Spotlight: Ava Helen Pauling

Updated: Dec 10, 2020


Ava Helen Pauling (née Miller) was an American humanitarian and peace activist who was instrumental in pushing for nuclear disarmament, women’s equality, and racial justice. Her work has shaped the field of humanitarian work, and her legacy continues to drive activism to this day.


Ava was born on December 24, 1903, in the state of Oregon. Her family played an active role in shaping her views on the world, and she expressed an early interest in the humanitarian aspects of political, social, and economic affairs. In 1918, she enrolled in the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), where she met her future husband and future Nobel Prize Winner, Linus Pauling.


Ava and Linus were married in 1923 and moved to Pasadena, California, so that Linus could pursue his Ph.D. in chemistry and physics. Ava assisted her husband’s research by taking notes and making models, but as his work progressed, so did Ava’s interest in other affairs of day-to-day life (Hager, 1995, p. 173). Eventually, her focus would return to humanitarian work.


In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were interned throughout the United States. In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Ava Helen Pauling campaigned against this injustice. She focused on raising awareness about the US government’s race-based detention, and the Pauling’s hired many Japanese-Americans after their release from internment camps.


Furthermore, Ava Helen Pauling was involved in the women’s movement and served as the three-time vice president for the US chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She helped organize the “Women’s Peace March” in Europe and worked to support the growing feminist movement of the 1960s.


Ava Helen Pauling’s most notable achievement centered on her work in nuclear disarmament. While Cold War tensions were at their height, the US and USSR faced off in an arms race to develop large nuclear arsenals that threatened global security. Pauling traveled to 39 countries advocating for world peace, nuclear disarmament, and gaining scientists’ signatures on petitions against nuclear build-up. She and her husband faced scrutiny from the US government during the McCarthy Era, yet continued to advocate for a reduction in nuclear arms (Hager, 1995, p. 512). In 1963, after many international protests and negotiations, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This was seen as a major accomplishment for the Pauling’s and resulted in the Nobel Peace Prize for Linus.


Though much of Ava Helen Pauling’s work is overshadowed by her husband’s success in the fields of chemistry and peace, it is important to note that she was a critical driver for humanitarian work in the early to mid 20th century. To quote Linus Pauling, “she was really concerned about human beings. The humanistic concern she had was very great. I'm sure that if I had not married her, I would not have had this aspect of my career -- working for world peace." Ava’s legacy transformed modern activist work, and many modern-day movements mirror her efforts to support women’s rights, racial equality, and nuclear disarmament.


Sources:

Hager, T. (1995). Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling [Internet Archive]. New York: Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/forceofnaturelif00hage/page/712/mode/2up.


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