Ava Helen Miller Pauling: Linus Pauling’s Greatest Discovery

Ava Helen Pauling
Ava Helen Miller was born the tenth of twelve children on a farm near Oregon City, Oregon on December 24, 1903. After graduating from Salem High School, she attended Oregon Agricultural College, where she met Linus Pauling in 1922, her teacher in a chemistry course for home economics students, though an undergraduate himself. A shy twenty-one year old, Linus had quickly learned that to earn the respect of his classes he would need to establish his authority by asking tough questions and holding high expectations of his pupils. And so it was that on the first day of the term, Pauling “stood at the front of the room” and asked, “‘Will you tell me what you know about ammonium hydroxide, Miss…’ (I then looked at my class book and selected one of twenty-five names at random) ‘…Miller?’ As it turned out, Ms. Miller knew quite a bit about ammonium hydroxide. Two years later Ava Helen and Linus were married and living in Pasadena, California, where Linus eventually distinguished himself as among the greatest scientists in human history.

By assuming the responsibilities of their home life and four children, Ava Helen enabled Linus to spend his time immersed in scientific study. Perhaps more importantly however, it was Ava Helen who persuaded Linus to devote half of his time to the pursuit of world peace. Horrified by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II, Ava Helen successfully convinced her husband that if he did not contribute his fame and intellect to the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement, there may soon cease to be a world in which he could pursue his primary passion – that of scientific research and discovery.

Together, Linus and Ava Helen worked tirelessly on behalf of numerous peace, civil liberties and women’s rights causes. Most significantly, the Paulings organized the Appeal to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, a petition signed by approximately 9,000 scientists when submitted to the United Nations in 1958.

In 1961, Ava Helen and Linus arranged the Oslo Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, a symposium on the prevention of further development of nuclear weapons. Sixty scientists from fifteen countries attended. The conference’s recommendations were essentially identical to the nuclear nonproliferation policies announced by President John F. Kennedy the next year – a landmark achievement which garnered Linus Pauling his second Nobel Prize, for Peace, in 1963. In accepting the prize, Linus was quick to point out the major contributions made to the petition effort by his wife, noting that “In the fight for peace and against oppression, she has been my constant and courageous companion and coworker. On her behalf, as well as my own, I express my thanks.” In addition to inspiring her husband’s humanitarian causes, Ava Helen was closely involved with several peace and civil liberties organizations herself. For three years, she served as National Vice-President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was a board member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for seven years and a lifelong member of Women Strike for Peace. In various capacities, Ava Helen likewise traveled throughout the world giving lectures on peace and human rights. On one notable occasion in 1964, she delivered an address to an audience of over 100,000 people at a peace rally in Athens, Greece.

Among the several awards that Ava Helen Pauling received are: the Janice Holland Award of the Pennsylvania chapter of Women Strike for Peace, an honorary doctorate (Doctor of World Peace) from San Gabriel College, and the Ralph Atkinson Award of the Monterey County Chapter of the ACLU. This last honor reads: “…to Ava Helen Pauling, who spoke out against the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942… challenged the inquisitorial committees of Congress in the 1950s and 1960s… and has actively supported the ACLU and its programs for half a century.”

Ava Helen passed away on October 7, 1981. She and Linus Pauling shared fifty-nine remarkable years together. Whenever asked what his greatest discovery was, Linus always replied, “My wife.”

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