Final Years as Division Chair: Progress Within, Trouble Without

Linus Pauling, 1958. Photo Credit: Wayne Miller.

[Pauling as Administrator]

Linus Pauling’s last years as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology were punctuated by the construction of the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology, which commenced in August 1954. Earlier budget concerns, which threatened to reduce the size of the building and to leave much of it unfurnished, had been partially overcome when an extra $250,000 was allocated for the project. But even this fresh infusion of cash was not enough to get the building over the hump. Full funding was not in hand until the next spring, when a $368,000 construction grant was awarded to provide for the laboratory’s furnishings.

All told, the Church facility cost more then $2 million to complete. It was dedicated in November 1955 as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting, which was held at Caltech at Pauling’s urging. Faculty and staff did not fully occupy the building until the following summer, but everybody was pleased with the result and, in particular, the opportunities for collaboration between chemistry and biology that the shared space helped to facilitate. In short, things were continuing to look good for the division under Pauling.

Pauling’s 1956 division report was equally congratulatory. Echoing the tone of earlier years, the report recognized it’s head for developing a division that used chemical methods to advance critical questions that cut across disciplines. Decades before, the report noted, A.A. Noyes had attained similar heights in building a chemical division that was capable of applying physical methods to chemical questions. Now, in 1956, Caltech could boast of a unit that was “strong” in chemistry and chemical engineering and “especially outstanding” in research on molecular structure and the application of chemistry to biology and medicine.

The division’s strengths had a lot to do with the funding that it attracted and, despite some setbacks, Pauling remained fundamental to making this so. One major achievement from this time period was to secure matching funds for the $1,500,000 challenge grant that had been put forth by the Rockefeller Foundation earlier in the decade. Pauling played a key role in solidifying the Rockefeller money in many ways, including his successful authorship of a $450,000 Ford Foundation grant to support his research on the molecular chemistry of mental disease. In addition to being well-funded, the intellectual heft of this particular line of research greatly impressed many of the younger faculty in particular.

While the view inside the division was rosy, Pauling was coming under increasing scrutiny elsewhere. Time and again, Pauling’s loyalty to the United States was being questioned by government and media sources alike, a circumstance that led Caltech’s administration to apply more pressure on Pauling to reduce his profile as an activist.

One noteworthy instance came about in 1958 when Fulton Lewis Jr., a conservative newspaper and radio commentator, attacked Pauling’s recent circulation of a petition that called for an international agreement to end nuclear testing. Lewis accused Pauling of making money off of the petition, estimating that Pauling was earning $10 from each signature. Lewis also charged Pauling with damaging the security of the United States by focusing on the cessation of U.S. testing efforts and overlooking tests being conducted by other nuclear countries.

After reading Lewis’ column, T. C. Coleman, President of the Engineering Company of Los Angeles, wrote to Caltech President Lee DuBridge expressing his view that this was just another reminder of how Pauling was tarnishing Caltech’s image. Coleman then threatened to withhold any future financial support from the Institute

unless I again become convinced that a truly loyal attitude prevails, and that prominent staff members such as Dr. Pauling will be required to show cause why their political activities are not detrimental to the college and the country which deserves this loyalty.

In issuing this warning, Coleman claimed that he was not trying to suppress Pauling’s ability to express his opinions, nor was he concerned that Pauling would influence Caltech’s students, since, as Coleman put it, “as they mature they will grow more conservative.” What Coleman was most concerned about was that Pauling was not taking seriously the “heavy responsibility” that came with representing Caltech to a public who might be more easily persuaded by his views because of his scientific credentials. Coleman was sure that Caltech would have already dismissed him had Pauling not been such a well-respected scientist internationally and leader within the Institute.

President DuBridge forwarded Coleman’s letter to Pauling and to Albert Ruddock, the chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees. Ruddock responded directly to Coleman and in vigorous defense of Pauling, noting that his “unconventional opinions” were not evidence of disloyalty – a trait that Caltech would not tolerate. Ruddock further pointed out that accusing Pauling of being disloyal was absurd since his opinions on banning nuclear tests had by then been adopted by President Eisenhower. From there, Ruddock suggested that Pauling’s political activities had not interfered at all with his science, and that he was still “supreme in his field.” In fact,

The very independence of thought that leads Dr. Pauling into certain attitudes and opinions to which you and many others object is that which lies at the very basis of investigational research.

The board, Ruddock explained, would be hypocritical if they punished Pauling for exercising independent thought in one area, and encouraged it in another. Furthermore, disciplining Pauling would open a “Pandora’s Box of difficulties” that would “explode” as other faculty members rushed to defend Pauling, even if they did not agree with his activities.

For his part, Pauling’s only response was to DuBridge. Having read Fulton’s article, Coleman’s letter, and Ruddock’s reply, Pauling explained to the Caltech president that Fulton’s column was misleading in more ways than one. For starters, his petition called for both the United States and the Soviet Union to stop their nuclear tests. Pauling also corrected Fulton’s calculation of how much each signature cost, putting it at three cents each. Pauling himself bore most of this cost as he had hired a secretary to help him with the circulation effort, which was global in scope.

Pauling then confided his intent to file a libel lawsuit against Lewis using, with DuBridge’s permission, Coleman’s letter as evidence. Pauling concluded his letter as follows:

Let me say that I feel that the United States of America is in great danger from the group of powerful but misguided men, among them T. C. Coleman, who attempt to misuse their power in the way illustrated by Mr. Coleman’s letter.

Unfortunately for Pauling, letters like Coleman’s would continue to come across DuBridge’s desk, and the pressure on Pauling would continue to mount. It was only a matter of time until Pauling would decide to step down as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

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