Pauling’s Failed Rhodes Scholarship Application

Linus Pauling, 1922

Linus Pauling, 1922.

As to the Rhodes Scholarship, I probably was lucky not to get it, because I think conditions were better in Pasadena than in Oxford. The Oxford people were burned up too when they learned in 1948 while I was Eastman Professor there, that I had been turned down in 1922!

-Linus Pauling, letter to Fred Allen, November 14, 1954.

In August 1920, Linus Pauling received a letter which invited him to apply for candidacy as a Rhodes Scholar. A day after receiving the letter, Pauling replied to the sender, expressing great interest. A series of letters, applications and recommendations document his efforts during the following year to be recommended by a state committee for the honor. It is evident from available materials that Pauling sincerely desired a place of study at Oxford. However, it is not entirely clear whether or not Pauling was truly ready for the obligation and engagement that such an honor might entail.

The Rhodes scholarship offered Pauling the possibility to learn at an institution whose scientific facilities were, in Pauling’s own words, “not excelled in the world.” The scholarship itself offered three years of expenses-paid study at Oxford, an opportunity that Pauling did not regard flippantly. He was convinced, because of the then current developments in science, that a student with a scientific background would be chosen.

Outside of general qualifications which included a specific age range, class standing and citizenship status, certain qualities were expected of potential representatives who were to be selected by the Oregon state scholarship committee. These qualities, as defined by the Rhodes Scholarship Memorandum, included:

(1) Qualities of manhood, force of character, and leadership.

(2) Literary and scholastic ability and attainments.

(3) Physical vigor, as shown by interest in outdoor sports or in other ways.

Should a candidate who was qualified in all three areas fail to appear, committees were to select those who showed “distinction either of character and personality, or of intellect, over one who shows a lower degree of excellence in both.”

In his initial application letter, Pauling referenced his engagement in campus honor societies, his impressive scholastic record, his status as junior class orator and his involvement in track and field as relevant personal qualifications for the scholarship. Overall it appears that Pauling had prepared a strong application. In it he displayed his knowledge of the scholarship itself, and it is clear that he understood, because of the nature of the scholarship and its qualifications, that this was his only chance to apply and be accepted.

Pauling acquired seven letters of recommendation from numerous faculty members as well as his summer employer. All of the letters offer diverse insights and perceptions of Pauling as a student and potential Rhodes Scholar. Though the recommendations are overwhelmingly positive and illuminating, noting his competence, character and intelligence, a barely perceptible undertone characterizes many of the documents – namely, a tendency to reference his “unusual” nature and sub-surface qualities. It is obvious by context that these traits are considered to be strengths rather than weaknesses; nonetheless, they stand out as abnormalities and may have been a factor in the final consideration of his application.

Pauling at track practice, Bell Field, Oregon Agricultural College. 1917.

Pauling at track practice, Bell Field, Oregon Agricultural College. 1917.

It is also clear that some of the faculty felt the need to overcompensate for his lack of established athletic prowess. In subsequent introspective musings, Pauling viewed his lack of interest in sport as a major determinant for the ultimate outcome of his scholarship application.

In the end, Pauling was not offered a Rhodes scholarship. Though he voiced open disappointment, a new and pressing element had made its way into his life. As he received his letter from the appointment committee, informing him regrettably of his failure to be chosen, he was already falling in love with his future wife, then-student Ava Helen Miller.

Reflecting later in life, Pauling appears free of regret, and even thankful that he was not accepted. He remarked later in a letter to a friend that the people at Oxford were “burned up” in 1948 when they found out that he had been denied a Rhodes scholarship in 1922. Similarly, when asked what role sport played in his life, Pauling wrote the following in response:

You have asked what part Sport has played in my life and in my work… I have had the feeling that my lack of interest in sports may have been responsible for my failure to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship, for study at Oxford, at the time in 1922 when I was a candidate for this Scholarship. This may be the most important part that Sport has played in my life.

Though it cannot be known what would have become of Pauling’s life and work had he been admitted to Oxford for three years of study, it can at least be guessed that his particular graduate research at Caltech, and the relationships he developed there, would not have been initiated. Though he may have gone on to accomplish great things after graduating from Oxford, this particular chapter in Linus Pauling’s life seems to reinforce the old adage that one should sometimes be thankful for unanswered prayers.

For more information on Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

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Pauling’s Freshman Diary, Part 1

Linus Pauling’s childhood and adolescence would not be classified as typical, especially by today’s standards. From a very young age, his life was largely defined by an immense interest in his education and an incredible work ethic. On top of devouring every book he could get his hands on, breezing through his normal school work, and engaging in free-time scientific pursuits, Pauling was also forced to spend his days working. By the end of his high school career, he had worked well over half a dozen different jobs.

Fortunately Pauling was also able to find time to participate in activities that were considered more normal for his age. He enjoyed playing outdoors – especially as a young boy – and wreaked his fair share of havoc in the small wild-west town of Condon, Oregon. He also spent time visiting friends and family. And at the age of 16, he began writing in a diary.

Pauling’s diary, or the OAC diary as it is known here in Special Collections, begins with a single file folder annotated with the word “diary” alongside Pauling’s signature. The first entry, dated August 29, 1917, gives some insight into the reasons why he decided to start recording his thoughts.

Today I am beginning to write the history of my life. The idea which has resulted in this originated a year or more ago, when I thought of the enjoyment that I would have could I read the events of my former and younger life. My children and grandchildren will without a doubt hear of the events in my life with the same relish with which I read the scattered fragments by my granddad, Linus Wilson Darling. This ‘history’ is not intended to be written in diary form or as a continued narrative – rather, it is to be a series of essays on subjects most important in my mind.

Regardless of his intentions, the document does take on diary form, and in the next few pages more entries written by Pauling are intermixed with various items that were apparently of some importance to him. One such item is a newspaper clipping of a wedding announcement for Mrs. Linus Vere Windnagle. Pauling’s rationale for saving this seemingly random clipping is found a few pages later when he writes:

This [is] from today’s Oregonian. I will save all reference to any Linuses or Paulings.

Another notable item is a business card from “Palmon Laboratories,” the independent chemical research company that Pauling and Lloyd Simon attempted to launch with when they were only fifteen years old.

Flipping through the pages of the diary, one finds that Pauling recorded many interesting nuggets of information from his earlier life. One undated page is entitled “Tentative Resolutions” and is comprised of a list of Pauling’s goals for his first year at Oregon Agricultural College.

I will make better than 95 (Mervyn’s record) in Analysis (Math). (I made 99 6/11 % in Analytic Geom.).  [Pauling’s older cousin, Mervyn Stephenson, also attended OAC.]

I will take all the math possible.

I will make use of my slide rule.

I will make the acquaintance of Troy Bogard.

I must go out for track and succeed.

Certain of these resolutions are best explained by looking at other entries in Pauling’s diary. For example, this excerpt from an entry dated Sunday, September 16, 1917, explains why Pauling feels that he must track down Troy Bogard.

Mr. Benedict, of the Pacific Scale and Supply Co., after a trip to a place where he was to set a scale, said that at some town he had seen a young man, with whiskers, dirt, and ragged clothes, whom he had thought to be a tramp, but who was an O.A.C. student working in the harvest fields. He told him about me, and the young man said for Mr. Benedict to tell me to look him up at Corvallis. Bennie could not remember my name, never having known what it was. The young man, whose card is in an envelope marked ‘High School Reminiscences,’ although not belonging there, was named Troy Bogard, of Woodburn, Oregon, and is a Senior in Farm Crops at O.A.C.

Pauling’s curious resolution about his slide rule can also be explained by diary notations. In another excerpt from the September 16 entry, he writes:

Early last fall, as I was crossing a field on the way to school with a bunch of boys, I found a slide rule. The other boys had stepped over the box in which it was, but I picked it up. I watched the advertisements in the daily papers for many days, but it was not advertised for. It is a polyphase duplex slide rule, made by Keuffel and Esser Co., and costing about $7.50. Its number is < 4088-3 >. It is 12 inches long and contains 12 scales.

Another entry, this time dated Friday, September 21, 1917, contains a brief mention of the slide rule.

Last winter I found a Keuffel & Esser Co. polyphase duplex Slide Rule < 4088-3 >. I will be able to use it in college.

As it turns out, Pauling did put his slide rule to excellent use – it would quickly become (and remain) his calculating tool of choice, one with which he developed an uncanny proficiency.

And of his other resolutions? As indicated by the addendum to the first, it appears that Pauling was able to handily beat his cousin’s record in Analysis. Furthermore, Pauling also took a great deal of math in his college career. Whether or not it was all the math “possible,” we do not know, though surely Caltech enabled his studies where OAC may have been lacking. As for meeting Troy Bogard, it is unknown whether or not Pauling was ever able to track him down. And finally, Pauling’s single obvious failure of the bunch was succeeding in track. Although he did try out and ran in one meet, he never actually made the team.

Make sure to check back later this week for part two of our OAC Diary post. For more information on Linus Pauling in Oregon, check out our Oregon 150 series. For general information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Beaver Pep

Q – What is your reaction to Sandy Koufax leaving the Dodgers?

A – I haven’t really developed a reaction to that.  Doesn’t the young man have some kind of a pain in his arm?

-“Scientific Genius Dotes On Comic Strips, Miniskirts, But Can’t Cure Golfer’s Slice,” The (Portland) Oregonian, December 2, 1966.

Fans storm the field at Reser Stadium following Oregon State's upset win over USC, September 25, 2008.

[Photo by Andy Cripe, (Corvallis) Gazette-Times]

Oregon State University’s remarkable college football victory over top-ranked USC last night has us thinking about a few entries in one of our more important documents — Linus Pauling’s Oregon Agricultural College diary, which dates to his freshman year as an undergraduate in 1917.

The OAC Diary, which we’ve mentioned before on the PaulingBlog, is a terrifically-valuable resource in which the young Pauling records his thoughts and feelings in an honest and personal fashion. Both in content and in tone the document is quite different from most of Pauling’s later writings which, letters to Ava Helen excepted, tend to be rather formal.

As one might expect, much of the diary documents Pauling’s process of assimilating into a new environment as an eager but unsure college freshman.  On page 54 of the journal, in an entry dated October 10, 1917, Pauling writes of an event that seems equal parts hazing ritual and spirit rally.

Am getting along all right; cleaned the fountain today, and serpentined with a couple of hundred other rooks to the football field, where we yelled for O.A.C. and sung some songs.  We then marched to Waldo Hall and sang ‘How green I am’ to a crowd of the inmates.  We were guarded by about 20 sophs.

Nearly three weeks later, on October 29, Pauling’s devotion to his new school seems to be strengthening.

Am getting along all right.  Have lots of beaver pep.

Pauling OAC Diary, pg. 54.

Pauling OAC Diary, pg. 54.

In truth, there is little evidence that Pauling maintained much of an interest in athletic pursuits, be it as a participant or a fan.  He liked to go for walks in the Big Sur countryside near his home at Deer Flat Ranch — a hobby that nearly resulted in his untimely demise.  Otherwise, the only real connection between Pauling and sports is again found in the OAC Diary where he records, in a list of resolutions, the desire to “go out for track as a high jumper and succeed.”  As it turns out, behind this resolution there was indeed a method.  Tom Hager writes in his Pauling biography, Force of Nature



Pauling paid less attention to subjects outside the physical sciences, receiving…an F in his second semester of freshman gymnasium.  He failed the gym class when, in true Pauling fashion, he tried to get around the rules.  He knew that members of the school athletic teams weren’t required to take the standard gym classes, so he planned to join the track team instead of taking the required course. (He had thought about being a high-hurdles and high-jump competitor since high school.)  Trying out for the team, however, was a disaster:  He knocked over a hurdle and couldn’t clear a high enough bar to interest the coach.  Although he ran in one meet, he failed to make the team, got an F in the course he tried to bypass, and gave up on competitive athletics.

Linus Pauling (second from left), 1917.

Linus Pauling (second from left), 1917.

Oregon 150