Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Linus Pauling, Scientist and Activist

Dr. Linus Pauling, the first American to win two Nobel Prizes, was born on February 28, 1901.  I came to better appreciate Pauling while researching my forthcoming book, Dinner in Camelot, about the evening at the White House for Nobel Prize winners in 1962.

Although there was a galaxy of extraordinary scientists and writers who attended the dinner that President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted for 175 guests—the largest of the Kennedy administration—arguably the most fascinating guest was Linus Pauling.

Pauling, who has received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954, attended the dinner with his wife, Ava Helen.  Earlier on that day, Sunday, April 29, they were picketing outside the White House, protesting Kennedy on a stalled nuclear test ban.  They changed their clothes at the Willard Hotel and went on to the White House for what Linus called an enjoyable evening.

The situation was even odder because Pauling had sent shrill letters to the president complaining about his lack of leadership on nuclear testing.  Recently he asked, “Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?”

Ava Helen, who actually was the one who spurred Linus toward social activism, had written to Jacqueline Kennedy nine months earlier: “Your children, like all other children in the world, are laying down in their bones, along with the calcium, Strontium 90.”  She added, “I urge you to use your influence to safeguard your children as well as all of the children of the world by keeping the United States Government from resuming nuclear testing under any circumstances.”

When the Paulings approached the Kennedys in the reception line that evening, President Kennedy was courteous.  He understood that alliances shifted and that there was usually a distinction between politics and personal enmity.  “Dr. Pauling, how do you do.  You’ve been around the White House a couple of days [Saturday and Sunday] already haven’t you,” he said.  He continued, “Dr. Pauling, I hope that you will continue to express your opinions.”

Linus Pauling, too, was able to compartmentalize his feelings.  He and Ava surprised the other guests by leading an impromptu dancing session in the Cross Hall during a transition in the evening’s festivities.  Pauling went on to win a second Nobel Prize, this one for peace, for the very activism that he exhibited earlier in the day before dinner.

It was a great pleasure to interview Linus Pauling, Jr., about his parents and their contributions.  The elder Pauling was a quirky fellow who often could be self-centered and totally self-assured.  But he also was a distinguished scientist and concerned citizen who left his mark on society. 

You can read more about the Paulings, the Kennedys, the Oppenheimers, the Styrons, James Baldwin, Pearl Buck, Robert Frost, and many others in Dinner in Camelot: The Night that America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, available now for preorder and to be released by ForeEdge on April 3.

The photo of Linus Pauling, dated 1954, when he won his first Nobel Prize, from the Nobel Foundation [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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