The Story of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling
Eighty-five years ago this winter, a new instructor stood in front of an Oregon Agricultural College chemistry class for the first time and nervously asked which of the 25 students could describe the nature of ammonium hydroxide. With no immediate takers, and wanting to get his first lecture off to a good start, he scanned the class roll to call on a student with an easily pronounceable name.
“Miss…Ava Helen Miller,” called the instructor – a dark-haired, charismatic senior by the name of Linus Pauling.
Ava Helen provided a memorably good answer “and was very attractive,” too, Pauling remembered years later. Just like that, a romance was born – it would last nearly six decades and produce four children, and it was documented by endless love letters throughout the rest of their lives together. One letter – from Pauling to Ava Helen – begins, “I love you, sweetheart, with all the love there is in the world. Your happiness is dearer to me than everything else.”
The letters are among more than 500,000 items in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, part of the Special Collections at the Oregon State University Valley Library. Pauling, the only recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes, donated the items to his alma mater in the 1990s (Oregon Agricultural College evolved into OSU in 1961).
“Sixty Years of Valentines,” written for Valentine’s Day in honor of Ava Helen and Pauling’s devotion to each other, is the first in a series of monthly pieces that will celebrate Pauling, and lead to the groundbreaking of the Linus Pauling Institute’s new building in fall 2008.
While teaching Ava Helen’s chemistry class – an honor for an undergraduate – Pauling seems to have worried about the appearance of favoritism toward his new love interest, says Clifford Mead, head of OSU Special Collections and an expert on Pauling’s life. (A new paperback edition of his book, Linus Pauling, Scientist and Peacemaker, co-written with Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, is due out next month from Oregon State University Press.)
“They wrote notes back and forth to each other on assignments she turned in – it was obvious to others that they had something for each other,” says Mead. “Even though she was the smartest student in the class, he gave her a ‘B.’ She was angry, but they soon made up.”
This wasn’t the only bump in the road for the young couple. They had to overcome family opposition to their budding romance before marrying the following year, just as Pauling completed his first year of graduate school at the California Institute of Technology.
Their passion never cooled. The hundreds of love letters contained in the Pauling Papers illustrate a relationship that was as strong when Ava Helen died in 1981 as it was when they first met 59 years before.