Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 1, Early Years


[Ed Note: Today we mark the 118th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth by hitting the pause button on our Pauling as Administrator series and celebrating the life of Dr. Ken Hedberg, a friend to Pauling and many others. An accomplished structural chemist, a student of Pauling’s, and an Oregon Stater through and through, Ken passed away on January 5, 2019, a month shy of his 99th birthday. This is part 1 of 5.]

Kenneth Wayne Hedberg was born in Portland, Oregon on February 2, 1920. He had one sister who was two and half years younger than himself. His family moved to the Coos Bay region when he was six years old, then to Hoquiam, Washington when he was 12 years old, and finally to Medford, Oregon when he was 16 years old; he finished high school there.

Ken’s mother was a housewife who worked at a naval station in Astoria, Oregon during World War II. His father was a wholesale grocery salesman for a company called Mason-Erhman. His work required him to travel to the company’s storefronts around the state to take grocery orders, which he then transmitted to warehouses for delivery the next morning. Ken sometimes accompanied his father on his routes, but he found the work boring. The Hedberg family was close and often played cards together in the evenings and on the weekends, and also went to movies and listened to radio shows together. Ken also enjoyed physical activity, playing on the tennis team in high school and lettering on the varsity squad while an undergraduate at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). As a child, he also played touch football with the other kids from his neighborhood and collected stamps as a hobby.

Academically, Hedberg was very successful from the outset and skipped a couple of grades during his grammar school years. And though he always did well in his science courses, it took a little while for him to realize that he wanted to pursue science as a career. In an oral history interview conducted in 2011, he recalled that

My real interest in science developed…but it wasn’t clear to me that I was going to be a scientist as a professional. And through high school and so on, science was easy for me, both physics and chemistry…there were a number of people who always came to me with questions about science. We didn’t have homework in the same way then but it seemed to come so easily to me that I didn’t have much trouble answering the questions.

Ken graduated from high school in 1937 – the height of the Great Depression – and found work picking pears in the nearby orchards. His real ambition though was to attend college. Neither of his parents had gone – his father stopped attending school after eighth grade and his mother finished high school but did not continue on to university. Both of Ken’s parents wanted their children to have that opportunity, but money was tight.

Despite the financial roadblocks, Hedberg did not give up on the idea of a college education. As he thought more about it, he decided that he would pursue science, but was unsure about whether to choose physics or chemistry. To solve that difficulty, he wandered into the public library one day and checked out some books on physics and chemistry that went beyond what he had been taught in school so that he could get a clearer picture of the types of research questions and methods that characterized each discipline. Based on his reading, he decided that the research opportunities available in chemistry appealed to him more than physics.

In 1939 Hedberg’s father lost his job and the family found itself in dire financial straits. His father moved to Portland to try to find work and sent what little money he earned back to the family in Medford. Hedberg later recalled that

…we were enough destitute that the power company turned off all the electricity so that we cooked with a stove with some wood and we had a camping lantern that we used in the evening. We managed to avoid getting thrown out of the house, which was a rental in Medford, but just barely.

Somehow, in the midst of this extreme hardship, Hedberg’s mother scraped together enough money to enable Ken’s registration at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University). He lived at home and caught a ride each morning with a friend to the neighboring city of Ashland, which was home to the college. He took mostly science and music classes during this time period.

The family chose not to tell Ken’s father that he had started school, out of fear that the news might anger him. But as Hedberg later recalled, these fears proved unwarranted.

My father told me that somebody in Portland had said ‘you know there was a guy, Kenneth Hedberg, I noticed he got all A’s at Southern Oregon Normal, is that your son?’ My father knew nothing about this and I guess my mom didn’t want to tell him that we had found money to send me to college… So he said ‘no that can’t be my son’ and when it turned out that it was, he was not angry; he was delighted actually.

Buoyed by his dad’s approval, Hedberg stayed on at Southern for another term and continued to excel in his courses.


Ken Hedberg (back row, second from left) posing with his OSC varsity tennis teammates, 1941.

In the spring of 1939, Ken’s father found a job in Astoria and Hedberg transferred to Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon, where his younger sister was also starting school. Their mother moved to Corvallis with them in order to provide support. Notably, she bought a house where the three of them lived, and she rented out its extra rooms to help pay the bills. Hedberg was also awarded a full-ride scholarship by OSC and was able to land a student job in the Chemistry department supply room.

By 1940, Hedberg had pledged a fraternity – Theta Chi – and his sister moved into a co-op affiliated with the university. Confident in the security of her childrens’ positions, Ken’s mother closed down the boarding house and joined her husband in Astoria. Reflecting back on his first year in Corvallis, Ken paid homage to his mother’s contributions, noting that

At the time I didn’t realize what a sacrifice that was, but as time has gone on, I can see what a monumental contribution that was because I wouldn’t have been able to go to Oregon State at all [without it].

The switch to OSC was also a source of some initial culture shock, in part because Southern Oregon Normal did not offer a degree in chemistry. While in Ashland, Hedberg had only been able to take one elementary chemistry course that was taught by a non-chemist — a classmate recalled that Hedberg knew more chemistry than the professor did. In contrast, Ken’s first chemistry class at OSC was analytical chemistry and he got a C on the first exam, but worked hard to ultimately pull a B overall.

Once he became accustomed to the culture and academic rigor of a college chemistry program, Ken did very well academically and particularly enjoyed the smaller class sizes and increased interaction between students and faculty offered by OSC. He eventually became a member of the Pi Mu Epsilon national honor society in mathematics, as well as the Phi Lambda Upsilon honor society in chemistry. His student job in the chemistry lab stock room was also a source of satisfaction. Students who needed equipment for lab classes could check out materials by filling out a sheet indicating what they needed. Ken would then go in the back and collect the items, reshelving them when the students were done.

Social life was central to Hedberg’s OSC experience, particularly dances and formal events hosted by the college’s fraternities and sororities. One regular happening was a “nickel hop,” wherein all of the school’s sororities would move the furniture out of their living rooms so that male OSC students could move from house to house, paying a nickel to dance with the girls from that sorority. These were heavily chaperoned and dry events. Indeed, alcohol consumption played little part in campus life at that time, as the city had mandated that no alcohol retailer could operate an outlet within two miles of campus.


OSC professor Joseph P. Mehlig.

When asked to identify professors at OSC whom he considered influential to his development as a chemist and the path that he followed, Hedberg identified J.P. Mehlig, James W. Ferguson, and Bert Christensen. Mehlig was an analytical chemist who taught the first chemistry course that Hedberg took at OSC. (the one that he got a B in) Mehlig’s precision in every aspect of his life was renowned, even spawning a legend that one could set a wristwatch by Mehlig’s arrival at the “Chem Shack” – as the chemistry building was known at the time – at precisely the same time every morning. A further tale had it that Mehlig’s life was turned upside down when, during the war years, he could not buy tires for his car on the precise front-back alternating schedule to which he had grown accustomed.

Ferguson was an organic chemist who left OSC during the war years, but whom Hedberg considered to be a superb teacher. Christensen was department chairman after Hedberg joined the faculty at OSC, and Hedberg credited him with facilitating research during a period when federal grants were scarce.

It was with Christensen that Hedberg had first research experience. While still an undergraduate, Christensen enlisted Hedberg’s help with a project on the micro-determination of hydroxyl groups, an analytical technique that utilizes a sample of microbalances to determine molecular composition. The duo published their findings together – Hedberg’s first article – and the Shell Development Company, a major research laboratory and Ken’s future employer, later used their method to good effect, a source of continuing pride for Hedberg.


Hedberg’s 1942 yearbook portrait.

World War II broke out during Hedberg’s undergraduate years at OSC and, as a science major, Ken was deferred from the draft until after his graduation. In reflecting on that period, Ken recalled that “…campus was pervaded by a sense of what was going to be happening to almost everybody, the men on campus.”

As Hedberg neared the conclusion of his studies in late 1943, he found that he had two choices: seek out a job doing war work within the chemical industry or join the Air Force and pursue meteorology or armaments (he could not fly because of poor visual acuity). While he was wrestling with this decision, Shell Development Company offered Ken a job, an opportunity that his faculty mentors encouraged him to accept. He decided to follow this advice, graduated from OSC in December 1943, and subsequently married a fellow OSC graduate, Jean Read.

Ken remained on 1-A status throughout the war, which meant that he was eligible for the draft, but Shell appealed five separate times and eventually got him reclassified as deferred status 2-B, on the grounds that he was doing scientific war work. In 1945, near the end of the war, he narrowly missed being included in an occupation draft group because had recently turned 26, and no one over 25 was eligible.

During his years at Shell Development Company, Hedberg worked on a few research projects that were central to the war effort, including the development of synthetic rubber. Rubber was integral to the production of military technologies like gas masks, tanks, military vehicles, and fighter jets. The need for synthetics was magnified by the fact that Japanese forces controlled most of the plantations where rubber trees were grown, causing a shortage of natural rubber in the Allied countries. Hedberg also worked to streamline the process by which penicillin is extracted from its growth medium so that it could be produced more efficiently for use in military hospitals.

The project that Hedberg was most interested in was the development of an aviation gasoline inhibitor. Aircraft during the Second World War ran on high-octane fuel, which, if stored for extended periods of time, tended to develop a gummy substance that could damage their engines. Since tanks of fuel needed to be stored in the desert for the North African campaign, this gum formation emerged as a major problem for the military. The solution that they had in hand was a red dye additive that would occlude and color the fuel if it began to degrade, such that problematic barrels could be more easily identified and used for purposes where the gum would not cause issues. Unfortunately, in the heat of the North African desert, the red dye revealed a tendency to occlude before the fuel had begun to deteriorate, resulting in good barrels being wasted.

Hedberg’s team worked on a project to develop a special inhibitor that would delay the fuel deterioration process. The group also researched the ways in which different weather conditions affected the condition of the fuel and the behavior of the dye, in order to predict how long the fuel could be expected to last in any given environment.

Hedberg spent three years working for Shell, but opted for graduate school once the war came to an end. Having been accepted by both Harvard and Caltech, Hedberg sought out the advice of his Shell lab supervisor, Dan Luten, to determine how the two departments stacked up. “Caltech has got Linus Pauling,” Hedberg remembers saying, “who else do they have on staff?”

In a response that stuck with Hedberg for the rest of his life, Luten told him, “Look, with Linus Pauling they don’t need anybody else.” Hedberg had already been leaning toward Caltech because it was closer to home and he preferred the warm California climate over New England. With Luten’s firm endorsement registered, he made up his mind and accepted the offer at Caltech.