Pauling and the Rockefeller Foundation

Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

We are … particularly gratified that the Institute has found it possible to make a substantial contribution which will enable you to direct a larger proportion of our aid to the study of the substances of fundamental biological importance.”
– Warren Weaver to Linus Pauling, December 27, 1934.

It is obvious from much of his scientific work that Linus Pauling possessed a brilliant and uncanny ability to think across and between disciplines. Pauling was also a pragmatic and often business-like researcher who understood the necessity of securing financial support for his projects. The long and fruitful relationship Pauling maintained with the Rockefeller Foundation – and, in particular, a Rockefeller administrator named Warren Weaver – made possible much of Pauling’s most groundbreaking work on hemoglobin and structural chemistry. The full force of this intellectually-fruitful relationship reveals both the importance of interdisciplinarity in scientific work as well as the essential nature of active and timely funding.

Pauling received his first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1932 for a program of research in structural chemistry. Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 1933, Pauling applied for and later received a three-year grant from the Foundation to support his experimental researches.  Pauling’s proposal was bolstered by his recent work in electron and X-ray diffraction, and held great promise of continued theoretical development in the study of the electronic structures of molecules.

In 1934 Pauling received more funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, this time in support of his hemoglobin research. He proposed to study hemoglobin in part because he understood that a great deal of general interest lay in the biomedical application of theoretical chemistry.

It is also clear that Pauling was, at least to a degree, shifting his research focus to match the lines of inquiry that the Foundation was interested in funding. In 1986, Pauling would note

…I’d had one elementary course in organic chemistry and no biochemistry. Didn’t know much about these things. I was getting support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Warren Weaver said to me, “Well it’s alright. We’ve been giving you some money to determine the structure of the sulfide minerals. But the Rockefeller Foundation isn’t really interested in the sulfide minerals. We’re interested in biological molecules and life.” So I said, “Well, I’d like to study the magnetic properties of hemoglobin and see whether the oxygen molecule loses its paramagnetism when it combines with the hemoglobin molecule.” So they said, “Alright, we’ll give you more money.”

And so it was, more or less, that Pauling’s hemoglobin work received Rockefeller support on the order of $70,000 per year circa 1940.

Listen: Pauling discusses the roots of his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation

Pauling not only sought and gained special assistance from Rockefeller funds, but Rockefeller personnel also contributed to the development of his hemoglobin work throughout the 1930s. Alfred E. Mirsky, a professor in cell biology at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, was one of the first individuals with whom Pauling discussed potential hemoglobin research. Pauling quickly developed a personal friendship with Mirsky and clearly held his colleague in very high regard as a scientist. In a 1944 letter recommending Mirsky for a position at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pauling wrote

I do not know any one who is so keenly interested in the development of the field of science involving the applications of chemistry and physics to borderline problems of biology, and especially of genetics, and who has such a penetrating understanding of the work which has been done. I find that every conversation which I have with Dr. Mirsky gives me some valuable idea. He has a masterly ability to coordinate results into a significant whole.

Alfred E. Mirsky

Alfred E. Mirsky

Indeed, over the years Pauling gave a number of lectures at the Rockefeller Institute and continued to benefit from a wide array of academic and personal relationships that began with the Foundation. The Foundation also continued to fund Pauling’s work well into the 1950s, contributing mightily to the “big science” phenomenon that helped define academic research following World War II.

The Rockefeller Foundation was pioneering in its recognition of the importance of supporting interdisciplinary work; in particular, it actively sought to foster research between biology and chemistry. In many ways, Pauling with the prototype scientist that the Foundation was looking to support. Looking back, few can deny the impact that this partnership made on the history of twentieth century science.

For more information on Pauling’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation, see the website It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin, Sickle Cell Anemia. We also strongly recommend the book The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (1993), written by the late Dr. Lily Kay.

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