Pauling as an Adviser for the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships

Linus Pauling, ca. 1940s

Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation

As a member of both the Advisory Board and Committee of Selection for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Linus Pauling had to judge applicants both inside and outside the scientific community, and share his opinions in person at Committee meetings or in writing with Guggenheim secretary Henry Allen Moe. In conducting this work, Pauling would sometimes meet with applicants in person, but more often Moe requested Pauling’s opinion of applicants as they appeared on paper.

One early instance of Moe seeking Pauling’s judgment was Thomas W. Talley’s 1941 application for funding to write a new synthesis of chemical knowledge. Pauling did not look upon this idea favorably, believing that Talley had overestimated the value of his theory while offering no details of the discoveries that would support it. Pauling also thought that Talley’s proposal was “behind the times” as others had already used quantum mechanics to explain pieces of what Talley proposed.

On many occasions, Pauling was asked to give his opinion of work being conducted in the chemistry laboratories at Caltech; perhaps unsurprisingly, he often held these applications in high regard. In one instance, Pauling advocated that Frank Johnson, who had been awarded a Fellowship, be granted a four-month extension to finish working on a book. In a letter to Moe, Pauling explained that Johnson – at Pauling’s urging – had been caught up doing “extremely interesting and important” fundamental research on the impacts of high pressures on protein reactions, and thus had been afforded less time to work on his book.

Another colleague, Lindsay Helmholz, had worked alongside Pauling for twelve years before departing to Dartmouth for half a decade, and then returning to Pasadena in 1945. Pauling described Helmholz as “thoroughly trained,” an “excellent teacher,” and an “able and effective” researcher, if “not, however, very original or imaginative.” On account of these latter qualities, Pauling placed Helmholz outside the “top group of research men.” That said, Helmholz’ application was strong and could potentially lead to valuable results, and even with Pauling’s hedging endorsement, Helmholz was granted a Fellowship.

In 1951, Moe requested Pauling’s opinion of James Arthur Campbell, a chemist at Oberlin College who wanted to travel to England to learn more about crystal structure determinations. Pauling had met Campbell the previous year at a workshop in Oklahoma and thought him “ideal” to teach at Oberlin or somewhere similar. Pauling noted that Campbell’s interests were broad but his research was well-defined, which made it easier for his students to follow and provide assistance.

That said, in the wider constellation of those working in structural chemistry, Pauling found Campbell to be “not outstanding” and relatively lacking in experience. Nevertheless, Pauling also felt that Campbell would benefit from studying overseas, comparing him to Earl C. Gilbert of Oregon State College, a former professor of Pauling’s who visited Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 and 1929. Pauling suggested that Campbell and Oberlin would benefit from his receiving a Guggenheim just as Gilbert and Oregon State had done. Alas, that possibility was not enough to get Campbell funded for 1951, though he would earn a Fellowship twelve years later.

Pauling also consulted with his colleagues at Caltech about Guggenheim applicants. Many of these discussions were held with geneticist A. H. Sturtevant, astronomer Theodore Dunham, Jr., biochemist Carl Niemann, or mathematician E. T. Bell. Pauling’s frequent collaborator, geneticist George Beadle, was likewise frequently solicited for help in forming opinions, so much so that he eventually joined Pauling on the Advisory Board.

In 1951 Pauling reached out to Beadle for comment on Ohio State University professor Quentin van Winkle’s request to fund lab technicians who would assist in his use of electron microscopy to study chromosomes. After looking over van Winkle’s sample photographs, Beadle could not come to a firm conclusion since he could not interpret what he had been supplied. He did, however, think the work to be potentially important enough to merit large amounts of funding.

Pauling felt otherwise. For starters, the quality of the photographs was simply not good enough to demonstrate worthiness for a Fellowship. Additionally, whereas van Winkle’s past projects had used traditional methods better suited to distributed work in the lab, the new ideas that he wanted to pursue would required methodology that had not yet been fully developed enojght to assistants. As Pauling wrote to Moe, “Electron microscopy is at present an art, and it is hard to find the artist.” Van Winkle failed to earn a Fellowship.

Laszlo Zechmeister with the Pauling family, 1940.

Often, Pauling also served as reference for Fellowship proposals, and when he was enthusiastic about an applicant he did not hide it. In a 1948 reference letter for Laszlo Zechmeister, Pauling called his Caltech colleague the “leading authority” on chromatography over the past fifteen years and among the top twelve organic chemists in the United States. To emphasize his point, Pauling added that Zechmeister had been a U.S. citizen for about three years by that point, long enough to qualify for induction into the National Academy of Sciences.

In similar fashion, that same year Pauling described his former student E. Bright Wilson, Jr. as one of the best of the “younger” physical chemists anywhere. Original and precise, Wilson was among the “most able” of the many researchers to have worked under Pauling. Both Zechmeister and Wilson were awarded Fellowships that year.

A different Pauling-adjacent applicant from that year who did not succeed in obtaining a Fellowship was the Stanford physiologist George Feigen. Feigen had worked as a research assistant, graduate student, and post-doctoral fellow with Pauling, but despite this close connection Pauling demurred in his evaluation of Feigen’s work, in part claiming that he could not properly assess Feigen’s work as a physiologist.

Pauling could state that Feigen was an “unusually able” researcher who knew his discipline’s literature and was sound in technique. Furthermore, Pauling found Feigen’s research design to be original and he liked his proposed plan. But the promise implied by Feigen’s abilities had not yet materialized in noteworthy experimental work. In fact, Pauling went so far as to describe pieces of Feigen’s output as ineffective and unproductive, because he did not wrap projects up very well.

Henry Allen Moe to Linus Pauling, April 19, 1944

When applicants were rejected, they often reached out to Moe for reasons why. One such request led Moe to turn to Pauling for a more substantive explanation. In April 1944, F. P. Zscheile of Purdue University wrote to Moe asking for more details behind the rejection of his proposal to pursue spectroscopic studies of chlorophyll. Zscheile specifically wondered if his work was judged to be unimportant or untimely; if his age (37) did not mesh well with Foundation objectives; or if the competition was just too tough that year.

Zscheile had worked on an analysis of carotene with George Beadle, which perhaps led him to think that he might be in good favor with Pauling, and thus the Committee of Selection. Moe passed Zscheile’s query along to Pauling, knowing that he could offer more than the “clichés of soft words which mean little” that Moe usually supplied in response to these questions.

As requested, Pauling addressed Zscheile’s concerns directly. It was true that age was a factor and the competition stiff. However, the decision mainly came down to his proposal and past work. Pauling found Zscheile’s experimental techniques to be of good quality, but the problems he investigated were not that important since they had not led to any broad results. Zscheile’s proposal reflected this weakness as it gave more attention to empirical work than to fundamental questions. As an aside, Pauling told Moe that he was unsure if Zscheile should be encouraged to apply again, since it was not clear whether he had “the spark of scientific curiosity.”

Six months later, Pauling found his judgment confirmed after reading Zscheile’s latest article on carotenes. For Pauling, the publication demonstrated that Zscheile was a good technician but that he had “no originality at all” and “no goal toward which he is driving.” Indeed, Zscheile’s work, Pauling felt, was “not carried on as a result of the thoughtful consideration of the problems of science.” Zscheile also failed to reference Laszlo Zechmeister and Andor Polgar’s more recent investigations, which were done at Caltech. Thirteen years later, when Pauling was no longer on the Committee of Selection, Zscheile tried again for a Fellowship and succeeded.

As an advisor, Pauling drew on his scientific expertise and his large professional network to help him judge several Guggenheim applicants each year. Pauling’s conclusions did not always match those of the Committee of Selection as a whole, but he consistently supplied information that was well-rounded enough to leave room for disagreement.

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