Becoming Division Chair: The Division Council, Pauling’s Demur, and Weaver’s Promise

1935i.1

Linus Pauling, 1935

[Pauling as Administrator]

In 1935, after being diagnosed with colon cancer, A.A. Noyes knew that he would soon have to step down from his position as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As such, Noyes began planning how best to transition his administrative portfolio to whomever might be elevated as the next chairman. Noyes favored the idea of promoting a strong researcher – rather than an experienced administrator – into the position, and was likewise keen to continuing strengthening the divisions’s ties to the Rockefeller Foundation. With these criteria set, Noyes quickly settled on Linus Pauling as his favored successor.

Pauling was aware of Noyes’ preferences and, as time moved forward, began to press the issue himself. When July arrived and little movement had been made toward appointing a new chair, Pauling approached Robert Millikan, professor of physics and Chairman of the Executive Council at Caltech, to make his case more aggressively. As a close friend of Noyes, whose health was on the decline, (he would die less than a year later) Millikan was infuriated with Pauling’s insensitivity to the circumstances. But this did not stop Pauling: within two weeks, after thinking the situation over, Pauling addressed Noyes directly by letter, claiming that he was considering leaving Caltech since the promised chairmanship had apparently been taken away.


For his part, Noyes still wanted Pauling to succeed him as chair. Upon receiving Pauling’s letter, Noyes passed it on to astronomer George Ellery Hale, who had been central to shaping Caltech into a prestigious institution over the previous two decades. Noyes also met in person with Hale, Millikan, and physicist Richard Tolman to discuss the question of his successor.

Millikan favored Tolman for the position, in part because he was concerned that Pauling’s modest upbringing would impact his ability to engage with and woo wealthy donors. Noyes also admitted to harboring concerns about Pauling’s leadership style, the result of having observed him in the laboratory, where he was inclined to delegate specific tasks to his students and staff rather than allowing those under him to think through problems for themselves.

Ultimately the four decided that the best course of action was to split the leadership of the division in half. Pauling would be anointed as chairman but would be asked to work with a new Chemistry Division Council, to be comprised of a selection of five of Pauling’s fellow faculty. The group also decided that Tolman would represent the division to the Caltech Executive Council and retain primary responsibility for interacting with donors.

The creation of the Division Council, which was modeled on the Institute’s existing Executive Council, reflected the inclusive approach to running the division that Noyes had developed during his tenure and insured its institutionalization. In a letter requesting the Executive Committee to establish the Division Council, Noyes and Tolman described the duties of the chairman as being in a “spirit of cooperation” with the council, such that the chairman would bring matters before the council and make recommendations.

A separate memo further clarified the roles to be played by the chairman and council, noting that the chairman would represent the division to the broader Caltech community, but with certain restrictions. Among them, the memo envisioned the council as having “final authority and responsibility” for making recommendations to the Executive Council concerning budgets and major expenditures, staffing and promotions, and decisions on the usage of laboratory space. The council was tasked with meeting every month during the academic year or when called by the division chair.


The annotations that Pauling made to his own copy of the memo are indicative of his point of view. In it, Pauling highlighted that the chairman would

personally decide all administrative questions, except that he will refer matters upon which a consensus of Division opinion is desirable to the Council or to the Committee of the Division, or to the Division as a whole, as indicated in the statement given below of their respective functions.

The various restrictions outlined in the memo were unacceptable to Pauling, and he refused to sign off on its contents. Instead, he replied to the memo with a written rejoinder addressed to the Executive Council. In it, Pauling expressed his feeling that the Division Council approach would prove inefficient and stagnate the progress of the unit as a whole. “The more reactionary and less ambitious members of the group,” he worried, “will determine its policy, inasmuch as to move ahead is harder than to stand still.” More specifically, Pauling was concerned that the council would be ruled by those who were most out of touch with current trends in research and the instruction, and that the quality of the division would suffer accordingly.

Hesitations about trying to work within this structure, compounded by the difficult financial times being endured nation-wide, were such that Pauling chose to the decline the chairmanship under the terms offered.

I would not accept appointment as Chairman of the Division with authority vested in a Council, inasmuch as it would be impossible or difficult to build up the Division under these circumstances. With someone else as Chairman, I would not feel called on or justified in making any effort to build up the Division, this being then the responsibility of the Chairman. Professor Morgan says that there is no chance of building the West Wing of Gates for five years, no chance of increasing the Chemistry budget, no chance of getting new staff members, no chance that the Institute would promise an increase in budget at some definite time in the future. With no prospect of developing the Division, I would not accept its Chairmanship.

Ignoring Pauling’s objections, the Executive Council approved the Division Council on November 2, 1935, the day after Pauling authored his letter. From that point, it would take more than two years to resolve the disagreement between Pauling and upper administration. Central to the healing process was Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation.


In March 1936, Weaver informed Pauling of the Rockefeller Foundation’s interest in supporting “an attack on cancer from below (structure of carcinogenic substances, etc.) but not from above.” The following month, further details about the Foundation’s proposed level of support were shared at a Division Council meeting, where it was conveyed that the grant could fund research in organic chemistry at rate of $250,000 over five to seven years, with an additional $50,000 going to the Division of Biology. The Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering was asked to submit its grant application by August. Needless to say, a potential windfall of this magnitude served as a powerful motivator for the division to shift its attention toward biochemistry and also provided Pauling with significant leverage in his pursuit of the division’s chair.

This leverage first began to manifest when Noyes put Pauling in charge of identifying three research fellows to attach to the grant. The previous year, Pauling had conducted a similar search and was unsuccessful. During this first attempt, Pauling had sent out letters to chemistry and medical departments at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Washington University, and Harvard describing the ideal candidate as “original and energetic” but not requiring plum facilities to carry out effective research. This second time around, Caltech’s relative lack of facilities would be less of a problem. The potential Rockefeller grant was partly responsible for this, as was a plan to begin construction on the Crellin Laboratory the following year.

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