Monday, December 24, 2018

Ava Helen Pauling, 1903-1981

Ava Helen Pauling, the wife of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and a noted activist in her own right, was born on this day in 1903.  In writing Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, I came to know her and I was impressed by her life.

Ava Helen—she was always known that way—was Linus Pauling’s student at Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State) and her influence on him was enormous.  In addition to taking control of his medical treatment when he was seriously ill with Bright’s Disease in 1941, she prodded her scientist-husband into engaging in the social protest for which he became well known. 

She was involved in a wide range of social and political causes, including civil and women’s rights, world government, and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  While Linus was badgering  President Kennedy on a stalled nuclear test ban treaty, Ava Helen wrote a stern letter to Mrs. Kennedy.  “Your children, like all other children in the world, are laying down in their bones, along with the calcium, Strontium 90,” she said, adding, “I urge you to use your influence to safeguard your children as well as the children of the world by keeping the United States Government from resuming nuclear testing under any circumstances.”

The Paulings were protesting President Kennedy outside the White House before going into the executive mansion for the Nobel Prize honorees dinner in April 1962.  At the dinner, Ava Helen was forced to spar with a rude Arthur Schlesinger, one of the leading intellectuals of the Kennedy administration and a Kennedy apologist, at her dinner table; she more than held her own.

She did not particularly like President Kennedy—her husband was ambivalent toward him—but she was very excited to be invited to the White House.  In addition to recording her observations of that evening, she kept a stained menu as a memento.  She died in 1981.

The photograph is of Ava Helen Pauling speaking at a peace rally.  Source:  Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, Oregon State Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.

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