raised money for the FAS’ public education campaign. The FAS’ successful public outreach campaign cultivated a national interest in the implications of atomic energy. The demand for scientists who could speak on atomic matters steadily increased.

Out of his own feelings of moral responsibility, Linus began accepting invitations for speaking engagements. Linus was a well-respected lecturer on scientific topics; his classroom lectures were engaging and humorous. But Linus’ first talks on the dangers of nuclear warfare were dry; he struggled to connect to a general audience over political and social issues. Fortunately, Ava Helen quickly understood what was going wrong. “You’re not convincing,” she confided to him after one lecture. “You give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying.” Working with organizations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and Union Now had also taught Ava how to connect with ordinary citizens over political issues. Ava drew upon these skills as she helped teach Linus to establish a rapport with his audience. As biographer Thomas Hager describes,

Ava accompanied Pauling to almost all of his talks, sat in the front row of the audience, and listened carefully to his delivery. She also kept an eye on the room, saw what worked and what did not, and afterward critiqued his performance.

The Paulings also read up on the politics of atomic energy until Linus felt that he could confidently “speak on his own authority.” Under Ava’s watchful eye, Linus transformed from a college professor into a public scientist.

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at Women Strike for Peace rally, San Francisco, August 1961.

But Ava Helen wasn’t going to let Linus have all of the fun. After years of working behind the scenes, Ava Helen finally began to give public speeches in 1957. Initially, Ava Helen gave speeches centering on the Paulings’ international travels. By the early 1960s, Ava Helen was regularly speaking to women’s clubs and religious groups on topics concerning peace, science, and women’s rights. Although Ava Helen didn’t receive the same high billing as Linus, she easily reached an audience that the FAS was eager to connect to: women. American women had become fierce cold warriors after World War II. As wives and mothers, they were expected to protect their own families and communities. The moral responsibilities of women grew during the 1960s to extend outside the home. Women needed to defend their community against any environmental hazards, like nuclear fallout or toxic pesticides. A 1962 poster advertising the group Women for Peace capitalized on these concerns, noting that fallout caused cancer in children and took money away from important social programs. A basic understanding of science became an integral part of a woman’s post-college education.

While she was initially booked for public events as “Mrs. Linus Pauling,” Ava Helen quickly developed her own persona as a public speaker. She spoke almost exclusively to middle class and educated women; commonly appearing at a luncheon for faculty wives or a tea for WILPF members. Ava Helen demurely called herself an “educated layman.” But this was certainly an understatement; Ava Helen had kept pace with her husband for many years. She enjoyed attending scientific conferences with her husband and learning about new scientific studies. Yet the lecture programs written for Ava Helen’s speeches only noted her background in chemistry, stressing her experience in laboratories. At first, it seems odd that Ava Helen would choose to downplay her education and highlight her practical experience. But most of the women who comprised her audience wouldn’t have had a formal scientific education. Some of them might have worked in scientific laboratories during World War II. Many had read articles about the importance of women in laboratories from popular magazine articles. By focusing on her practical experience, Ava Helen carefully aligned herself with her audience.

Rachel Carson.

Interestingly, Ava Helen’s public persona was similar to the persona of Rachel Carson, another successful popular science educator in the 1960s. Ava Helen deeply admired Rachel Carson and called her “fearless and brilliant.” Both Carson and Pauling promoted a “socially engaged understanding of natural sciences.” In David Hecht’s examination of Rachel Carson’s public image, he identifies her as one of the leading non-scientific icons of the environmental movement. Ironically, Hecht notes that Carson increased her scientific credibility among readers by portraying herself as a scientific outsider. As discussed above, Ava Helen had fashioned her self image in a similar way. In fact, both Carson and Pauling framed themselves not as scientists, but as “quiet teacher types.” Depictions of Rachel Carson in popular periodicals labeled her as “shy, courageous, … dutiful, ethical, or quietly farsighted [and] functioned as nonscientific elements in credentialing her as an authority.” Articles about Ava Helen ascribed the same feminine characteristics onto her. Journalists were intrigued by Ava Helen’s “quiet, mischievous strength.” They took great care to stress Ava Helen’s petite physical appearance, her devotion to family, and her supposed affinity for domestic tasks. They also emphasized her strong ethical feelings and earnest desire to educate other women. By stressing the femininity of their subjects, these articles made both women seem familiar, approachable, and trustworthy. Their non-scientific appeal allowed both Carson and Pauling to “bridge the relationship between science and its publics…and [show that] nonexperts could play actual roles in making science, not simply directing its use.”

The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling

Ava Helen Pauling, 1927.

[Ed Note: Over the next three weeks we will be publishing a paper, “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” that was written by Ingrid Ockert.  Ingrid is an Oregon State University alum and a long-time student worker in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  In the Spring of 2012 her paper was one of three selected by the OSU Libraries for its annual Library Undergraduate Research Awards.  An accomplished student, Ingrid will begin doctoral studies in the history of science at Princeton University this coming Fall.]

[Part 1 of 3]

Introduction

In 1926, a young Ava Helen Pauling arrived in Munich, Germany, ready for academic adventure. Her husband, Linus Pauling had received a Guggenheim fellowship to study atomic structure and quantum theories at the University of Munich. While Linus learned quantum mechanics from scientific giants like Sommerfeld and Schroedinger, Ava Helen explored German intellectual life. As she recalled later, it was a time of “great excitement and intellectual growth.” Ava Helen visited art museums and natural history collections. She attended scientific lectures in physics and chemistry. She edited Linus’ physics papers and chatted with brilliant scientists. And as Linus learned how to be a scientist, Ava Helen struggled to comprehend her new role as the wife of a scientist.

Ava Helen in Germany, 1927.

Early on their relationship, Linus and Ava had been united by their passion for chemistry. They collaborated on lab experiments, scientific calculations, and chemical models. But, since the birth of their son, Linus Jr., in 1925, Ava Helen had become increasingly separated from her husband and the world of science. On an even larger scale, Ava Helen wondered about her own role in the future of humankind. Her personal journal from her year abroad in Germany reveals her search for a clear identity. Ava Helen’s journal is filled with chemical notations and elemental symbols. It also includes reviews of anthropology and sociology texts, books that Ava Helen read to understand the roles of women in other cultures. Ava Helen even mentions herself as a Professor among her addresses of other professors at the University of Munich. But ultimately, Ava Helen reached a startlingly pessimistic conclusion on her role in society. “If a woman thinks honestly and clearly,” Ava Helen writes in her journal, “she must soon reach the conclusion that, no matter what life work she chooses, it could be better done by a man.” Ava Helen decided to let go of her own interests in science and to focus her energies on furthering Linus’ career. Upon their return to Cal Tech in 1928, Ava Helen settled into her new role as the professor’s wife, hostess, and caretaker. She was not alone in her conclusions. Many of her contemporaries, American women interested in science in the early 20th century, also decided to bow out of scientific communities. The American women who did try to pursue scientific education and careers found themselves pigeonholed as research assistants and secretaries.

But following the end of World War II, many Americans began to reconsider their previously accepted social roles. Many began to search for new identities. For Ava Helen Pauling, the end of the war provided the catalyst for her change in identity. She, along with thousands of other women, began to advocate for a respected role within American society. By the 1960s, these American women organized political groups and formed the foundations of the modern feminist movement. The end of World War II also prompted members of another major community to realize that they wanted to change their public image. During the early 20th century, physicists had isolated themselves from the American public. Following WWII, these atomic scientists began to envision a new role for themselves as socially responsible, public educators. They began a crusade to educate and reconnect with average Americans. Standing at the crossroads of the feminist and the atomic scientist movements, Ava Helen Pauling joined both groups. At the dawn of the America’s Atomic Age, Ava Helen Pauling recast herself as a feminist activist and an advocate for scientific education.

The Stirrings of a Social Activist

By the 1950s, twenty years after her trip to Germany, Ava Helen was no longer an eager student, but a harried housewife and a mother of four children. Her husband Linus, as she would sadly explain in interviews, needed to devote himself to science. So it was up to Ava Helen to take care of common household tasks. Ava spent her time thinking about what she called “trivial things,” like cleaning dishes, taking their children to the dentist, and paying bills. The Pauling family calendar from 1946 reveals Ava Helen’s busy life: during that year, she spent most of her time taking care of the four children, preparing Linus for business trips, and hosting visiting professors. By the 1950s, Linus had become a respected professor and had received a Nobel for his work in Chemistry. But Linus was well aware of Ava’s sacrifice. He later credited his scientific achievements to his wife, remarking, “I am not smarter than other [scientists]…[but Ava] handled the problems and stresses associated with family, leaving me free to devote all my time to working on the problems I wanted to work on.” While Ava Helen was pleased with her husband’s success, she was frustrated with her own progress in life. The pressure of managing an entire household weighed heavily on her.

Ava Helen at a meeting of women in Japan, 1955.

By the mid-fifties, Ava Helen Pauling began to look for her own direction in life. “Beginning in the forties and fifties,” Ava Helen remembered later in an interview, “I was at an age when I felt that my life could have been different.” The Pauling children were nearly grown, so Ava Helen finally had time to focus on her own interests. She realized that she wanted to be involved in something larger, something socially important. Ava Helen had grown up in a politically active family that encouraged intense debate and social activism. Her mother had been an active member of Oregon’s suffragette movement. Ava Helen was inspired to pursue a similar political course. As Ava Helen later confided in an interview, “I wanted to set the world on fire!”

Ava Helen continued her family’s legacy and became involved in several progressive organizations focused on social change. During World War II, Ava Helen had become an active member of the ACLU and protested the discrimination of Japanese Americans. She also became a member of Union Now, an organization that advocated world government. Ava Helen also grew increasingly aware of women’s issues around this time. “I [felt that] I needed to learn more about women…” she recalled years later, “I became interested to see what other women were doing.” In 1956, Ava Helen also joined another major women’s organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was an organization started by Jane Addams in 1915. By the 1950s, WILPF’s goals included: “the education of youth for peace, measures to remove the economic causes of war; and total and universal disarmament.” In the 1960s, Ava Helen would become a founding member of WILPF’s two offshoots: Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and Women Act for Disarmament (WAD).

Fanning the Flames of Future Feminists

Women’s organizations like WILPF, WSP, and WAD served important functions for women’s rights in the years before the 1960s. As Susan M. Hartmann explains in her book From Margin to Mainstream, these groups “not only motivated and trained women for public office, they also operated as pressure groups. In the post-suffrage era, substantial numbers of women organized to shape public opinion, mobilize voters behind female defined issues, and exert direct pressure on legislatures and administrators.” The women who worked within women’s organizations in the 1940s and 1950s gained the skills necessary to become the feminist leaders of the 1960s.

Ava Helen at the WILPF national meeting, Washington D.C., June 1960.

Indeed, while working for WILPF, Ava Helen fully immersed herself in the feminist movement. She believed that world peace would be achieved by the total equality of men and women. Ava Helen had read some early works of feminism published in the 1940s, like Mary Inman’s In Women’s Defense. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Ava Helen bought the book on the first printing run. She instantly connected to Friedan’s theme and publicly hailed the book as “excellent and provocative.” Like Friedan, Ava Helen believed that a woman did a disservice “to herself and to society and to her children by electing to remain in the home and devot[ing] her full energies to her home.” By working with organizations like WILPF, WSP, and WAD, Ava Helen felt that she was finally serving a larger role in her society.

Ava Helen honed her skills as a public speaker and activist while she organized WILPF events. In 1959, she had been elected the vice president of the American Chapter of WILPF. Ava Helen eagerly organized national conferences. She even helped coordinate the 1964 International Women’s Strike for Peace Rally at the Hague. In 1961, she and Linus worked together to organize a major conference between scientists, writers, and peace activists in Oslo, Norway. Ava Helen emerged from the shadow of her famous husband, as an important public figure.

Science and the Future of Humanity: Chile, 1970

Mr. Ireland, Ava Helen Pauling, Linus Pauling and Enrique Kirberg, Chile, January 1970.

[Part 3 of 5]

Perhaps because he traveled so often, Linus Pauling sometimes found himself visiting volatile places at dangerous times. One such example was a trip to Chile in 1970, taken when he and Ava Helen were invited to the Universidad Técnica del Estado for the university’s Summer School.

The Paulings were asked to attend by Professor Enrique Kirberg, the Rector of the university, who had visited Pauling in the States and was very enthusiastic to host him as a guest speaker for the Summer School. During this time, Chile was still under the leadership of President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who had been elected in 1964 but who, by 1967, was experiencing opposition from both conservatives and leftists. That political atmosphere was such that, as Pauling noted in his diary, he and Ava Helen were escorted everywhere by three detectives with guns at their hips, who even followed them on a tourist trip into the mountains.

The Paulings arrived in Pudahuel, Chile, on January 8 and the inauguration of the Summer School took place on January 9.  Pauling spoke at the inauguration, delivering his lecture “Science and the Future of Humanity” entirely in Spanish, taking forty minutes. In this speech, which he gave often, he stated that scientists ought to be involved with politics, disarmament policy, and international relations, and that they should be concerned with morality and justice, since science is so closely intertwined with morality and ethics. Pauling opined that scientists were not using their knowledge efficiently enough to benefit humanity, and argued that people should follow the Golden Rule, but should also go beyond it, to minimize the suffering of humans and animals, as well as to conserve natural resources.

Pauling likewise stated that war must be abolished and replaced by worldwide laws based on an accepted principal ethic. According to Pauling, “The misuse of a great part of the world’s wealth, and the poor distribution of the rest, is one of the greatest causes of human suffering.” He spoke out against the Vietnam War, noting that although militarism is a major cause of suffering in the world, a large number of powerful countries continued to spend too much money on military build-up.

Another grievance that Pauling presented in his talk was the size of the world’s population: in 1970 it was only about 4 billion, but Pauling believed, at the time, that the world had already surpassed its optimum population. Global malnutrition was his evidence for this supposition. His solution to the problem of overpopulation was to diminish it little by little, until it would reach the ideal number of one billion in the year 2200. At this population level, Pauling reasoned, all humans could lead a pleasant life.

Pauling concluded his speech with the opinion that scientists needed to become altogether more involved in society by doing a number of things: adopting political standings, educating the public by explaining problems and solutions, educating the leaders of the government, and gaining an understanding of worldwide problems. Pauling also believed that, as informed political groups, scientists should press the government and voters to make better choices.  Young peoples’ protests gave him hope for the future, since he was sure they would not give up hope even when they grew old. He had faith that the young people of the 1970s would make changes in the world to make it more just and moral.

After the inauguration of the Summer School at the State Technical University, the Paulings took a short trip to the beautiful city of Pucón, in the shadow of the Villarrica volcano. After spending a few days there, they returned to Santiago and the university, where Pauling met with groups of students, and later with the Committee for Peace.  On January 19, he received the National Congressional Medal of the Senate. That same day, he visited the Central Chemistry Laboratory, met with more students, and later met with professors and Chilean scientists. While in Chile, Pauling also had the opportunity to meet Salvador Allende, who would be elected President of Chile in September of 1970. The Summer School conferences at the Technical University of the State would take place on the 20th, 21st and 22nd of January and the Paulings flew home to the U.S. on Friday the 23rd.

After Chile’s military coup in 1973, Allende’s government was overthrown and General Augusto Pinochet assumed power. Amidst this upheaval, the Rector of the Technical University of the State, Enrique Kirberg, whom Pauling had met and befriended, was arrested by the government.  Kirberg was then taken to Dawson Island, a component of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the Strait of Magellan, that is subjected to Antarctic weather and was used to house political prisoners suspected of being communist activists. He remained on the island for more than a year, living in camp conditions, before being returned to Santiago where he was found guilty of tax fraud and given a long prison sentence.

When Pauling caught wind of his friend’s plight in 1974, he wrote a letter to General Augusto Pinochet, President of the Military Junta in Chile, inquiring about Kirberg’s whereabouts and asking that he be permitted to leave the country if he wished. Kirberg was eventually freed and, in 1975, Pauling received a letter of gratitude from his friend, thanking him for being a part of the peace movement which contributed to his release from prison.

Although Pauling would not return to Chile, he did serve as a sponsor for the National Coordinating Center in Solidarity with Chile, which contributed to the struggle for democracy during the military dictatorship. He also supported the Office for Political Prisoners and Human Rights in Chile during the late 1970s, and co-sponsored the Madrid World Conference in Solidarity with Chile in 1978.

Pauling’s Early Development as a Peace Activist

Linus Pauling, 1940s.

Before America’s involvement in World War II, Linus Pauling was openly in favor of intervention to stop the spread of fascism, a menace that he considered dangerous to the stability of world peace. He was horrified by stories emerging from Europe, some pertaining to the treatment of well-respected scientists. He later received pleas from colleagues who were unable to attain visas and thus escape to the United States, and was disturbed and saddened by his inability to aid acquaintances that desperately sought his help.

Throughout the ensuing military engagement, the U.S. government financed research at levels unheard of in previous times. Linus Pauling and many others at Caltech gladly aided the war effort in their own way, and benefited greatly from generous war time funding in the process. Several divisions of the Institute changed dramatically as a result, responding to the growing needs of the armed forces.

Pauling oversaw the development of several devices and innovations, mostly medical in nature, that were meant to be used for the war effort. Near the beginning of the war, he co-manufactured an apparatus that could measure oxygen levels in submarines using a magnetic field. Towards the war’s end, he was developing an artificial substitute for blood plasma, which received substantial attention from the press. He also spent a considerable amount of time examining and testing combustible powders at Caltech’s rapidly expanding powder-research facilities. As the war was drawing to an end however, Pauling began shifting his research focus from federally funded war projects to Rockefeller-oriented protein work.

Though Pauling was mildly active in political affairs before the onset of the war, he tended to keep such views private. He was often too caught up in his work to spare much attention for such things, but he also valued principles of neutrality and objectivity, qualities that stemmed from his scientific research and academic training. Pauling began to change his mind however, when faced with a growing mix of racism, extreme nationalism and atomic peril. Among other stimuli, including countless discussions with Ava Helen, two particular events affected Pauling’s willful political silence during the course of the war.

The first incident involved a talented Japanese-American student. Caltech resided in a zone that required all Japanese and Japanese Americans within to move to internment camps. Realizing the seriousness of his plight, the student turned to Pauling for help. After a difficult search, Pauling finally found him a job on the east coast, but the injustice of the affair caused Pauling some discomfort.

A second event involved George H. Nimaki, a returned Japanese-American evacuee, who was temporarily employed by the Paulings as a gardener at their home. One morning in March of 1945, the Paulings woke up to graffiti on their garage door. Some one had painted, in bright red, “Americans die but we love Japs – Japs work here Pauling” alongside an image of the rising sun flag. Pauling was appalled, and equally appalled by subsequent threats made against him and his family after he spoke out in condemnation of the incident.

These two events began to shift Pauling towards a more active and open involvement in public affairs.  Another would soon cement this attitude.


On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. Among other less apparent ramifications, the use of the bombs signaled the end of the war. The day after the first bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a day he never forgot, Pauling read of the story in a local newspaper. He was immediately interested in the physics of the bomb, but did not share in the euphoria that was sweeping the nation.

During the war Pauling had been offered a spot at the chemistry division of the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was developed, but he had had little personal interest in the opportunity. Following the bombings in Japan, groups of concerned scientists that had accepted the Los Alamos offer began discussing the effects of their work. The devastation which resulted from the use of atomic weapons began to weigh heavily on many of them. Consequently, they began distributing  information about the role that atomic weapons might play in a rapidly changing world.

Linus Pauling speaking in Tampa, Florida. 1950s.

Pauling received much of this material, and began to attend informal and formal meetings where issues, such as civilian control of atomic weapons and technology, were the main topic of discussion. As Pauling increased his involvement with the growing movement, his political views began to surface more readily. After hearing what many other scientists had to say, and reflecting on his own beliefs, Pauling became openly supportive of sharing atomic secrets with Russia, and of increased cooperation generally. While on a trip in September, Pauling wrote to Ava Helen about his growing concerns, noting that

[Samuel] Allison has made a strong public statement against keeping the A-bomb secret from Russia. . . I think that Union now with Russia is the only hope for the world.

Pauling learned more and more about the science of the bomb, and began giving talks around southern California, his first at the Rotary Club in Hollywood. As time went on, he began to incorporate international relations and politics into his talks, but most people found his non-science discourse dry and unconvincing. After one of these early speeches, Ava Helen told Pauling that he should stop discussing war and peace. He later wrote that her comments changed his life. Pauling struggled with the advice, plagued by inner turmoil.

I thought ‘What shall I do? I am convinced that scientists should speak to their fellow human beings not only about science, but also about atomic bombs, the nature of war, the need to change international relations, the need to achieve peace in the world. But my wife says that I should not give talks of this sort because I am not able to speak authoritatively. Either I should stop, or I should learn to speak authoritatively.’

From this point on, Pauling devoted half of his time to peace and the abolition of war. He began to read about international relations and law, treaties, history and other information related to the peace movement. Pauling tackled social science much the same way that he approached chemistry, focusing on function, frameworks and the interests that motivated different groups of people within certain circles of debate. His new speeches were often concerned with world union and peace with other nations. He shared Ava Helen’s opinion that a single world government would make war unnecessary, and thus safeguard against the use of nuclear weapons. He believed in the ability of basic human connections to overcome political disagreements, as can be seen in this excerpt from a speech that he gave to the Russian-American club in November 1945:

We must all strive for that great goal of world union – of perpetual unity between nations . . . all that remains now is for the final steps to be taken. The steps that lead to union of the great powers. And the world will be safe forever, and we shall see the beginning of a new era of continuing peace and happiness.

In the years following the end of the war, Pauling maintained a great faith in the possibility of world peace. As a result, he became involved with a number of organizations and issues that would later be subjects of  substantial controversy.

Early in his new-found political advocacy, Pauling enjoyed a minor victory in the form of the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill. According to its opponents, the bill would likely have given the military near-complete control over atomic weapons and technology, though ostensibly with the cooperation of scientists and civilian board members. The victory was short lived however. A fast-growing political movement that was both pro-nuclear and exceedingly anti-communist began to overwhelm members of organizations that valued peace and international cooperation. The following years would test Pauling’s commitment to the peace movement, as well as his personal and social convictions.