The Story of Sidney Weinbaum

Sidney Weinbaum, June 1950.

Sidney Weinbaum, born and raised in Western Russia, came to the U.S. in 1922 after studying at the Charkoff Institute of Technology. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Caltech in 1924 before working for several years in the chemical industry. Weinbaum was a talented mathematician and, as chance would have it, met Linus Pauling in an advanced mathematics class his first year at Caltech. He returned to the Institute in 1929 and received his doctorate in physics, under Pauling’s guidance.

A newly minted Ph.D., Weinbaum was next given a research fellowship in the chemistry department, and aided Pauling’s work with crystal structure determinations, quantum mechanics and general research on molecular structures, spending much of his time solving complex mathematical calculations. Weinbaum co-published two crystal structure determinations with Pauling in 1934, those of enargite and calcium boride, and his handwriting can be found in several years’ worth of Pauling’s research notebooks dating to the 1930s. He delivered a number of lectures in Pauling’s quantum mechanics course, and was one of several students who helped put together a published textbook based on the course’s content.

Both Sidney and his wife Lina enjoyed a somewhat close relationship with the Paulings, getting together several times a year over the course of their time in Pasadena. Outside of his academic responsibilities, and aside from his enthusiasms for the piano and chess, Weinbaum was very active in politics. Though Weinbaum later maintained that he never spoke with Pauling about politics during their acquaintanceship, he was himself engaged in political discussion groups throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He distributed petitions and was well acquainted with a variety of activists, some of them communist, with whom he discussed world issues and shared friendship.

In 1943 Weinbaum left Pauling’s lab to join the aviation industry. He returned to Caltech in 1946, this time working at the school’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As part of his new job, which involved work on classified projects, Weinbaum was required to hold a security clearance. After working on the job for three years, on July 7, 1949, both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Weinbaum were sent a letter from the 6th Army Headquarters in San Francisco, denying Weinbaum clearance to access classified material. He was removed from classified work, and his position was terminated soon thereafter.

According to the authorities that had revoked Weinbaum’s extended security clearance, he had “willfully omitted” previous involvement with any communist organization during a 1949 Army security questionnaire. As a result, several hearings were held before the Industrial Employment Review Board concerning the matter, during which Linus Pauling himself submitted an affidavit that attested to Weinbaum’s loyalty. Weinbaum’s case was appealed, and he appeared before a military review board during the spring of 1950, where he denied charges of communist membership under oath.

Weinbaum defense fund letter, circulated by Linus Pauling, 1949.

Though he continued to maintain his innocence, Sidney Weinbaum was eventually arrested on charges of perjury. (but not disloyalty)  His attendance of “communist club” meetings and association with known communists during his days as a student were held against him as proof of his perjury. In response, Pauling and several other Friends of Sidney Weinbaum began raising money to aid Weinbaum’s legal expenses, setting up a defense fund to help ease the financial burden. In September of 1950 however, at the Federal District Court in Los Angeles, Weinbaum was convicted of perjury and sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Before and during Weinbaum’s case, Pauling himself was under investigation by several authorities for any ties he might have had to the communist party. Though his support of Weinbaum did not help his cause, no convincing evidence could ever be found to suggest that Pauling himself was a communist. The damaging investigations did not end any time soon, however. The FBI continued to monitor his interaction with the Weinbaums, and even the social time that Ava Helen Pauling spent with Lina Weinbaum was marked by federal agents.

After the perjury trial, Pauling’s relationship with Weinbaum was frequently held against him and often used as a passive barb by investigatory committees. Pauling maintained his composure throughout the process, but the strain of so much focus deeply affected him. Particularly, Pauling was hurt by the distrust and distancing that occurred between him and many of his colleagues at Caltech. He did his best to go on with his life as it had always been, but it was impossible to ignore certain difficulties. Though it continued to place him under suspicion, Pauling wrote to Sidney fairly frequently during his imprisonment.

After spending over two years in jail for perjury, Weinbaum was finally released on parole in 1953. The Paulings had maintained contact with Sidney and his wife during his trial and sentence, but their circumstances began to force a divide between them. Sidney faced difficulties acquiring a permanent job, not least of all because of his history, and Lina was left largely debilitated by illness. Though the Paulings were sympathetic, Linus was unable to lend the Weinbaums much assistance. The stress and misfortune of their circumstances led to the Weinbaums’ divorce soon afterward. Though Lina continued to send the Paulings letters up through the early 1990s, Linus received his final letter from Sidney Weinbaum in 1953, shortly after he was paroled.

Letter from Sidney Weinbaum to Linus Pauling, sent from prison, December 1950.

Pauling and Weinbaum remained cordial during their correspondence, but it is evident that both individuals were resentful for what had happened. Weinbaum, the victim of a witch hunt and subject of capricious inquisition, blamed Pauling and his associates for not helping more. Pauling, who had done more on Sidney’s behalf than almost anyone, blamed his involvement in the affair for significant damage to his reputation and the loss of a $4,800/year consulting job. The circumstances that they shared served as apt illustration for the madness of the times.

Though he suffered through great difficulties, Sidney Weinbaum’s story ended on a sunnier note. A man he knew through chess associations eventually found him a job at a factory. Shortly afterward he met the woman who would become his second wife, and though his scientific pursuits were ended, he lived a relatively happy existence thereafter, well into elder years.

4 Responses

  1. […] reputation. The claims were subsequently magnified by coinciding events, including his support of Sidney Weinbaum and his continued political […]

  2. […] Philip M. Morse, Leslie E. Sutton, George W. Wheland, Lawrence O. Brockway, Jack Sherman and Sidney Weinbaum. And last, but certainly not least, the authors acknowledged their wives, Emily Buckingham Wilson […]

  3. […] 1950, the same year that his associate Sidney Weinbaum was convicted of perjury, Linus Pauling became increasingly involved with the controversy […]

  4. Hello,

    I am trying to get in contact with the Weinbaum family. I am an author working on a biography of a famous Hungarian/American chess player, Herman Steiner, who was a friend and associate of Sidney Weinbaum in the Los Angeles area during the 1930s-1950s.

    Any information you may be able to provide would be most appreciated.

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