The Story of Ralph Spitzer

Ralph Spitzer, 1948.

[Part 1 of 3]

Described by Linus Pauling as an “unusually able man,” Ralph Spitzer was a chemistry professor at Oregon State College (predecessor to Oregon State University) from 1946 – 1949. Spitzer met Pauling in 1937, when he was a senior undergraduate student at Cornell University, where Pauling was teaching at the time as a Visiting Lecturer. Pauling remembered Spitzer as being one of the few undergraduate students who showed much enthusiasm for his George Fisher Baker Lectures – which dealt principally with structural chemistry – and was impressed by the vast body of knowledge that Spitzer had accumulated at such a young age.

Spitzer was born on February 9, 1918, in New York City.  From boyhood his interests revolved around chemistry, physics and math. He entered Cornell in 1934, worked there in a qualitative analysis lab and was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi, both widely respected academic honor societies. Spitzer graduated from Cornell in 1938 and moved on to graduate studies at Caltech, where he earned his Ph. D. in physical chemistry in 1941, studying heats of combustion and electron diffraction. As a doctoral candidate, Spitzer worked under Pauling’s immediate supervision for parts of his stay and under his general supervision for the duration.

The documentary evidence suggests that Pauling thought very highly of Spitzer, with whom he was often in contact regarding possible job and research opportunities. In one letter to the Fellowship Board in Oxford, Pauling wrote, “His work is characterized by unusually good common sense and insight.” Spitzer and Pauling also often ended their letters to one other by asking about their wives, children and overall well-being, an indication that their bond was founded on more than just science and employment prospects.

A glowing recommendation for Ralph Spitzer written by Linus Pauling, January 1946.

The correspondence between Spitzer and Pauling starts in July 1942, with a letter from Spitzer to Pauling regarding Spitzer’s unhappiness in Hampton, Virginia and his eagerness to work elsewhere.  Spitzer was especially interested to know if Pauling was aware of any availablities in California because he was not a fan of the East Coast weather. Oblivious to Spitzer’s climactic concerns, Pauling suggested that he work in a lab in Pittsburgh or look into a position at the Metallurgy Department of the University of Chicago.  Spitzer ended up accepting a job at the Oceanographic Institution in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts.

In November 1944, Spitzer asked Pauling to sponsor his application for a National Research Fellowship, to be taken up when his war duties were over, to investigate, alongside Dr. Kenneth Pitzer at Berkley, the structure of cyclopentane by the measurement of gaseous heat capacities. Pauling was pleased to write in support of Spitzer, as he could recommend him highly as a result of their time spent together at Caltech.

Buoyed by Pauling’s recommendation, Spitzer received a letter from the National Research Council offering him a Fellowship for the year 1945-1946. He would be working at the University of California under the supervision of Professor Pitzer.

In the exchange that followed receipt of this news, Spitzer and Pauling deviated from their usual discussions of jobs and research opportunities and began addressing topics of politics and social responsibility.  In due course, Spitzer expressed his opinions on the atomic bomb in great detail, stating that the only solution, “that will not lead to a catastrophic armament race is to internationalize knowledge on atomic energy and demand, as a price for our sharing our knowledge, free access to laboratories and factories all over the world.”

In its midst, Spitzer apologized to Pauling for his political rant, noting that it was uncommon for him, but nonetheless continued, “Apparently the only one in public life who doesn’t feel that the Americans have a monopoly on brains in this matter and can come out on top in an argument race is Henry Wallace.” Spitzer concluded his letter by encouraging Pauling to get involved, pleading for younger and more vigorous men to take the lead if the matter was to be resolved anytime soon.  Pauling agreed completely about the overwhelming importance of the atomic bomb matter and opined that the only way to avoid an atomic war was through formation of a democratic world government.

Months later, the end of his fellowship in sight, Spitzer began showing interest in acquiring an academic job, telling Pauling to keep his name in mind if he happened to hear of anything. Coincidentally, Pauling soon received a letter from Oregon State College’s School of Science, asking for any ideas that he might have about individuals suitable to fill the position of Assistant Professor of Physical Chemistry.  OSC was particularly interested to know Pauling’s opinion of two specific men:  Spitzer and Cooley.

Pauling reacts to news of Spitzer's employment at Oregon State College.

Pauling wasn’t so keen on Dr. Cooley but described Ralph Spitzer as “a first-rate man.”  In due course, Spitzer was offered and accepted the job at OSC, thanking Pauling shortly thereafter for helping him to get the job. He began work in Corvallis on September 16, 1946, devoted full time to chemistry instruction, including elementary and advanced physical chemistry, as well as chemical engineering. He also taught advanced classes in chemical theory for graduate students.

Spitzer was pleased with the size of his new school, the small town and the quality of education.  In turn, Pauling was happy to have helped out a friend and was pleased to know that Ralph was enjoying his time in Oregon, alongside his wife Terry, who was an undergraduate student at the college. In the months that followed, Pauling continued to encourage Spitzer to do research at OSC, as he felt there were many great opportunities that lie ahead in his future at the school.  Little did either of them know that the situation would soon take a turn for the worse.

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