Chairing the Division During the War: A Balance of Interests


Members of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering seated together at a picnic, 1941. Pauling, the division chair, is at far right.

[Pauling as Administrator]

In the early 1940s, a $300,000 biochemistry grant provided by the Rockefeller Foundation set the tone for research in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, but it was not the only source of funds that the foundation was providing. In addition to the large biochemistry grant, the Rockefeller board approved smaller supplementary awards to support a collection of promising immunological projects being pursued by Caltech faculty. This secondary line of funding gradually made a significant impact.

In 1940, geneticist A. H. Sturtevant received the first of the immunology grants, a three-year, $36,000 award. A year later, Linus Pauling was provided with his own three-year, $33,000 grant to support a separate track of immunological research being housed in the chemistry division. Prior to the award being finalized, Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver suggested that Pauling ask for an additional $20,000 for the second year alone, a request that was quickly approved. As time passed and research in immunochemistry at Caltech grew, several undergraduate and graduate students came to Pasadena, supported by the Rockefeller funds. Well aware of its growing strength, Pauling pushed for immunology to be institutionalized with its own administrative apparatus and advocated that Dan Campbell be placed in charge.

Three years later, as Sturtevant’s immunology grant expired, he and Pauling decided to collaborate on a joint proposal that would combine the work being pursued by the biology and chemistry divisions at Caltech. This new grant would provide an $18,000 supplement to the $11,000 that remained from the last year of Pauling’s immunology grant. The work was also receiving material support from the military, and the Office of Scientific Research and Development expressed its hopes that the project would continue after the war. The Rockefeller Foundation approved the joint request, and Pauling and Sturtevant began their collaboration.


The division’s advancements in immunology also piqued the interest of the private sector, as it increasingly became clear that this proprietary research could eventually be commercialized. One company, Lederle Laboratories, offered to collaborate on the research by providing large amounts of antisera and toxins needed as research inputs. Pauling argued against this collaboration, feeling that the work had not yet progressed to the level of “commercial exploitation.”

Frank Blair Hanson, who was overseeing the grant for the Rockefeller Foundation, recommended against the partnership for a very different reason. It was Hanson’s view that medical applications were imminent and that precautions against any commercial applications needed to be taken. In expressing this point of view, Hanson was protecting the foundation’s proprietary interest in the work and insuring that only Rockefeller scientists would be able to draw upon its data for future applications.

A few years later, in the fall of 1944, Pauling took steps to clarify the division’s position on taking funds from – and working with – large companies, a conversation that would only intensify following the war. Pauling’s clarification arose as an action item following a meeting where division faculty had expressed concerns that industrial interests were being considered separately from basic questions in chemistry. Communicating on their behalf, Pauling noted that the faculty overwhelmingly preferred that no strings be attached to grants offered by large private interests.


Towards the end of 1941, one such private interest, Shell Development Company, offered Pauling a position as its Director of Research. Pauling visited Shell in San Francisco to tour his potential new lab, but never seriously considered accepting the job. Instead, as he had done in the past, Pauling used the offer as leverage with his current employer.

In November, Pauling wrote to J. F. M. Taylor at Shell, indicating that he was waiting for a counteroffer from the Institute that would convince him to stay. Ten days later, Pauling wrote to Taylor once more, saying this time that he would decline Shell’s proposal. In explaining his reasoning, Pauling noted that he likely would have accepted the offer were he earlier in his career, but that now “I have now gone too deeply into fundamental science, including the biological applications of chemistry, to tear myself away.” It appears that the promise of a pay increase may have also helped Pauling with his decision, as Caltech’s Board of Trustees agreed to raise his annual salary from $9,000 to $10,500 a little over a month later.


With Pauling once again firmly in place as division head, he began to focus more intently on maintaining a balance between the Rockefeller-funded biochemical and immunological work, and the new obligations ushered in by the onset of war. In January 1942, Weaver checked in with Pauling, specifically to see if those new responsibilities were interfering with the biochemical work. Hanson also wrote, asking the same question with regards to the immunological program. Pauling replied that, despite losing two graduate students to military service, the activities funded by the grants had remained largely unaffected. There was, however, the potential that the division might lose more student assistants in the near future.

As summer approached, the division appeared to be mostly hitting its targets. In a May progress update, Pauling reported that the biochemical grant had been able to complete many of its projected goals for the year despite the war. That said, personnel turnover had been larger than normal, especially in structural and physical chemistry, since those were areas where a lot of war work was being done. Other projects, however, had not been interrupted at all

The immunological work faced a new challenge when the War Production Board began limiting the division’s supplies. Pauling contacted Frank Blair Hanson to communicate this turn of events, and put forth the idea that they solicit a $1 contract from the Committee on Medical Research so that they could continue to have access to supplies. Pauling further explained that the work being carried out under the grant had become significant to the war, including a line of inquiry on the synthesis of quinine. Hanson agreed that it was a good idea to pursue the contract for the purposes outlined.

Even with all of the distractions brought about by World War II, the Rockefeller-funded research at Caltech moved along briskly; so much so that it began to outpace its budget. The grant was originally set at $300,000 to be spread over at least five years, but for each of the first three years the chemistry and biology divisions had requested $70,000. When that request was repeated for the fourth year, Weaver warned Pauling that there would not be enough money left over to support the final year of the grant.

Nonetheless, the Institute’s Board of Trustees approved an even larger request for year four – $75,000 – in part because Pauling provided assurances that the two divisions would not spend the complete budget due to an increased emphasis on war work. Pauling also told Weaver that the divisions would have no problems addressing his concerns.


Buoyed by stable funding and a string of research successes, Pauling was inspired to formulate a broad-ranging and farsighted biochemical research program in the division that he led. In 1942, Pauling sent a draft of this vision to the Board of Trustees. Noting that no program of the sort existed on the West Coast, Pauling expressed his belief that Caltech could collaborate with the University of Southern California Medical School, the Huntington Memorial Hospital, the Good Hope Hospital and others to launch a “cooperative scientific attack” that drew on existing research in physics, chemistry, and biology.

Pauling went so far as to put forth his idea for a small institute to start with, one that would be staffed by two researchers working on hypertension in existing facilities at Caltech at a cost of $15,000 a year. Eventually, Pauling hoped, this institute would grow in stature to the point where it would require its own building on the corner of campus. While the board did not approve Pauling’s plan, he continued to persist, advocating for it as a component of Caltech’s postwar plan. In 1952, the idea came to realization at last.


The massive amount of attention being given to the application of chemical methods to biological subjects threatened to overshadow the chemical engineering branch of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. But as with biochemical medical research, there was a lack of fundamental chemical engineering research being conducted on the West Coast. Recognizing this gap, faculty member B. H. Sage decided to stand up on behalf of his chemical engineering colleagues.

In the fall of 1944, Sage wrote to Pauling, advocating for future lines of research to support chemical engineering. In his letter, Sage reported that the chemical engineering faculty were shifting away from research
on unit operations as the basic steps in the chemical engineering process, a topic that had dominated the previous fifteen years. Instead, chemical engineering faculty were now interested in analyzing unit operations themselves.

Pauling listened to what Sage had to say and, the following year, began pushing for new courses in fundamentals of chemical engineering. But Sage’s new line of research would also require time and money, and resources were stretched in other directions.

One source of funds was the Texas Company, now known as Texaco. Sage had helped to maintain a contract with the company that provided funding for investigations on the molecular weight of hydrocarbons in methane and other natural gases. This $20,000 annual award was up for renewal in June 1946, and communications with Texaco led Sage to understand that annual funding could be boosted to as much as $100,000 per year. The range of techniques the project would incorporate was also seen as an attractive foundation for exploring basic research in chemical engineering.

However, Texaco’s patent requirements limited both publication opportunities as well as Sage’s time, and the division ultimately decided to recommend to the Board of Trustees that they not approve the contract unless Texaco allow the Caltech researchers’ findings to be disseminated. The division’s recommendation was also motivated by a secondary fear that the Texaco money could cause an imbalance in chemical engineering research within the division, privileging Texaco’s interests at the expense of the unit operations analyses that Sage wanted to pursue. Ultimately the division argued that, absent the Texaco contract, chemical engineering at Caltech might not be as well funded, but its researchers could follow their own interests more closely, and that this was a sacrifice worth making.

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