The Story of 1910

Herman Pauling in his drugstore, early 1900s.

[Ed Note: As we count down the days to the Pauling birthday anniversary on February 28, we’ll be looking back on the life of Linus Pauling as it was playing out 100, 75, 50 and 25 years ago.]

In early 1910, the Pauling family moved to a suburb in East Portland. The move was precipitated chiefly by the destruction of Herman Pauling’s drugstore business in Condon, Oregon. His store had been subjected to a number of difficulties before being severely damaged by fire.

Herman expended a great amount of energy building a new life for his family, subjecting himself to large amounts of stress in the process. After settling into their new environment, he wrote a letter to the Portland Oregonian in May of 1910, requesting advice for his son. Young Linus Pauling was particularly interested in ancient history at that time, and Herman wanted to a few suggestions on comprehensive texts to indulge his son’s new fascination. A reply from the editor recommended Plutarch’s Lives, Thomas Arnold’s History of Rome, as well as a sampling of Herodotus. The editor suggested that when Linus was finished with these texts, he would no longer need further guidance.

A month before the letter was written, Linus Pauling’s maternal grandfather, Linus Wilson Darling, had died from a “valvular disease of the heart.” The following June, only a month after requesting the Oregonian‘s advice, Linus’ father passed away suddenly at the age of thirty-three, a day after falling ill. The official cause was gastritis, though it is very likely that stress was a major contributor.

Linus quietly accepted the news of his father’s passing. Though he was calm and controlled on the outside, one can easily imagine the emotions being kept in check within. This suppression of emotions, and his ability to carry on under difficult circumstances, would prove to be both an asset and a liability for Pauling throughout his life. Though the event was likely the beginning of his inability or unwillingness to deal with unpleasant events and circumstances, it would not last forever. Eventually, Pauling would be forced to deal with these demons.

Belle Pauling, early 1900s.

The death of Linus’ father utterly destroyed the life that the Paulings had known. The family was in a new town, the three children were attending new schools, and the family’s main source of income was gone. Linus’ mother Belle attempted to keep the family business in operation, but had the children to care for and no previous business experience. She was eventually forced to sell Herman’s new store and invested the proceeds into a boardinghouse that would provide the family with a home, and a chance to draw a dependable monthly income. Understandably, Belle herself was not handling the stress well. In two months she had lost both her husband and father, and was forced to become the family’s sole provider. She fell into a deep depression and succumbed to a chronic illness from which she would never recover.

After coping with her initial grief, Pauling’s mother attempted to maintain some scrap of the normality that the family had previously known. In the period immediately following his father’s death however, Linus and his sisters were allowed to “run wild” with little to no supervision from their mother. Belle was unable or unwilling to cope with her new responsibilities and eventually became cold and practical in order to deal with her life’s harsh new realities. She initially hired a woman to help around the house, but was eventually forced to let her go as money grew tighter. Linus and his sisters were expected to do a number of chores for the boardinghouse and eventually compelled to seek outside employment. As would happen again to Pauling later in life, the wages from their jobs were completely utilized by Belle to supplement the family income.

To deal with the unpleasantness that this new arrangement brought to young Linus, he retreated into himself and into books. He absorbed all of the household reading material, and eventually discovered the local public library. A small bit of additional comfort was provided to Linus when school resumed the following Fall. He found that by doing well in school, he could receive some of the respect and acknowledgment that was lacking at home.

For better or worse, it is likely that 1910 most directly shaped the constitution and trajectory of Linus Pauling’s life. Had Linus’ father not passed away, and had he been afforded a stable life of relative comfort, it is difficult to guess what Pauling might have done with his abilities. The tragedies and uncomfortable necessities that plagued Pauling throughout his childhood and adolescence were likely among the motivating factors driving the great man’s success. Had this year been different, Linus Pauling, renowned for his contributions to science, activism and nutrition, may well have applied his energies in a dramatically different manner.

For much more on Linus Pauling’s early years, check out our Oregon 150 series of posts.

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Herman Pauling’s Letter to The Oregonian

Linus Pauling (front row, far right) with his grade school classmates, Condon, Oregon, 1909.

Linus Pauling (front row, far right) with his grade school classmates, Condon, Oregon, 1909.

We cannot imagine what it is but I feel that either ourselves or our children will someday stand before the world as a specimen of a high standard of intelligence.”

-Herman Pauling, letter to Belle Pauling, 1905.

The documentary record of Linus Pauling’s early years is, unfortunately, rather thin.  Much of what we know about Pauling’s life before high school is based either on letters exchanged by his parents or through Pauling’s own recollections conveyed in interviews to various biographers over the latter decades of his life.

There does exist, however, at least one highly-illustrative shred of semi-neutral evidence of the young Pauling’s precociousness — a letter to the editor of The (Portland) Oregonian, written in May 1910 by Pauling’s father, Herman.  Titled “Reading for 9-Year-Old Boy,” the letter requests suggestions for books that might stimulate a grade-schooler “deeply interested in ancient history” and “prematurely developed [in his] inclinations.”  Here is a scan of that published letter:

Herman W. Pauling's letter to the Oregonian, published May 13, 1910.  Annotations by Linus Pauling.

Herman W. Pauling's letter to the Oregonian, published May 13, 1910. Annotations by Linus Pauling.

Raise your hand if you had read both Darwin and the Bible by the fourth grade.

The background to Herman’s request is provided by biographer Thomas Hager, who detailed this account of young Linus’s “unusual intelligence.”

When Linus was five, Herman commented on the boy’s talkativeness and ‘earnest manner’ when he prattled to his elders.  By age six he had already been advanced to the second grade of the little school in Condon and had learned how to express himself clearly through the written word….By age eight he had developed an interest in ancient civilizations, and Herman began teaching him a few words of Latin.  And he showed some early interest in science.  When the projector lens from Condon’s one nickelodeon broke, Linus salvaged a piece and played for days focusing sunlight into a burning point.  At age nine he was already reading Darwin and delighting his little sisters with miniature volcanoes he made by pushing together some sweepings in the backyard, adding some calcium carbide from a bicycle lamp, pouring water, and lighting the acetylene gas that was given off.  The reaction was a common one used to provide light for bicyclists; Linus’s variation on the theme was original.

In their response to Herman’s request, the editors of The Oregonian suggest a reading list that might seem a stretch by contemporary standards — Plutarch’s Lives, Herodotus, Thomas Arnold’s The History of Rome, all books that one might now expect to find on a college history survey syllabus.

The Oregonian's response to Herman Pauling's request, May 13, 1910.

The Oregonian's response to Herman Pauling's request, May 13, 1910.

We do not know to what extent Herman Pauling followed up on The Oregonian‘s suggestions — for what it’s worth, none of the three recommended books remains extant in the Pauling Personal Library.  What is clear, however, is that the strong desire for knowledge that Herman helped to cultivate in his only son remained a defining element of Linus Pauling’s personality throughout his 93 years.

Herman was clearly proud of his children, each of whom he wanted to become, as he put it in another letter to Belle, “an asset to the human race.”  Sadly, he was never to know the extent to which his son would fulfill that ambition.  One of the great tragedies of Linus Pauling’s life was his father’s sudden death, of a perforated ulcer, on June 11, 1910, less than one month after writing to the state’s newspaper for advice about a bright boy.

Oregon 150