Remembering Linus Pauling: The Biographers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Die Chronologie von Linus Pauling

Pauling speaking in Mainz, Germany, July 1983.

Pauling speaking in Mainz, Germany, July 1983.

Since we’re in an announcing mood, it gives us great pleasure to pass along word of another new Pauling resource recently made available online by the Special Collections & Archives Research Center: a German-language edition of Robert Paradowski’s Pauling Chronology.

Robert Paradowski’s chronology of the life and work of Linus Pauling, which we’ve written about in the past, is surely one of the most useful accounts of Pauling’s story available anywhere and almost certainly the best general overview that one can find online.  Paradowski is Pauling’s official biographer.  He knew Pauling well and compiled a significant corpus of one-on-one interviews that surely contain a great deal of unique information.  Those of us who spend time in the Pauling orbit have long anticipated the release of the Paradowski biography, rumored to be a three-volume work, but it has yet to see the light of day.

So until the publication of his epic, Pauling watchers with an interest in Paradowski’s work have to content themselves with the Chronology, which was first published in print in 1991 and later released online by Oregon State University in 2009.  Since then, we have done what we can to increase the accessibility of the text to larger audiences, beginning with a Spanish translation released in 2010.  The new German edition is likewise meant to act in this spirit of increased access to a valuable resource.  Future translations are anticipated as skill sets within the department avail themselves.

Pauling was comfortable with language.  His written English was impeccable – peppered throughout the Pauling Papers, one finds numerous examples of his correcting the grammar or style of other authors – and he was comfortable delivering lectures in essentially all of the romance languages. German, however, was Pauling’s strongest second language.

Carl Pauling, 1915.

Carl Pauling, 1915.

Pauling came from German stock on his father’s side. His grandfather Charles Henry Pauling, whom everyone called Carl, was born in the U.S. to recent German immigrants, and he eventually married a German woman named Adelheit Blanken.  In 1882 Carl and Adelheit moved to Oswego, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, and stayed there for the remainder of their lives.  Linus, who was born in 1901, spent a significant amount of time in his grandparents’ home, especially after his family had settled for good in Portland in 1909.  As Thomas Hager notes in his Pauling biography, Force of Nature, daily life in the grandparents’ home was imbued with the culture of the old country.

…the woodstove was always warm and the smell of rich German cakes filled the air. A sod cellar was packed with home-canned fruits and crocks of sauerkraut and pickles….Carl and Adelheit were devout Lutherans. Because there was no church in Oswego, every month they would invite a minister from across the river to hold services in their house. Linus sometimes sat among the small group of worshipers in the front parlor, listening to the service and hymns sung in German.

This early exposure to German spoken in the home gave Linus a leg up in his later studies of the language, which included two years of undergraduate class work at Oregon Agricultural College and, later, his passing of a compulsory exam during his doctoral studies at Caltech.

This study was of extreme use in that facility with German was crucial for a scientist in the early twentieth century.  Much of the more important work in the physical sciences was being published in German-language journals and many of the leading minds were based at German universities.

An academic procession at the University of Munich, 1927. Note the arrow pointing to Arnold Sommerfeld.  Photo likely taken by Linus Pauling.

An academic procession at the University of Munich, 1927. Note the arrow pointing to Arnold Sommerfeld. Photo likely taken by Linus Pauling.

Pauling gained first hand knowledge of these facts during his crucially important Guggenheim trip in 1926-1927.  Based mostly in Germany, Pauling made contacts with a number of German scientists including Arnold Sommerfeld, an early mentor of great consequence.  Sommerfeld’s lectures made a deep impression on Pauling and it was not long before Pauling was taking notes, writing papers and giving talks in German.  This capacity only sharpened over the course of his European stay and served Pauling exceedingly well for the remainder of his life.

The German translation of Paradowski’s Pauling Chronology is available at

La Cronología de Pauling

Mrs. Manuel Ballester and Professor Mortonez-Moreno, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. Seville, Spain, 1975.

We’re very pleased to announce that the Pauling Chronology, written by biographer Robert Paradowski and published online in 2009, is now available in Spanish.

We believe that the Paradowski Chronology is the best “one-stop” resource available online for those interested in learning more about Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s life. Elegantly written and rigorously detailed over the course of twenty-eight chapters, the Chronology is, in effect, an index to the Paulings’ life story.

As one might expect, the Chronology provides a thorough overview of the Paulings’ career achievements, from Linus’s early breakthroughs in chemistry, through the couple’s many years of peace work and Dr. Pauling’s later focus on orthomolecular medicine. Along the way Paradowski also notes important personal milestones in Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s life – be it their various entanglements in social and academic politics, their battles with various health problems or important moments in the lives of their four children.

The Chronology translation project, which took our staff more than one year to complete, will hopefully prove to be an important tool in expanding the story of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s work to a much broader online audience. Future translations of the Chronology into additional languages are currently in the planning stages.

Nos alegra mucho anunciar que la Cronología de Pauling, escrita por biógrafo Robert Paradowski y publicada en el Internet en 2009, ya está disponible en español.

Creemos que la Cronología Paradowski es el mejor recurso que es disponible en un lugar en el Internet para la gente interesada en aprender más sobre las vidas de Linus Pauling y Ava Helen Pauling. Escrita elegantemente y detallada rigurosamente durante veintiocho capítulos, la Cronología es, en efecto, un índice de la historia de la vida de la familia Pauling.

Como uno puede anticipar, la Cronología proporciona una visión general amplia de los logros de la carrera de los Pauling, desde los grandes avances en química de Linus, hasta los muchos años del trabajo en la paz de la pareja y el enfoque posterior del Dr. Pauling en la medicina ortomolecular. En la Cronología Paradowski también anota hitos personales importantes en las vidas de Linus Pauling y Ava Helen – ya sea sus varios enredos en la política social y académica, sus batallas con varios problemas de salud o momentos importantes en las vidas de sus cuatro hijos.

El proyecto de la traducción de la Cronología, el cual le llevó a nuestro personal más de un año de terminar, con optimismo resultará a ser un herramienta importante en extender la historia del trabajo de Linus y Ava Helen Pauling a una audiencia del Internet mucha más amplia. Traducciones futuras de la Cronología a idiomas adicionales están en las fases de planificación.

The Pauling Centenary Conference

The date February 28, 2001 is meaningful to many residents of the Pacific Northwest.  At 10:54 AM that morning, the Nisqually earthquake, a magnitude 6.8 temblor located northwest of Olympia, Washington, shook the earth beneath the greater Seattle-Tacoma area and ultimately caused over $1 billion in damage.

Some 200 miles south in Corvallis, faint signs of the earthquake were noticed.  In the lobby of the LaSells Stewart Center, for instance, observers noted coats on a coat rack mysteriously swaying.  At the time, few thought much of what they were seeing however, given that an important local event (if something short of seismic) occupied the attentions of most.  February 28, 2001 was the one-hundredth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth and the LaSells Stewart Center was the site of a day-long conference honoring Pauling’s memory.

“In 1986, just before [Lloyd] Jeffress died, Pauling wrote him a letter in which he caught him up on the events of the past year. The last paragraph of the letter related a recent article that Pauling had published in Nature magazine, which had stirred up controversy in the scientific community. A reporter had asked Pauling, ‘Do you have a liking for controversy?’ ‘No,’ replied Pauling. ‘I have a liking for the truth.’ This phrase, ‘a liking for the truth,’ and its surrogate implications of Pauling’s passion for discovery, even in the face of controversy, is a theme of this conference, and we hope that you will be enlightened and entertained by what is to follow.”

-Cliff Mead, centenary conference introductory remarks

“A Liking for the Truth: Truth and Controversy in the Work of Linus Pauling” assembled a multifaceted group of speakers who directly and indirectly reflected upon Pauling’s legacy as a scientist, activist and human being.  The day’s keynote speaker was Dr. Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Chair Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and the recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Zewail’s topic was the evolution of femtoscience, the study of atomic behaviors that occur in very short periods of time, a breathtaking field of research that allows scientists to, in Zewail’s words, “see bonds and atoms.”

Whereas Zewail spoke of time, another of the day’s presentations, by crystallographer and long-time Pauling family friend Dr. Jack Dunitz, focused on space.  Dunitz, Pauling and many others enmeshed in the practice of crystallography shared a deep interest in developing theories governing the rules that underlie “closest-packing” in molecules, work that Pauling and Max Delbrück extended into the realm of biology through their theory of molecular complementarity.


Jack Dunitz at a Caltech graduate student outing, ca. 1948.

Two Pauling biographers were likewise involved in the centenary activities.  Tom Hager spoke eloquently of the real world consequences that enveloped the Paulings as their peace work assumed international prominence.  Dr. Robert Paradowski reflected upon a turbulent period of the Paulings lives as a young couple, as the pair toured through Europe during Linus’s Guggenheim studies in 1926-1927.

Perhaps the day’s most broadly interesting talk, however, was delivered by Linus Pauling, Jr., the eldest of the four Pauling children.  Recalling memories as varied as Christmas traditions, the family cars and an eventful restaurant meal, Linus Jr. shed insight into a world hidden from even the closest of colleagues and most meticulous of biographers.  In the video excerpt below, Linus Jr. recounts the details of a cherished family tradition – regular vacations to the Painted Canyon desert.

Transcribed video of the Pauling Centenary Conference is available here.

Pauling and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s: The Thawing of Frosty Relations

As the dynamics of Soviet dogma evolved, the enmity surrounding the so-called “resonance controversy” simmered down, and by the late 1960s Pauling had gone from being a disparaged name in Soviet chemistry to a respected scientist and much-admired advocate of nuclear test bans and international peace.

Pauling’s first visit to the Soviet Union in 1957 did a great deal to rehabilitate his scientific reputation among Soviet scientists.  In his Pauling Chronology, Dr. Robert Paradowski notes that “Russia remind[ed] Pauling of Eastern Oregon, and the Russian people seem[ed] to him like Western Americans. ”

This visit was swiftly followed by his election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1958 – along with Detlev Bronk, the head of the National Academy of Sciences, Pauling was the first American to receive full recognition from the Soviet Academy.  Predictably, the honor was likewise enough to raise the eyebrow of the U.S. media, including the New York Times, which suggested that “it is impossible in today’s world position simply and naively to ignore the political implications” of the decoration.

Linus and Ava Helen traveled to the Soviet Union a second time in 1961 to attend the second centenary celebrations of the Academy of sciences, where they took the opportunity to deliver a handful of lectures, and to see more of the country, including a visit to Siberia and the shores of Lake Baikal.

The early 1960s also saw the reacceptance of Pauling’s formerly disgraced popularizer, Ia. K. Syrkin, back into the Soviet Academy of Sciences. By 1970 Pauling was recognized by the Soviet government for his peace activism with the Lenin Peace Prize, a honor bestowed upon foreign individuals conducting notable work in furthering international peace. Eight years later the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided to formally recognize Pauling’s scientific achievements by awarding him the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award the Academy gave.

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

As might have been expected, Pauling did not hesitate to use his increasing fame in the Soviet Union to continue his advocacy for nuclear testing bans and better cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States. His correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev, as contained in the Pauling archive, provides a revealing look into the increasingly intimate relationship between advocacy and diplomacy that helped define Pauling’s later peace work.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Learn more at the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement,” available via the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Paradowski’s Pauling Chronology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snapshots of Pauling’s Childhood in Condon

[Ed Note: The Pauling Blog wears a black armband today for the Oregon Historical Society Library and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, both of which have been forced to close due to budget considerations.  The state of Oregon is little more than two weeks removed from its sesquicentennial celebration and it is our sincere hope that these two cultural institutions, both of which are fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be an Oregonian, are soon able to re-open to the public and continue celebrating the state’s 150th birthday.]

Linus Pauling, posing in his buffalo-skin chaps, 1906.

Linus Pauling, posing in his buffalo-skin chaps, 1906.

Linus Pauling is well known for his brilliance, wit, drive, and determination. Even at a young age, he showed a remarkable interest in academics and a surprising level of self-motivation. His native intelligence can perhaps be attributed to biology, but his penchant for learning and his commitment to work are products of his experience. Pauling’s biographers have devoted years to unlocking the secrets of  just what made him so unique, picking apart his life experiences and teasing out distant memories. Even so, much about Pauling – especially the young Pauling – remains a mystery.

In the spirit of psychological discovery, The Pauling Blog would like to take a moment to explore Pauling’s childhood in Condon as described by those who have made a career of recording his life. In his introduction to Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, Tom Hager sets the stage for an in-depth look at Pauling’s childhood.

What forces created Linus Pauling? Even after all this time and study, I cannot say. But I can provide some clues. The first come from his early years. I think it significant that Pauling was born and raised in the Western U.S., in a place and at a time when the pioneer virtues of bravery, perseverance, and hard work were extolled; where people were valued for the work they did, not the name they carried; and where egalitarianism and openness were valued.

– Hager, Thomas. “The Roots of Genius,” in Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001, 3-4.

Pauling has often been called odd, eccentric, and sometimes even crazy. His dedication to the fight for peace was seen as courageous by some, and ludicrous by others. Whatever the case, Pauling’s Condon relatives did have a peculiar family history.

His father’s family was of sober and hard-working German immigrant stock; his mother’s was somewhat more eccentric. On his mother’s side, the Darling family, he had a grandfather who practiced law without a degree; a great uncle who communed with an Indian spirit; an aunt who toured the state as a safecracker (legally; she practiced her skills for a safe company); and a mother whose chronic anemia kept her bedridden for long stretches.

– Hager, 4.

In an unpublished manuscript, Robert Paradowski, a biographer who worked closely with Pauling over multiple decades, describes the individuals that Pauling encountered during his time in Condon. Some of them, Pauling remembered in his later years, even helped shape his thinking.

“He spent his early years in Condon, an arid Western town in the interior of Oregon, where his father owned a drugstore and where young Linus encountered both cowboys, one of whom showed him the proper way to sharpen a pencil with a knife, and Indians, one of whom showed him how to dig for edible roots. These two thing impressed him deeply: that there was correct technique for doing things and that there were people who had useful knowledge of nature.”

– Paradowski, Robert J.: Typescripts. LP Correspondence Box #306.1

Many of Pauling’s memories of his childhood focused on Herman Pauling, his father and Condon’s local pharmacist. When interviewed about his relationship with his father, Pauling recalled a kind and caring man who protected his family, even at cost to himself.

“When he was about seven years old, Linus remembered, he and his cousin were caught while exploring a half-finished building by a burly workman. Linus tried to wriggle out a window but the workman caught him by his pants, dragged him back inside, and beat him with a piece of lath. Linus ran home sobbing. He tearfully told his story to Herman, who listened carefully, then led his son by the hand through Condon’s streets in search of the workman. They found the fellow eating lunch in the crowded dining room of the town’s largest hotel. Herman asked him if he had beaten his son. When the man answered yes, Linus recalled, Herman knocked the fellow to the floor – and was subsequently arrested and tried for assault.”

– Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 30

It should be noted that Pauling’s memory was at least partially incorrect and that, in reality, Herman was not arrested for assault. Instead, he was tried for bootlegging, an accusation that proved to be false.

Finally, we must remember that Pauling, though he grew up to be a highly-respected scientist, was once mischievous. In an interview with Victor and Mildred Goertzel, he recalled one of his youthful (and occasionally disastrous) misadventures.

“When he was about five, he had a bitter experience. He had a new little wagon with a wooden body, which he and his playmates put in a five gallon tin can to make it into a steam roller. They built a fire in it, and the new wagon was badly charred. He hid the wagon and succeeded – or thinks he did – in keeping his father from knowing what happened.”

– Goertzel, Victor and Mildred Goertzel. “Notes on Interview with Pauling (First Interview),” 1965.  LP Biographical Box 5.011.1

Though these anecdotes cannot decode Pauling, they offer us a rare glimpse at events that shaped him and his role in the world. In considering his childhood we are reminded that, despite his later achievements, he was once a little boy much like any other.

Learn more at Linus Pauling Online.

Oregon 150