Becoming Division Chair: The Division Council, Pauling’s Demur, and Weaver’s Promise

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Linus Pauling, 1935

[Pauling as Administrator]

In 1935, after being diagnosed with colon cancer, A.A. Noyes knew that he would soon have to step down from his position as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As such, Noyes began planning how best to transition his administrative portfolio to whomever might be elevated as the next chairman. Noyes favored the idea of promoting a strong researcher – rather than an experienced administrator – into the position, and was likewise keen to continuing strengthening the divisions’s ties to the Rockefeller Foundation. With these criteria set, Noyes quickly settled on Linus Pauling as his favored successor.

Pauling was aware of Noyes’ preferences and, as time moved forward, began to press the issue himself. When July arrived and little movement had been made toward appointing a new chair, Pauling approached Robert Millikan, professor of physics and Chairman of the Executive Council at Caltech, to make his case more aggressively. As a close friend of Noyes, whose health was on the decline, (he would die less than a year later) Millikan was infuriated with Pauling’s insensitivity to the circumstances. But this did not stop Pauling: within two weeks, after thinking the situation over, Pauling addressed Noyes directly by letter, claiming that he was considering leaving Caltech since the promised chairmanship had apparently been taken away.


For his part, Noyes still wanted Pauling to succeed him as chair. Upon receiving Pauling’s letter, Noyes passed it on to astronomer George Ellery Hale, who had been central to shaping Caltech into a prestigious institution over the previous two decades. Noyes also met in person with Hale, Millikan, and physicist Richard Tolman to discuss the question of his successor.

Millikan favored Tolman for the position, in part because he was concerned that Pauling’s modest upbringing would impact his ability to engage with and woo wealthy donors. Noyes also admitted to harboring concerns about Pauling’s leadership style, the result of having observed him in the laboratory, where he was inclined to delegate specific tasks to his students and staff rather than allowing those under him to think through problems for themselves.

Ultimately the four decided that the best course of action was to split the leadership of the division in half. Pauling would be anointed as chairman but would be asked to work with a new Chemistry Division Council, to be comprised of a selection of five of Pauling’s fellow faculty. The group also decided that Tolman would represent the division to the Caltech Executive Council and retain primary responsibility for interacting with donors.

The creation of the Division Council, which was modeled on the Institute’s existing Executive Council, reflected the inclusive approach to running the division that Noyes had developed during his tenure and insured its institutionalization. In a letter requesting the Executive Committee to establish the Division Council, Noyes and Tolman described the duties of the chairman as being in a “spirit of cooperation” with the council, such that the chairman would bring matters before the council and make recommendations.

A separate memo further clarified the roles to be played by the chairman and council, noting that the chairman would represent the division to the broader Caltech community, but with certain restrictions. Among them, the memo envisioned the council as having “final authority and responsibility” for making recommendations to the Executive Council concerning budgets and major expenditures, staffing and promotions, and decisions on the usage of laboratory space. The council was tasked with meeting every month during the academic year or when called by the division chair.


The annotations that Pauling made to his own copy of the memo are indicative of his point of view. In it, Pauling highlighted that the chairman would

personally decide all administrative questions, except that he will refer matters upon which a consensus of Division opinion is desirable to the Council or to the Committee of the Division, or to the Division as a whole, as indicated in the statement given below of their respective functions.

The various restrictions outlined in the memo were unacceptable to Pauling, and he refused to sign off on its contents. Instead, he replied to the memo with a written rejoinder addressed to the Executive Council. In it, Pauling expressed his feeling that the Division Council approach would prove inefficient and stagnate the progress of the unit as a whole. “The more reactionary and less ambitious members of the group,” he worried, “will determine its policy, inasmuch as to move ahead is harder than to stand still.” More specifically, Pauling was concerned that the council would be ruled by those who were most out of touch with current trends in research and the instruction, and that the quality of the division would suffer accordingly.

Hesitations about trying to work within this structure, compounded by the difficult financial times being endured nation-wide, were such that Pauling chose to the decline the chairmanship under the terms offered.

I would not accept appointment as Chairman of the Division with authority vested in a Council, inasmuch as it would be impossible or difficult to build up the Division under these circumstances. With someone else as Chairman, I would not feel called on or justified in making any effort to build up the Division, this being then the responsibility of the Chairman. Professor Morgan says that there is no chance of building the West Wing of Gates for five years, no chance of increasing the Chemistry budget, no chance of getting new staff members, no chance that the Institute would promise an increase in budget at some definite time in the future. With no prospect of developing the Division, I would not accept its Chairmanship.

Ignoring Pauling’s objections, the Executive Council approved the Division Council on November 2, 1935, the day after Pauling authored his letter. From that point, it would take more than two years to resolve the disagreement between Pauling and upper administration. Central to the healing process was Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation.


In March 1936, Weaver informed Pauling of the Rockefeller Foundation’s interest in supporting “an attack on cancer from below (structure of carcinogenic substances, etc.) but not from above.” The following month, further details about the Foundation’s proposed level of support were shared at a Division Council meeting, where it was conveyed that the grant could fund research in organic chemistry at rate of $250,000 over five to seven years, with an additional $50,000 going to the Division of Biology. The Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering was asked to submit its grant application by August. Needless to say, a potential windfall of this magnitude served as a powerful motivator for the division to shift its attention toward biochemistry and also provided Pauling with significant leverage in his pursuit of the division’s chair.

This leverage first began to manifest when Noyes put Pauling in charge of identifying three research fellows to attach to the grant. The previous year, Pauling had conducted a similar search and was unsuccessful. During this first attempt, Pauling had sent out letters to chemistry and medical departments at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Washington University, and Harvard describing the ideal candidate as “original and energetic” but not requiring plum facilities to carry out effective research. This second time around, Caltech’s relative lack of facilities would be less of a problem. The potential Rockefeller grant was partly responsible for this, as was a plan to begin construction on the Crellin Laboratory the following year.

Pauling as Administrator: Becoming Division Chair

[Ed Note: Over the past eleven years, one of the Pauling Blog’s areas of interest has been the exploration of different institutions with which Linus Pauling was affiliated. Posting series authored in support of this interest include examinations of Pauling’s time at The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the University of California, San Diego, Stanford University, and the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

Pauling is, of course, most famously associated with the California Institute of Technology, his institutional home from 1922-1963. But attempting to develop a series of blog posts that delve into his institutional relationship with Caltech is a daunting task — in addition to being there for a long time, a great deal happened during those forty-one years.

Today, however, we begin to approach this weighty subject with the release of the first post in a lengthy series that will examine Pauling’s work as an administrator while also a member of the Caltech faculty. Among the more ambitious projects that the Pauling Blog has undertaken, this topic will be our primary point of emphasis from now until June 2019.]

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Linus Pauling, 1937

Linus Pauling became Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Director of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in 1937, succeeding long-time head A.A. Noyes. But before this time, he had taken on administrative responsibilities that would prepare him for the position and demonstrate to his superiors that he was a suitable candidate. By 1937, Pauling had also long since proven himself to be a world-class researcher and his rank had advanced accordingly: appointed Assistant Professor of Theoretical Chemistry in 1927, he was promoted to full professor just four years later. Importantly, Pauling’s research interests also led to the fostering of a strong working relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation during a key moment in institutional history.

Pauling’s demonstration of administrative skill and his research achievements, in tandem with his valuable ties to the Rockefeller Foundation, all contributed to the viability of his candidacy for division chair in the post-Noyes era.


Space

From the very beginning of Pauling’s tenure as chair, the need for and allocation of space ranked high as an ever-present concern. Prior to his appointment as division head, Pauling had gained useful experience with the administration of space. A member of a 1929 sub-committee charged with exploring ways to improve graduate instruction and research in physical chemistry, Pauling found that space devoted to graduate research was a pressing need and advocated that the division act accordingly. Later, Pauling himself dealt with shortages in space when compelled to move his laboratory to the astrophysics building beginning in 1932. Once Pauling became chair, these problems continued to linger, if softened somewhat by the construction of two new facilities, the Crellin and Church Laboratories.

In addition to raw square footage, the organization of available space was a regular topic of discussion. During his years as chair, A.A. Noyes sought to address the issue by  organizing spaces according to research program, with areas for inorganic, organic, physical, and applied chemistry designated within the newly occupied Gates Laboratory. Pauling took issue with this approach, writing to Noyes in 1931 that the compartmentalization served “no useful purpose and would seriously weaken the Division by the introduction of artificial barriers.”

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The Gates Laboratory, circa 1930s. Credit: Caltech Archives.

It was Pauling’s opinion that the division ought to continue promoting its well-recognized physical chemistry program instead, rather than incurring the risk that organic chemistry, a more emergent program, begin to overshadow an existing area of strength. “I am not opposed to the development of work in organic chemistry,” Pauling hastened to add, “But I feel that the work in physical and inorganic chemistry is one of the Institute’s strongest assets, and that development of organic chemistry should not be made at the expense of physical chemistry.”

Pauling even went so far as to put forth a suggested floor plan: the sub-basement, basement, and first floor should be devoted to physical chemistry, he felt, and the second and third floors to organic. Pauling further suggested that, as the division continued to grow to the point of overcrowding, a new building devoted to organic chemistry could be built, leaving physical and inorganic chemistry to occupy all of Gates. And as it turned out, Pauling’s vision proved accurate: a new building did come very soon, with construction of the Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry first proposed in 1935 and completed in 1938, not long after Pauling took up the chairmanship.


Salaries

In the years prior to his taking charge, Pauling also developed a reputation as an advocate for his fellow faculty; a stance that sometimes put him at odds with the Institute’s upper administration. In 1932, Robert Millikan, a Nobel laureate who was then the Chairman of the Caltech Executive Council, asked that the faculty vote to take a 10% pay cut in response to the economic depression then gripping the United States. Pauling vocally opposed this request, noting that only the Institute’s Board of Trustees could take such an action.

Three years later, Pauling voiced his support for raises that were pending for newly tenured colleagues Richard Badger and Don Yost, despite continuing budget woes. Pauling argued that the raises would help the division maintain its position as a leader within the profession by rewarding the successes of deserving researchers. As Pauling told Noyes, “I feel that in university administration, just is to be esteemed above expediency, and a satisfied staff above a balanced budget.” Pauling’s attention to faculty pay remained a hallmark of his tenure as chairman. Indeed, one of his final gestures as division leader, put forth in 1957, was a $1500 gift earmarked for Caltech faculty salaries.


Equipment

Another issue with which Pauling would grapple as chair was the imperative that the division be properly equipped, a problem that Pauling had encountered in his own research. In 1930, Pauling spent part of his summer at Arnold Sommerfeld’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, and upon his return to Pasadena, he requested institutional support for an electron-diffraction apparatus that was similar to Sommerfeld’s. As with his advocacy of faculty raises, Pauling’s request was in keeping with his ambition that the division maintain a position of prominence, this time in crystal structure research.

In making his case, Pauling argued that the research infrastructure at other campuses like the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were beginning to leave Caltech in their wake. He expressed this concern to Noyes, writing

I should not like to have this laboratory, which has played a significant part in the development of crystal structure since the early days, fall far behind the other and newer crystal structure laboratories in this country.

Pauling likewise believed that researchers themselves, rather than administrators, were in the best position to determine what sort of laboratory equipment was needed to carry out cutting-edge work. And though an admittedly risky proposition, he felt that each researcher should be given their own funding to do with as they pleased. Again to Noyes,

The most interesting experiments are the least safe – those which might give a surprising result, but which might fail. It is difficult to use these as an argument for buying new apparatus, inasmuch as success cannot be guaranteed. I feel nevertheless that these experiments are fully important as the routine ones.

Over time, Pauling continued to exert influence on decision-making related to the divisions’s general equipment needs, and became a formal member of its Equipment Laboratory Committee in 1935.


The Rockefeller Foundation

Without doubt, a major factor behind Pauling’s elevation to chairman was the strength of his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation and, more specifically, its Director of the Natural Sciences, Warren Weaver. Pauling had been cultivating ties with the Foundation and Weaver for at least five years prior to his appointment as chair. In July 1932, he secured Rockefeller funding under what he later described as a “small grant” for $10,000 per year (nearly $170,000 in contemporary valuation) for crystal structure research. This grant was renewed twice and proved a crucial means of support during difficult economic times. After those three years had passed, Weaver told Pauling that the Foundation would no longer fund his current line of research, but that they would be interested in its biological applications.

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Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

As a result of these discussions, Pauling began redirecting his interests towards biological topics. In doing so, he requested $5,000 per year from Caltech’s Executive Council to supplement a potential $10,000 annual award from the Rockefeller Foundation, an amount that he ultimately received for three years beginning in 1935. Following the Foundation’s approval of his grant, Pauling wrote a thank you letter to Weaver in which he confided that he had already begun preliminary investigations on the structure of hemoglobin. Pauling added, “As I have read about the problems of biochemistry, I have become more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities of the application of our methods.” In short, he was smitten.

For Weaver, Pauling was part of the Foundation’s larger project of promoting biochemical research across the United States and also a valuable resource in deciding how to carry it out. In particular, Weaver solicited the perspective of researchers like Pauling on how best to coordinate training across institutions. One particular case involved an Antioch College researcher named O.L. Inman. Inman had requested Rockefeller support for studies of chlorophyll that were similar to what Pauling had done with hemoglobin, with the proviso that he would only do so if he could bring in someone who had worked on hemoglobin in Pauling’s lab. When asked for his input, Pauling told Weaver that Inman’s idea was doomed to failure, since chlorophyll lacked paramagnetic atoms. Weaver promptly heeded this advice, thus halting one potential instance of cross-institutional training.


In an undated note likely written in the mid-1940s, Pauling reflected on his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation and the role that it played in influencing his research trajectory. “Perhaps,” Pauling wrote, “the remark from Weaver that my grant for molecular structure was all right, but that the main support was going in another direction, and the hint that application of m. s. [molecular structure] to biological problems might interest the Foundation greatly” had indeed made an impact on his decision-making.

However, Pauling did not agree with the notion that Weaver’s encouragement had diverted him away from more focused attention on chemical subjects. Rather, Weaver’s suggestion had opened up vital new territory of which Pauling had been unaware and that he subsequently became eager to explore. Pauling further described his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation by likening it to a joke he had read in the Saturday Evening Post.

A young man and young woman were saying goodnight at her door. She said ‘I’ll give you a kiss – I owe it to you for bringing me all the way out to 155th Street, and next week I’m going to move out to 242nd.

Regardless of its impact on his research agenda, Pauling’s willingness to follow Weaver’s suggestions and the research funding strategies put forth by the Rockefeller Foundation would prove to be the tipping point in Pauling’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.