Chairing the Division During the War: Staffing


Pauling’s NDRC authorization papers, 1944

[Pauling as Administrator]

The entry of the United States into the Second World War brought a shift in focus for the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As its chair, Linus Pauling was tasked with staying on top of continual staff changes, a student population that had shifted away from pure science in favor of engineering, and an “abnormally low budget” of $2,500 for supplies.

The war also prompted a revamp of Pauling’s own research agenda towards war-time imperatives like explosives, propellants, and medicine; a shift that was reflected across the division. Some of Pauling’s government contracts also required him to coordinate with researchers across the country. One such individual was Villiers W. Meloche at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with whom Pauling worked to determine the age and stability of diphenylamine compounds used in explosives. At one point, Meloche sent a researcher from his group to Pasadena to review some of their work in person, as their collaboration relied upon confidential details that could not be shared through the mail.


One of Pauling’s main administrative priorities during this time was to track and inform the draft status of all of his division’s researchers, be they graduate students or post-docs. Guidance to this effect was provided by W.V. Houston, who was Acting Dean of the Graduate School at Caltech. Houston informed all of the Institute’s division chairs that they would need to inquire into the draft status of each graduate assistant and teaching fellow working in their area, and that they should ask for deferments “for everybody who is to be depended upon for next year’s teaching.” For Pauling, this meant assessing the contributions of each potential draftee.

To do so, Pauling began by creating a form letter for those eligible for deferment. This letter was meant to influence the perspective of local draft boards by outlining the reasons why researchers in the division should be given deferred status. In addition to the boilerplate contained in each letter, Pauling provided his own tailored thoughts on the work that each individual was conducting, once again for the benefit of the draft board’s review.

Most of Pauling’s comments strongly recommended deferment and argued that the individual in question was already working in support of national defense through their chemical research. But in at least one particular case, Pauling’s argument hinged more on potential. This specific student, Werner Baumgarten, was nearing the end of his Ph.D. in organic chemistry, an area where workers were in short supply. If he was deferred, Pauling told the draft board that Baumgarten would likely stay on at Caltech after graduating and recommended that he be given deferment for a “short period” to see “whether or not his services in scientific work are to be important to the national defense.”

As he compiled his comments for a growing number of students, Pauling leaned heavily on the idea that “chemistry is one of the fields vital not only to the national interest but also to the national defense.” He often used this line to close his letters, including one written for Andrew Alm Benson, whom Pauling also described as “easily one of the more able of the men” who would likely receive his Ph.D. within a year. Six months later, Pauling requested an extension for Benson’s deferment to assure that he could continue teaching, as others were being diverted more and more to research in support of the war. Benson would go on to become a leading plant biochemist, spending his career at the Scripps Oceanography Marine Biology Research Division at the University of California, San Diego.

While Pauling did his best to provide support to the researchers working in his division, it is important to note that he was not simply acting as a rubber stamp in his evaluation of those eligible for the draft. In the case of one master’s degree-seeking student, Pauling judged the individual’s work to be “satisfactory” and projected that he would “probably be a competent chemist.” But unlike most of the other letters, Pauling made no explicit call for deferment. Nonetheless, this student remained at Caltech throughout the war years and later built a career working to combat air pollution in southern California.


Besides making sure that those working in the division remained there, Pauling also needed to bring in new employees. As chair, Pauling received many inquiries concerning possible appointments within the division. These inquiries were not always directly addressed to Pauling, but to other faculty who then passed them along. Pauling also commonly sought input from other faculty concerning aspiring applicants who might potentially work in their research area.

Some of the researchers that were brought on board were former graduate students. Since many of these new hires were a bit rusty on matters related to current chemical research, Pauling arranged for them to attend weekly course lectures in organic chemistry led by Laszlo Zechmeister and others. Pauling requested that the Caltech Executive Council not charge these new hires for attending these lectures, since there was no need from them to earn credit as a result of their attendance.

One especially notable applicant was Margaret Sinay. In a February 1944 letter written to Pauling, Sinay noted that her husband had recently been transferred to Los Angeles for work, and that she too was looking for a position in the area. Sinay described herself as an “analytical chemist with about 15 years experience in medical research and routine biochemistry” who had been a senior chemist at the Vick Chemical Company’s vitamin research laboratory. Pauling replied that the division might have an opening for a “war research job, in which analytical training would be useful,” and asked that Sinay come in for an interview once she and her husband had finished their move.

What became of Sinay is unknown, but it is noteworthy that Pauling expressed an interest in bringing her aboard. While there were no formal policies in place at Caltech forbidding the hiring of women into technical positions, they were still not allowed to take courses at the Institute. World War II made something of a dent in these guidelines as Caltech began allowing women to attend no-credit night courses related to war work. None of these course were in chemistry, but the division began to receive a growing number of inquiries from women expressing a desire to study there. To each of these requests, Pauling was forced to reply that it was against Institute policy to admit women at any level, except for those involved in war work.

Towards the end of the war, in October 1944, the Graduate Committee on Post-War Policies at Caltech discussed the possibility of admitting women as advanced degree candidates. These discussions ended up going nowhere. The possibility was brought up anew in 1948, and again it was set aside. Clearly, while the war ushered in many changes to the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, it did not change everything.

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