Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Life and Work of Linus Pauling (1901-1994): A Discourse on the Art of Biography.”

February 28 - March 2, 1995

Video: “The Human Side of Linus Pauling.” Ken Hedberg

36:36 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Related Names: Linus Pauling


[Introductory remarks by Crellin Pauling]

Ken Hedberg: At the close of the war in 1945, I had decided to study for an advanced degree and was thinking about applications to graduate schools. I had little or no knowledge about the programs at Harvard or Caltech, places I had heard so much about, nor about the faculty at these institutions. Inquiries directed to friends at Shell Development, where I was working, yielded some information, and that was when I learned about Linus Pauling, a man who before had been only a name to me. One of my questions to my supervisor at Shell, Dr. Daniel B. Luten, Jr., was, "Who besides Linus Pauling is in the Chemistry Department at Caltech?" He responded with the remark: "Listen, when a department has Linus Pauling, it doesn't need anyone else!" That was a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but since Harvard (to which I had also been admitted) was a long ways away, it served to crystallize my decision to go to Pasadena in the spring of 1946.

Professor Pauling was chairman of the chemistry department and interviewed each entering graduate student. When I entered his office for the interview, I remember being struck by the variety of different materials spread about the room -- models of crystals, piles of papers, a blackboard covered with writing, and a big desk on which he was inclined to put his feet during the talk. When I told him I was interested in reaction mechanisms, he said it was unfortunate that Roscoe Dickenson had recently died, but that it would be perfectly appropriate for me to work for a while with a postdoctoral fellow, C. Gardner Swain, before I chose a faculty supervisor. Although this did not surprise me at the time, my own years as a faculty member where the competition for graduate students is keen make it seem remarkable. Pauling clearly had the wishes of the student as well as the interests of the Caltech faculty close to his heart.

As it turned out, I did work with Gardner Swain for about a year, after which I decided to work with Verner Schomaker.1 During that and subsequent years I met many famous and future famous people, including Bill Lipscomb (who left shortly after my arrival to join the faculty of the University of Minnesota) and Matt Meselson. Linus Pauling was omnipresent both in respect to the work of the laboratory and in a physical sense, and as I grew to know more about his activities, he assumed in my mind the proportions of a scientific giant. Each time I talked with him one-on-one about the work I was doing and a problem I was having trouble with, he never failed to see immediately through to the heart of the matter, and I never ceased to be amazed at how easily and quickly he saw what I did not or could not. He often consulted with Verner who also had, and still has, a knack for seeing things others have overlooked when he has had a chance to study the problem. Verner had in those days a tendency to become a little intemperate in his language when he saw errors in thinking or when facing opposition to some idea he believed in. Pauling, on the other hand, at least to us students and I think to his faculty colleagues, never seemed to become irritated in similar circumstances. One time Verner and I returned from a lunch at a watering hole well known to local people in order to hear a talk by Pauling on the occasion of a national meeting being held at Caltech. At some point a question was raised, Pauling's response led to more questions, and finally to full scale animated discussion between him and the audience. Verner squirmed in his seat in the back of the lecture theater and finally rose to say to Pauling, "The problem here is that you made a wrong statement at the beginning of your lecture ... and now everybody is thoroughly confused!" Perhaps Pauling knew where Verner had been for lunch, for he was the model of pleasant decorum and in response readily admitted his mistake.

Graduate students at Caltech were, as a group, in awe of Linus Pauling, who had a tendency to pad through Gates and Crellin (the building which comprised the site of the chemistry department) in his house slippers on Saturday morning. I felt this way one Saturday when he walked into my office, sat down and put his feet up on the adjoining desk, and said, "How are things going?" As it happened, they were going pretty well and I was just a bit relieved when he stood up to go without asking me any penetrating questions. Then he noticed a key chain on my desk which had attached to it a small device consisting of an eyepiece with a lens containing a photograph which could only be viewed by looking directly into it against a strong light. The photograph was that of a beautiful girl, completely naked, standing on a large black rock in the middle of a rushing mountain stream. Pauling picked up the device and clapped it to his eye. "Hmm," he said, "Basalt." And he walked out without another word. I was stunned, and had to look myself for I had never noticed the rock. I think it was then that I first realized what a wonderful sense of humor Linus Pauling had, and what a showman he could be even on a small scale.

Caltech was a wonderful place to be in the immediate postwar era. It was also a tough place that made no compromises with failure to perform. Graduate students were graded on the same basis as undergraduates, so that C's and even D's were not infrequent. At the end of my second year Pauling appeared in my office one day and told me he thought I should write up my thesis work and graduate. I told him that based on my research and classroom experience I had wanted to go another year, that I felt that I needed to learn more, and that I wanted to do some vibrational spectroscopy with Richard Badger. He said, "Write up your work, graduate, and I'll see to it that you get a Noyes Fellowship for a year to do spectroscopy." He did not say anything more and I took his statement as a virtual command. This is evidence not only of the control of department affairs that Linus Pauling had in those years, but of the decisiveness with which he made up his mind and did things. One can scarcely imagine the chairman of any department these days making a similar statement guaranteeing a special department fellowship without the concurrence of a committee. Anyhow, things worked out exactly as he proposed.

Pauling's influence extended much farther than the department, of course. It was well known around the department in the 40's and early 50's that if he suggested one apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship, there was a high likelihood that the application would be successful. So I was pleased when he appeared in my office one day with the suggestion that I make application, and in due course I put together a proposal for a project to be carried out in Oslo. As anyone would be, I was apprehensive, and despite the conventional wisdom about Pauling's influence, less than confident about its success. However, a few months later he encountered me in the hallway and without preliminary said, "Are you getting ready to go to Norway?" I said, "I didn't know I was going," to which he responded, "Well, the selection committee usually follows my recommendations," and he walked on leaving me there with a host of questions I was afraid to ask.

Another example of the decisiveness so much a part of Linus Pauling's modus operandi is an action he took regarding the construction of a new electron diffraction apparatus at Caltech. (Such an apparatus could not be purchased and had to be built.) The one in use there had severe limitations, among which was a dangerous arrangement of 40,000V leads that an incautious or accident-prone operator could easily contact. Apart from that, the instrument produced data that were of low quality compared with those obtained from instruments in use elsewhere, and the scientific results about the sizes and shapes of molecules derived from Caltech data were correspondingly of much lower accuracy and precision. In those days structural information made up the backbone of Pauling's research, and he saw clearly that a better electron diffraction experiment was needed. He summoned Verner and me to his office and immediately brought up the subject of a new apparatus. Further, he asked us if we could not do away with the design problem by simply using the design of one of the successful apparatuses in other laboratories. In the space of a few minutes I found myself appointed to contact Professor Lawrence Brockway, a former student of Pauling's who had built the original Caltech apparatus, with a request that I be allowed to visit his laboratory at the University of Michigan for that purpose, and a week or so later I was on my way. I must add that the Michigan apparatus was actually designed and built by a student, Larry Bartell, now Professor at Michigan and a good friend. Larry provided me with all his drawings and much advice during the week or more of my stay. A new apparatus that included many of the features of the Michigan apparatus was indeed built at Caltech and used there for several years.

As everyone knows, Linus Pauling traveled a great deal, and on many, even most of these occasions he was accompanied by his wife, Ava Helen. This created some logistical problems because they had three small children (Linda, Peter, and Crellin) who needed to be supervised. I was asked to "baby-sit" the children several times. At least, I think of it as baby-sitting, but there must have been someone there during the daytime, for I was at the Institute during that period. At any rate I spent the nights there. The Paulings lived in a wonderful large house -- presently owned by Linda and her husband Barclay Kamb -- which had two wings that, rumor has it, join at the tetrahedral bond angle. The Paulings had built a very nice swimming pool just below the house, a feature that made the baby-sitting task a real pleasure in the warm Pasadena summers. The children were a very lively bunch, and had a tendency (at least Linda and Peter did) to cruise through Crellin Laboratory and invite people up for swimming parties when their parents were away. There was one occasion, I believe it was during or just after such a party, when the senior Paulings came walking up the drive. I could only say, "But , I thought you were in Europe!" I do not remember their response. I do remember, though, that it did not seem to matter to either Peter or Linda whether their parents were there or not. The Paulings must have been sorely tried now and then, for once Ava Helen spoke firmly through one of the windows, "Linda, can you get rid of those people, your father and I want to swim!" It was a very reasonable request: there were so many people that there was almost no room in the pool. We all left very quickly.

Linus Pauling is responsible for helping me decide to come to Oregon State. After several years there my wife and I had decided to leave Pasadena. I had been offered a job at Oregon State University, but after a visit turned it down. Lise was very unhappy with that decision, so when I received a second offer via a phone call from E. C. Gilbert at a higher salary it seemed wise to reconsider. I asked Pauling for his opinion and he invited me up to his house where we sat on the veranda in the early evening and discussed the matter. When I finished telling him about my reservations and about Lise's feelings and desire to leave the smog in Pasadena, he said, "Well, I don't think Oregon State will have one of the finest chemistry departments in the country in either my lifetime or yours, but you and Lise could be very happy there. I think you should take the job." I told him that I was afraid the fifteen contact hours a week I would be required to spend teaching would allow me little time for research. He replied, "When I was teaching at Oregon State, I had forty contact hours a week."

Over the years the Paulings visited Oregon State many times, and on several of these occasions Lise and I hosted them at dinner parties. Once, some two years after a previous occasion, I produced from my modest collection, a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé‚ a wine of which I was moderately proud. Linus looked at it, and said, "Hmm, Pouilly Fuissé. That's the same wine you served us the last time we were here." He was not particularly fond of wine, and I still do not know whether he remembered because he had liked it or disliked it, or whether his prodigious memory had simply tucked the fact away. As a cocktail, Pauling preferred vodka on the rocks. Rob Phillips will remember the occasion when he learned of this shortly before a party he and his wife were to host for Linus, and vodka was not among the supplies he had purchased. "Do you have any vodka," he asked me. As it happened I did, and when I arrived I handed it to him in a brown paper bag. A few minutes later he asked Pauling if he would like a cocktail. "Do you have any vodka?" Pauling asked Rob. The look on Rob's face was one of both pleasure and relief.

Linus Pauling had physical stamina that belied his somewhat frail look in the last few years. One time seven or eight years ago he was to visit O.S.U. for a purpose I have forgotten, but in any event he was in Switzerland the day before. His plan was to fly to San Francisco, rest a bit, and then catch a plane from there to Portland where I was to meet him. For some reason there was a delay in the transatlantic leg and he did not appear in Portland at 4:00 p.m. as expected. I called his secretary at the Linus Pauling Institute who knew about the delay. She managed to page him at the airport where he had just gotten off the plane, and he told her he was leaving in less than an hour for Portland. We met at about 8:00 p.m. and commenced the two hour drive back to Corvallis. He said he had been in Basel and had gotten up at about 5:30 a.m. in order to travel to Zürich where his transatlantic flight was to originate. All in all, this man in his mid 80s had been on the go for more than twenty-four hours without rest. And all the way back to Corvallis he talked of the science he was currently involved with. When we reached his motel at 10:30 p.m. I asked if he needed anything. He said he was beginning to feel a little tired and should probably go to bed since he had an 8:00 a.m. breakfast meeting.

Both Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were very fond of Oregon State and enjoyed their visits here. In later years, after Ava Helen died, I often walked about the campus with Linus and listened with great interest to his tales of how it was when he was a student. He pointed out the room in the old "Chem Shack" where he was teaching and met Ava Helen Miller and told me about a graduate student who had destroyed much of one section of the building by an explosion and an ensuing fire. It seems that in those days Bunsen burners were used with a fuel gas and oxygen contained under pressure in steel cylinders outside the building and conveyed to the interior via rubber hoses. After a new delivery of these materials, the student had managed to connect the hoses in such a way that the oxygen, which was under greater pressure than the fuel gas, flowed not into the building, but directly into the gas cylinder. According to Pauling, the student, having returned to the building's interior, was complaining bitterly that he could not get a burner to light when a spark apparently managed to travel through the line to the cylinders. No one was hurt in the ensuing blast and fire. Pauling said he did not know if the student ever got his degree.

These musings would not be complete without a brief word about the resumption of friendly relations between the Paulings and Oregon State University. As many know, there was a period of perhaps fifteen years during which there was no contact between the University and its most famous alumnus. The history of this affair is not for discussion here, but its resolution speaks to the affection that both Ava Helen and Linus Pauling felt for O.S.U. The reconciliation began in 1966 when, seated at dinner on the occasion of the first awarding of the new Linus Pauling Award (to Linus) by the Puget Sound and Oregon Sections of the American Chemical Society, Ava Helen remarked to me that she had been telling Linus that he should let "bygones be bygones." This information was conveyed to then President James Jensen, who set the wheels in motion for the Paulings' return to the campus, a visit which was repeated many times in the following years. Those of us who knew and admired the Paulings so much, and who at the same time have enjoyed our association with Oregon State, can only regard the friendly relations between the two during the last years with pleasure and satisfaction.


  1. People sometimes ask if I was a student of Linus Pauling's, and I have several times been introduced as such. On one occasion when he was being honored by this university this happened in his presence. We looked at each other, but he gave no sign that it was not true. Afterwards I said that I had tried to set the story right many times, but he answered, "I regarded all graduate students in the department at Caltech as my students." Return to text ↑


Watch Other Videos

Session 1: Linus C. Pauling Day Lecture

Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography

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