Cousin Merv

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

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

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

Part 1 of 2

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

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

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

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


Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

Mervyn and Linus at Kiger Island, 1918.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

Mervyn Stephenson, training at the Presidio, summer 1918.

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

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

Two Years on the Pauling Beat

Today marks the second anniversary of the launching of the Pauling Blog.  In two years we have generated 214 posts, garnered over 63,000 views (not counting those accruing from syndication, which WordPress doesn’t include in its total statistics) and been graced with nearly 7,400 spam comments, most of which, thankfully, have been kept at bay by the good folks at Akismet.

We’re a bit less philosophical today than was the case one year ago, but we do want to take this moment to reflect back a bit.  Our readership has grown substantially over the past year and, as we enter our terrible twos, we figure this is a good opportunity to take another quick look at some writing that many of our readers may have never seen.  Here then, are ten worthwhile posts from the early days of the blog.

  1. Visiting Albert Schweitzer:  a review of the Paulings’ trip to Schweitzer’s medical compound in central Africa – in Linus Pauling’s estimation, “one of the most inaccessible areas of the world.”
  2. Pauling and the Presidents: the first in a series of three posts on Pauling’s relationship with this nation’s Commanders in Chief and with the office of the Presidency itself.  The other two posts focus on Pauling’s complicated interactions with John F. Kennedy, and with his own brief flirtation with the idea of running for the office himself.
  3. Pauling’s Rules: among Pauling’s major early contributions to science was his formation of a set of rules used to guide one’s analysis of x-ray diffraction data in the determination of crystal structures.
  4. The Guggenheim Trip: a three-part series detailing Linus and Ava Helen’s adventures as they toured through Europe for a year, meeting major scientific figures and absorbing the fledgling discipline of quantum mechanics.
  5. The Darlings: Maternal Ancestors of Linus Pauling:  an entertaining look at the colorful characters residing further down Pauling’s family tree.  We also featured Pauling’s paternal ancestry as well as Ava Helen’s lineage in separate posts.
  6. A Halloween Tale of Ice Cream and Ethanol:  Pauling’s typically detailed and ultra-rational recollection of a hallucination experienced late one November night.
  7. Clarifying Three Widespread Quotes:  three quotes attributed to Linus Pauling are scattered across the Internet.  This post investigates whether or not Pauling actually authored them.
  8. Pauling in the ROTC:  often accused of anti-Americanism due to his pacifist beliefs, few people know that Pauling actually served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, ultimately rising to the rank of Major.  This post was among the first in our lengthy Oregon 150 series, celebrating Pauling’s relationship with his home state.
  9. Mastering Genetics: Pauling and Eugenics:  a post that delves into what was among the more controversial stances that Pauling ever took.
  10. Linus Pauling Baseball:  we can’t help it – the video is priceless.

As always, thanks for reading!

Pauling in the ROTC

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ROTC Cadet Linus C. Pauling, 1918.

As most of our readers are no doubt aware, this past Tuesday was Veterans’ Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in many other parts of the world.  In honor of this global occasion, we thought it appropriate to discuss a component of Linus Pauling’s story that may come as a surprise to many — his involvement in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

At the time of Pauling’s arrival in Corvallis for the beginning of his studies at Oregon Agricultural College, two years of ROTC service were required of all male students physically-able to participate.

[Indeed, compulsory ROTC remained a feature of university life at Oregon State until 1962.  OSU’s proud tradition of military training is documented nicely by our colleagues in the University Archives in the Historical Note to this finding aid.]

Pauling, decades away from the peace activism that, for many, continues to define his legacy, participated with typical vigor.  His marks for military drill were consistently stellar, and near the end of his freshman year Pauling received first runner-up in the Best Soldier competition at OAC’s Military Inspection Day.

Pauling's OAC report card, October 1918.  The usual good grades in military drill, the sciences and math; a highly-unusual A+ in P.E.; and more-typical struggles in Mechanical Drawing.

Pauling's OAC report card, October 1918. The usual good grades in military drill, the sciences and math; a highly-unusual A+ in P.E.; and more-typical struggles in Mechanical Drawing.

Pauling’s commitment to service did, at least on one occasion, come at a cost:  in his Pauling Chronology, biographer Robert Paradowski notes an unhappy incident befalling the young undergraduate at the beginning of his second term.

After going home for his Christmas vacation, Pauling returns on January 7 to the OAC campus for the Winter Short Course. His financial problems become severe during this time. He is also asked to leave the boardinghouse because he makes too much noise tramping up the stairs in his heavy military boots. During the winter and spring, he goes through several changes of address, sometimes rooming with friends, other times taking whatever he can find.

Nonetheless, Pauling’s heart seemed fully in tune with the ROTC mission.  Biographer Thomas Hager, in the early pages of his Force of Nature, writes

Following his freshman year, in the early summer of 1918, Pauling and Mervyn Stephenson, along with a number of other OAC cadets, were sent to the Presidio in San Francisco for six weeks of intensive officers’ training.  Pauling and Stephenson spent the rest of the summer helping build wooden-hulled freighters in a shipyard on the coast of Oregon.  Whatever Pauling’s opinions about war later, during World War I he was in full support of the government’s actions.  Stephenson would later remember that Pauling was a strong supporter of the war effort, “100 percent for it.”

Military training at the Presidio, San Francisco, California, Summer 1918.

Military training at the Presidio, San Francisco, California, Summer 1918.

Having completed the required two years, Pauling chose to remain active in ROTC for the duration of his time as an undergraduate, adding classes in camp cookery to his compulsory drilling.  By the time of his movement on to graduate work at the California Institute of Technology, Pauling had risen to the rank of Major within the Training Corps.

In later years, Pauling would answer the call to service again by engaging in an ambitious program of scientific war research on behalf of the Allied effort during World War II — the human blood plasma substitute oxypolygelatin, new types of rocket propellants, invisible inks and an oxygen meter for use in aircraft and submarines all arose out of this fruitful period.

For his efforts, Pauling received a number of awards from the U.S. government including a Naval Ordnance Development Award, a certificate of recognition from the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a certificate of appreciation from the Rocket Development Program and, most importantly, the Presidential Medal for Merit.

Though the later Pauling was, without question, a vocal and, at times, incendiary critic of U.S. military policy, one would be hard-pressed to make the argument that he was anti-soldier.  To Pauling, war was the greatest of all immoralities, but his criticism was always pointed at the world’s larger actors — the governments and war profiteers — rather than the men and women working in service to their countries.

On the contrary, service to a larger cause was clearly important to Pauling, to the point where he and his wife, Ava Helen, once pledged themselves as willing “Hostages for Peace,” offering to travel to North Vietnam to serve as human shields for Vietnamese citizens and U.S. prisoners of war endangered by the U.S. aerial raids being conducted in the early 1970s.

Clearly, amidst all the accusations and noise surrounding his alleged “anti-Americanism” or “communist ties,” Linus Pauling’s remarkable willingness to sacrifice, much like his earlier ROTC service, was an important but frequently-overlooked component of a terrifically-complex story.

Oregon 150