The Petition

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling working on “An Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World”. 1957.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet.

St. Louis, March 15, 1957

Sun streamed in through a stained glass window of the chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on a pleasant and sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-May 1957. About 1,000 people listened to Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, deliver a fiery speech urging an end to nuclear weapons testing. The years of political activities were taking their toll on 56-year-old Pauling. His white hair was thinning and deep wrinkles lined his forehead, yet he still dressed smartly in a suit and tie.

“If you explode a bomb in the upper atmosphere, you can’t control it,” Pauling explained to the rapt crowd. “The fallout radiation, Strontium-90, and similar things, spread over the world, drop down,” he noted with sing-song, rapid delivery. “Everybody in the world now has Strontium-90 in his bones, radioactive material, AND NOBODY had it…15 years ago…10 years ago. Strontium-90 did not exist. This is a new hazard to the human race, a new hazard to the health of people, and scientists need to talk about it.”

Strontium-90 was a particularly insidious component of fallout particles because it behaved like calcium in the body, seeping into bones and teeth and emitting radiation for decades. Scientists knew that large doses of radiation damaged human DNA and caused cancer. However, little research had been done on the health impacts of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation released by fallout. That left scientists concerned about the potential for genetic mutations due to fallout radiation, but they were unable to make definitive statements about health effects should innocent people be exposed to the radioactive particles.

Pauling, however, was confident that there was enough information to support what his conscience already knew: nuclear weapons tests were not worth the risk to one person, let alone humanity.

The assembly greeted Pauling’s message with an uproarious standing ovation. Some people filed out of the chapel. Others lingered. “What can I do?” “What actions can we take?” asked several of the students and faculty members.

These questions got Pauling thinking about a conversation he’d had the day before with Barry Commoner, a fellow activist and professor of biology at the university. Like Pauling, Commoner was outspoken about the need to stop testing nuclear weapons. The men had discussed writing a petition and getting it signed by American scientists. They hoped a public pronouncement would bring attention to the issue by revealing that many scientists agreed about the dangers of fallout. If thought leaders were forced to discuss the matter, then action, preferably ending weapons tests, might be possible.

Sitting around the dinner table at Barry Commoner’s home on the evening after Pauling’s speech, the conversation again turned to what scientists could do. Pauling suggested writing an appeal, sending it to American scientists asking them to sign it.

After eating, some scribbled phrases and others wrote paragraphs for the petition. Pauling turned their ideas into a short statement of 248 words that called for an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs between the three main powers, the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain.

The message proved timely. The next day most major American newspapers announced on their front page: Britain Explodes Its First Hydrogen Bomb in Pacific. These “dirty” bombs were 1,000 times more powerful than the first atomic bombs. They also released a greater amount of radioactive fallout. As of that day—May 15, 1957—all three nations addressed in the petition had tested hydrogen bombs.

Back in St. Louis, the scientists agreed on the final text of their appeal. They mimeographed it, attached a cover letter, and mailed copies of the petition to colleagues with similar politics and passions. Within one week, Pauling received several signed petitions at his house in Pasadena, California.

He prepared more copies of the petition, this time including the names of the first 25 signers. With the help of his wife, students and others at Caltech, they mailed out many copies of the petition, each with the names of the first twenty-five signers.

Envelope after envelope arrived at the Paulings’ house. It’s possible the mailbox overflowed with them because within ten days Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, had signatures from more than 2,000 American scientists. The response overwhelmed them (and likely the mailman too!). Each envelope contained a petition with one, five, ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty or more, signatures. Sheets of paper piled up on the Paulings’ desk.

In early June, Pauling sent a copy of the petition with a list of the 2,000 signatures to Chet Holifield, a California congressman and chairman of the subcommittee studying the hazards of fallout. The press picked up the story, reporting it widely.

The petition also found support overseas. European scientists crossed out “American” in the title and first sentence of the petition, signed the altered version, and returned it to Pauling. Forty Belgian scientists of the Free University of Brussels signed a proclamation declaring their support for the petition.

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, hired a secretary to expand the campaign sending about 500 more letters and petitions to scientists around the world. Their effort more than quadrupled the number of signees.

In mid-January 1958, just eight months after his speech in St. Louis, Pauling and Ava Helen traveled to New York City to present the petition to the head of the United Nations. The next day the front page of New York Times reported “9,000 Scientists of 43 Lands Ask Nuclear Bomb Tests Be Stopped.” Linus Pauling with lots of help from family and friends had converted the passion sparked by one speech into the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade.

The Baby Tooth Survey

On January 1, 2011, Louise Reiss, a physician best known for having directed a project called the Baby Tooth Survey, died in her Florida home at the age of 90. Reiss, a New Yorker born Louise Zibold, received her medical degree from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania (now part of the Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1945. During her residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, she met the man who would become her husband, Eric Reiss.  The couple moved to St. Louis in 1954 where Eric worked in the medical school at Washington University and Louise as an internist at the City Health Department.

Beginning in 1959, the Reiss’ began collaborating with a local group that included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner to found the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. Later in the year, the committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, initiated the Baby Tooth Survey.

The mission of the Baby Tooth Survey was to demonstrate that nuclear bomb testing was increasing the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body. Strontium-90, one of the components of radioactive fallout, can make its way into the human food chain through cow’s milk. As a result of its chemical similarities to calcium, it is readily incorporated into human bones and teeth, where it remains for the rest of its long half-life, emitting radiation that damages the surrounding tissue and increasing one’s chances of developing cancer.

Over the twelve years that the Baby Tooth Survey ran, more than 300,000 teeth were collected from the St. Louis area and analyzed in the project’s laboratories. The results of the project were profound, if not entirely unexpected. Chemical analysis showed that the teeth of children born in 1950 – before most of the bomb testing had taken place – contained about fifty times less Strontium-90 than did the teeth of those born in 1963. The study clearly indicated that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were trickling down to humans.

CNI newsletter, ca. 1960, which includes an update on the Baby Tooth Survey.

In mid-1963, Eric Reiss presented the to-date results of the Baby Tooth Survey to a Senate committee, and although the data at the time didn’t come across as forcefully as the statistic mentioned above, they still proved to be significantly persuasive. Later in 1963, after years of negotiation, a Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This was a major victory for the Reiss’ and the rest of the Committee for Nuclear Information, but they weren’t the only ones who were pleased. As has been well-documented on this blog, Linus Pauling had taken a strong anti-bomb stance after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and had been protesting nuclear weapons testing for several years before the Baby Tooth Survey was conceived.

As increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which spoke out against the dangers of nuclear war; one of many anti-nuclear petitions that Pauling supported during this time. However, Pauling wasn’t content to only protest war; he also wanted to put a complete stop to the testing of nuclear bombs.

In May 1957, after a period filled with many speeches exposing the possible health issues that bomb testing could create not only in the United States, but all over the world, Pauling, his wife Ava Helen, and two other scientists decided to circulate a scientists’ petition to stop atmospheric nuclear testing. One of those original scientists was Barry Commoner, the same man that would collaborate with the Reiss’ to found the Baby Tooth Survey two years later. Commoner worked closely with Pauling to distribute the petition, and within a few weeks they had already gathered signatures from about two thousand scientists.  By the end of 1957, that number had grown to over nine-thousand signatures.

Tally of petition signatures by country, 1958.

Although Pauling’s petition didn’t lead directly to a nuclear test ban, it was – along with the CNI’s Baby Tooth Survey – undoubtedly instrumental in getting the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed. After the signing of the treaty in 1963, the Baby Tooth Survey continued to run, eventually ending in 1970. Final analysis of the data gathered by the survey indicated that Strontium-90 levels in the teeth of children born in 1968 were fifty-percent lower than were the levels in the teeth of those born in the immediate wake of the treaty’s signing five years earlier. Pauling liked to state in his anti-testing speeches that “the only safe amount of Strontium-90 in the bones of our children is 0,” and although the treaty couldn’t achieve this, it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Louise Reiss, 2003.

The Paulings and the Kennedys

White House Dinner Menu, April 29, 1962.

White House Dinner Menu. April 29, 1962.

Mrs. Kennedy said, ‘Dr. Pauling do you think that it is right to march back and forth out there in front of the White House carrying a sign and cause Caroline to say, Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?’ I thought that was pretty clever.
-Linus Pauling. NOVA Interview. June 1977.

The “thousand days” of the John F. Kennedy administration were surely among the most turbulent of the twentieth century. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War, among other historically important events, served to heighten the sense of emergency that had been fomenting in mainstream American culture since the conclusion of the second World War.

The sense of turmoil, international tension and cultural conflict that characterized JFK’s presidency is encapsulated by a series of highly-emotional communications between Linus Pauling, Ava Helen Pauling, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, from the President’s inauguration in 1961 to his assassination in 1963.

As was the case with many Americans, Pauling greeted Kennedy’s election with a sense of optimism and hope. Shortly after the President’s inauguration, Pauling sent Kennedy a short note:

“I am happy to join in welcoming you and congratulating you. You are our great hope for peace in the world.”

The Paulings’ positive attitude toward their country’s new chief executive would not last long. In July of 1961, Ava Helen sent a letter to Mrs. Kennedy explaining the dangers of Strontium-90 and its effects on children. This opened a steady (if one-sided) line of communication between the Kennedys and the Paulings which would continue for the better part of the next three years.

Linus Pauling’s early letters were rather technical in tone, outlining the scientific argument against nuclear weapons testing and urging the President (“with all the intensity that I can muster”) to avoid threats of violent conflict at all cost. Later letters, dating from January and March of 1962, through early 1963, convey a similar message, but grow increasingly angry in their wording. To wit, this extract from Linus Pauling to President Kennedy, written on March 1, 1962 and later made public, arguing vehemently against the broadening of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing policies:

“President Kennedy: 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?…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 weapons technology?”

The Paulings’ public response (issued October 22, 1962) to the developing Cuban Missile Crisis was similarly aggressive in tone:

“Your horrifying threat of military action on shipping on the high seas and possible massive retaliation by nuclear attack to any resistance places all the American people as well as many people in other countries in grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

(click the thumbnail below to view the entirety of this document)

Telegram from Ava Helen and Linus Pauling to President John F. Kennedy, October 22, 1962.

Perhaps the most famous of the Paulings interactions with the Kennedys occurred in April 1962 when Linus and Ava Helen were invited to a White House dinner in honor of all the nation’s Nobel Prize Winners. The couple attended, unabashed that only hours before, Linus had been picketing in front of the White House against the policies of the Kennedy administration.

(click on the video link below for more on this event)

Picketing the White House

In the late summer of 1963, as the United States and the Soviet Union moved closer to toward confirming the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Paulings’ attitude toward the White House began to soften. This shifting dynamic made Kennedy’s assassination an especially bitter pill for the famous activists to swallow — an event that, indeed, shook the Paulings to their core. Two days after the President’s murder, Linus sent a short note to the widowed Mrs. Kennedy, expressing his and his wife’s sadness:

“My wife and I send you our heartfelt sympathy. As are hundreds of millions of other people, all over the world, we are stricken with grief by the death of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

In the months and years that would follow, the Paulings grew increasingly interested in the wide swath of suspicion that surrounded the official explanation of Kennedy’s assassination. The Pauling Papers now include a folder of materials (Folder 198.4) collected by the Paulings that are specifically related to the events of November 22, 1963. In addition, the Pauling Personal Library contains ten books (Beginning with call number E842.9 .A5) specifically devoted to varying explanations of the killing of the nation’s thirty-fifth President.

Read more about the relationship between the Paulings and the Kennedys on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.”