CORVALLIS, Ore. – 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, he quickly scanned the class roll to call on a student with an easily pronounceable name, the better to get his first lecture off to a sure-footed start.
“Miss…Ava Helen Miller,” called out the instructor – a dark-haired, charismatic young senior by the name of Linus Pauling.
Ava Helen provided a memorably good answer “and was very attractive” to boot, Pauling remembered years later. Just like that, a romance was born that lasted nearly six decades, produced four children and was documented by endless love letters throughout every year of the rest of their lives together.
Those letters are among the more than 500,000 items in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, part of the Special Collections of 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).
As Valentine’s Day approaches, the award-winning collection’s description is notable, pointing out that “not only does the Pauling archive reflect [his] long and varied scientific career, the presence of Ava Helen Pauling's (1903-1981) papers also indicates their mutual devotion … to each other.”
While teaching Ava Helen’s chemistry class – quite an honor for an undergraduate – Linus seems to have been equally “smitten” with his new love interest and concerned about the appearance of favoritism toward her, says Clifford Mead, head of OSU Special Collections and an expert on the life of Pauling. (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 the 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.”
That wasn’t the only bump in the road for the young couple. They had to overcome family opposition to their budding romance before tying the knot the following year just as Linus 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 previously.
One such letter begins, “I love you, sweetheart, with all the love there is in the world. Your happiness is dearer to me than everything else.”
Pauling went into a long depression following her death that left him inconsolable for months. And though he lived until 1994, passing away at the age of 93, he never remarried.
“He was a real romantic,” said Mead. “Throughout his life, this was definitely the woman for him. And she felt the same.”
About “Legacy of Linus”: With the scheduled release this year of a U.S. Postal Service stamp honoring Linus Pauling, this ongoing series of stories, drawn from the Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Papers, highlights various dimensions of the Nobel Prize winner’s illustrious life, both at OSU and beyond.