Lawrence Brockway, 1907-1979

“Dr. Brockway is the most able, prolific, energetic, and promising young man with whom I have ever been associated.”

– Linus Pauling. Letter to the American Chemical Society, September 27, 1937

Lawrence Olin Brockway, an esteemed physical chemist and one of Linus Pauling’s first graduate students, died forty years ago this month. During his time with Pauling at the California Institute of Technology, and afterwards as a professor at the University of Michigan, Brockway made great scientific strides in the determination of molecular structure using a pioneering technique, gas electron diffraction (GED), which he developed while working as a graduate student and research fellow in Pauling’s laboratory.

Born in Topeka, Kansas on September 23, 1907, Brockway completed his B.S. (1929) and M.S. (1930) in chemistry at the University of Nebraska. From there, he moved on to Caltech where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 and remained as a research fellow until 1937. Brockway left Pasadena to pursue work under a Guggenheim Fellowship. A year later he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he remained for the rest of his prolific career.

During his seven-year stint at Caltech, Brockway spent much of his time working to identify the structure of gas-phase molecules using GED. The ability to determine the molecular structure of gasses by electron diffraction was a brand new field when Brockway arrived in Pauling’s laboratory. Pauling himself had only recently learned of the technique when travelling through Europe and meeting with Herman Mark, an Austrian physicist who had developed an early GED apparatus. Intrigued, Pauling asked Mark’s permission to build a similar instrument at Caltech. Mark expressed no objections to Pauling’s doing so, in part because he had already moved on to new areas of study.

Once returned stateside, Pauling charged Brockway with the complicated task of constructing a local version of Mark’s creation. In later years, Pauling reflected on this piece of Brockway’s legacy, noting that “despite the difficulties involved, he succeeded while still a graduate student,” a triumph that “has been recognized by student and investigators” from all over the world.

A reading of Brockway’s correspondence with Pauling indicates the significant degree to which his years in Pasadena made an impact. While still a research fellow, and before he found out that he had received the Guggenheim – an award that undoubtedly helped raise his profile as an elite chemist – Brockway seemed unsure of his abilities, and even of his own self-worth. In his letters, Brockway expresses a fear of disappointing Pauling after leaving Caltech, and a wariness of being able to follow in Pauling’s footsteps. But Pauling clearly saw Brockway’s true potential and propped him up with multiple notes of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Brockway in obtaining his faculty position at the University of Michigan. As his time at Caltech neared its end, Brockway was looking for jobs and felt unsure about what direction to take. In what he termed the “Ann Arbor Problem,” Brockway wrestled with the possibility of working at the University of Michigan (which is located in Ann Arbor) versus Ohio State University or the Midgley Foundation. Brockway was initially attracted to Ohio State because of its higher initial salary, but Pauling argued in favor of Michigan as a better fit and offered suggestions on how Brockway might negotiate for more generous compensation.

Pauling also provided a glowing letter of recommendation to the Michigan hiring committee, stating that he did not know “of any man of Dr. Brockway’s age who has made more significant contributions to molecular structure.” Around this same time, Pauling nominated Brockway to serve on the selection committee for the American Chemical Society’s Award in Pure Chemistry, an honor that would be bestowed upon Brockway just a few years later for “his contributions in physical chemistry, particularly in the determination of molecular structure by electron diffraction.”

As one might expect, Brockway’s appreciation for his mentor was clear. In a letter to Pauling letting him know that that he had accepted the Michigan post, Brockway thanked Pauling for giving him his “start in life.” He then continued,

it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary for me to express my feeling, but at least I intend to work good enough that you won’t be ashamed to admit that I was a former student.

To which Pauling replied,

I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed having you in the laboratory during the last seven years. I don’t need to say anything about how profitable your work has been.

As the years progressed and Brockway found his footing, the relationship between the two men changed accordingly. No longer quite so timid, Brockway began to write to Pauling as a peer and, eventually, as a co-author. In addition to collaborating on ten published papers, Pauling and Brockway took the time to verify one another’s work, recommend graduate students (among those supervised by Brockway was Jerome Karle, the 1985 Nobel Chemistry laureate) and weigh in on the value of proposed projects.

But their relationship was also, at times, light. When Ernest B. Rutherford, a prominent chemist, died in 1937, Pauling and Brockway wrote to each other opining on who would succeed Rutherford as the head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge (both thought E.O. Lawrence would get the position, which went to Lawrence Bragg instead). Brockway, who was then in England on his Guggenheim Fellowship, also commented to Pauling that his new space at Oxford University had so many chemistry relics that he should “take off” his shoes “before entering.” In response, Pauling suggested that he think of his situation as an “implied compliment.” In later years, the two bragged to one another about the number of grandchildren they had.

When Brockway passed away in November 1979 from pancreatic cancer, his death seemed to rattle Pauling. Upon learning the news, Pauling wrote to Brockway’s widow, Hazel, and offered a supreme compliment: “He was the most satisfying of my many graduate students – that is, the one in whose work I took the greatest satisfaction.”

Reflecting on their long relationship, Pauling continued,

I remember with much pleasure the time when he took me, as his guest, to see the [1932] Olympic Games in Los Angeles. I also, of course, remember with still greater pleasure the many years of close collaborations with him, when he came as an eager graduate student and continued as a post-doctoral fellow with me.

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