Building the Crellin Lab (and keeping it standing)

Image of the Crellin Laboratory taken around the time of its dedication in 1938.

Image of the Crellin Laboratory taken around the time of its dedication in 1938.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 2 of 3]

During the 1930s, the Biology and Chemistry departments of the California Institute of Technology grew substantially, in part because of major support received from the Rockefeller Foundation. One of the most visible and dramatic examples of this growth spurt was the new Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry, an addition to the older Gates Laboratory of Chemistry. The new Crellin lab was under construction by 1937, set to be finished in 1938.

Indeed, 1938 was a big year for Caltech. Largely because of the efforts of Linus Pauling, the Rockefeller Foundation donated the huge sum of $800,000 to support research. Of that substantial amount, $250,000 was set aside to fund work in the new Crellin and Gates labs for the following five to seven years. The entire effort was in support of the Foundation’s “Science of Man” agenda, a cultural and scientific enterprise which has since proven to be somewhat controversial, due to the fact that a guiding principle of the project was eugenics.

Support for the study of eugenics largely lost credibility in the United States (and globally), after World War II and the widespread practice of eugenics by the Nazis. Specific to the U.S. concern, Nazi leadership testifying at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials cited American eugenics programs as being an inspiration and justification for their own programs, a declaration that horrified many Americans. Despite this sudden and dramatic distaste for eugenics – as historian Lily Kay and others have pointed out – the Science of Man agenda remained intact well after World War II had ended.

But in the Depression years of the late 1930s, funding from the Rockefeller Foundation continued to be instrumental and Caltech continued to hold a privileged position. From 1930-1955, Caltech was one of six schools that received the lion’s share of the Foundation’s research money allocations. In that time, Caltech and the University of Chicago received $5 million, Stanford and Columbia University received $1 million, and Harvard and the University of Wisconsin received $500,000.

By early 1938, construction of the Crellin laboratory was complete. The new building was three stories tall with two basements and contained over fifty rooms. The second and third floors were entirely dedicated to organic chemistry, a major passion of A. A. Noyes’, while the first floor and basements were set aside for physical chemistry. The lab was dedicated on May 16, 1938, and immediately began working productively. The years 1938 and 1939 both proved to be very fruitful, with substantial amounts of useful research conducted. But this otherwise excellent record was marred in the summer of 1939 by a very scary incident.

Pauling's notes on the 1939 explosion.

Pauling’s notes on the 1939 explosion. Note the final sentence: “Koepfli heard the explosion at his home, nearly a mile away.”

On August 10, 1939, two Caltech researchers, Leo Brewer and Thurston Skei, were conducting an experiment in room 351 of the Crellin Laboratory. In the midst of their work the bottom of a container fell off, spilling six liters of liquid ether all over the floor. Brewer and Skei quickly cleaned the spill up, and checked to make sure the room was safe, which it appeared to be.

At that point, Skei left the room to attend to matters elsewhere, leaving Brewer alone. Five minutes later, a spark from a motor running in the building’s ventilation ducts ignited ether fumes, which had been sucked into the ventilation system. The air in room 351 quickly ignited, severely burning Brewer, who immediately, and fortunately, ran from the room. Three seconds later, the lockers, desks, and storage containers in room 351, filled with flammable gasses and liquids, exploded, destroying all the windows on that half of the floor and blowing apart the room’s main entry door as well as part of a wall. Additionally, five other rooms sustained damage from the explosion.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

As if that weren’t enough, the ventilation fans in the fume hoods in Crellin 351 sucked the flames upward into the hoods, which ignited another set of drums containing ten gallons of liquid ether, in turn starting a massive fire which spread to two adjacent rooms. The force of the explosion had also shattered almost every piece of glass on the entire floor and knocked over numerous storage shelves. As a result, various chemicals began to mix, and the entire third floor began to flood with poisonous gasses.

In quick response, graduate students and staff alike grabbed gas masks and fire extinguishers, and charged up to the third floor. Amazingly, they succeeded in containing the fire and prevented it from spreading into even more adjacent rooms, including the building’s library. They also managed to extinguish the burning walls in the main hallway. Not long after, the Pasadena Fire Department arrived, and firemen ran into room 351, which was furiously ablaze due to the drums containing the ten gallons of ether. The firefighters ripped 351’s fume hoods out of the wall with axes and eventually extinguished the last of the fire.

In the aftermath, Pauling passed along word of the explosion to several of his colleagues, though did his best to downplay it when communicating the news, seven days after the fact, to his main contact at the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver.

Perhaps you read in the papers that we had a fire in the Crellin Laboratory. Fortunately no one was injured and the damage was restricted almost entirely to the undergraduate organic laboratory, with very little research lost. We had complete insurance coverage and shall have the laboratory in shape for the students when the Institute opens next month.

In reality, the explosion and ensuing fire had destroyed almost $3,300 worth of equipment, and by the time the rather extensive repairs were done, the accident had cost about $14,000. Fortunately nobody was killed – Brewer was the only injury, and he made a full recovery. It is worth noting that lab fires were common enough at the time that the emergency procedures for the lab only required personnel to call the fire department if the staff and graduate students on hand couldn’t contain the fire themselves.

Regardless, Caltech quickly regained its footing. After the repairs were done, the labs continued with their research, and made major contributions during World War II and after.

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