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If you like Linus Pauling's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Gertrude Elion,
Paul Farmer,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Leon Lederman,
Mario Molina,
George Rathmann,
Jonas Salk,
Glenn Seaborg,
John Sulston,
Edward Teller,
James Watson and
Edward O. Wilson

Linus Pauling's recommended reading: The War of the Worlds

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Linus Pauling in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Advocacy & Citizenship
Meet a Nobel Laureate
The Power of Words

Related Links:
National Academies

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Linus Pauling

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Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling
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Linus Pauling Interview

Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Peace

November 11, 1990
Big Sur, California

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  Linus Pauling

To start with, how did you first became interested in science?

Linus Pauling: When I was 11 years old, I became interested in insects -- entomology. And for a year I read books about insects and collected specimens of butterflies and beetles in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. When I was 12, I became interested in rocks and minerals. I couldn't collect very many; where I was wasn't a good source of minerals except agates, but I read a great deal about minerals. Then when I was 13, I became interested in chemistry in these remarkable phenomena in which one substance is converted into another substance, or two substances react to produce a third substance with quite different properties. Then when I was 18, in 1919, when I was teaching quantitative analysis full time at Oregon Agricultural College for one year between my sophomore and junior years, I read the papers of Irving Langmuir in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, in 1919 and went back to G.N. Lewis's 1916 paper. These papers dealing with the nature of the chemical bond, the role of electrons in holding atoms together interested me very much. That has been, essentially, the story of my life ever since.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Did you read an enormous amount as a young boy?

Linus Pauling: My father, when I had just about reached my ninth birthday, wrote a letter to the Portland Oregonian, asking for advice as to what books to get for me. He said that I seemed to have an unusual interest in reading, especially history. Then he went on to say, "And don't say the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species, because he has already read them."

Well, I think I can remember reading the Bible at an early age, but my father's word is the only evidence I have that I had read Darwin's Origin of the Species before I was nine years old. I did like to read, and my father had some influence on this way of thinking because I used to watch him compounding prescription drugs in the back room of his drug store, and he was interested in teaching me a little medical Latin and other things.

I early developed a great curiosity about the nature of the world, the nature of the Universe. So, as time went on, I became more and more interested to learn more by reading about the universe, the world, but also to discover something new.

As I understand it, your first interest in chemistry came when you were a young boy and a friend of yours got a chemistry set.

Linus Pauling Interview Photo
Linus Pauling: Well, I don't think chemistry sets existed at that time. This boy, Lloyd Alexander Jefress, just my age, 13, asked if I would like to see some chemical reactions. He had various chemicals that he had gotten perhaps at the drug store, and he carried out some reactions. That interested me very much.

Shortly after Lloyd Jefress showed me these experiments, I decided that I would be a chemist. It may have been a year or two later. When I was 15 or 16, Lloyd Jefress and I were visiting my grandmother in Oswego, Oregon, and she said to me, "What are you going to be when you grown up, Linie?" And I said, "I am going to be a chemical engineer." Lloyd Jefress, who became a leading psychologist later on, said, "No, he isn't. He is going to be a professor."

I got my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Oregon Agricultural College because I didn't know that there were such people as professional chemists. They didn't have advisors about your choice of profession in schools at that time. I knew about chemical engineering, so I thought that was the way I could earn my living and still be doing chemistry.

What did your parents think of this? Did they encourage you?

Linus Pauling Interview Photo
Linus Pauling: My father died when I was nine, shortly after he had written this letter, and my mother was not very interested in intellectual matters. I don't remember any general discussions held in the family with my mother. The aunt and uncle of Lloyd Jefress, this young fellow who was my best friend all of his life, were intellectuals. They weren't university people, but they were interested in ideas, and I learned something about ideas from them. They were influential in my life. When I was 16, in June I got a job in a machine shop. And every time I received my paycheck, my salary had been increased. So by the end of the summer, I was getting pretty good pay for a 16-year-old.

My mother was having so much financial trouble as a widow with three children that she was hoping I would continue in the machine shop and continue to bring a salary. Lloyd Jefress's aunt and uncle, however, were determined that I should go on to college, and they convinced me that it was my duty that I go on to college. It didn't require much money. There was no tuition at Oregon Agricultural College. For the first six months, my mother sent me 25 dollars a month that I was able to live on, and then she couldn't send it and I had some trouble the next three months getting by. But from then on I was able to earn my living and even help my mother out somewhat.

We understand worked your way through school. One of the jobs you had was as a road inspector, wasn't it?

Linus Pauling: Well, I would be called a paving engineer now. I was responsible for the quality of the bituminous pavement that was laid by the contractor for the state. Later on I worked for Warren Construction Company. Warren Construction Company wanted me to stay with the company and not go on with my education. I did that for five summers, and I had spare time, even during the eight hours that the paving plant was operating, and I could read chemical books and look over the tables of properties of substances and continue to wonder about the possibility of getting a better understanding of these substances and their properties.

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This page last revised on Feb 29, 2008 17:16 EDT