First Years as Division Chair: Responsibilities Large and Small


Pasadena Post, May 5, 1937

[Pauling as Administrator]

During the final phase of Linus Pauling’s ascension into the positions of Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Director of the Chemical Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology, the construction of the Crellin Laboratory lurked in the background with several adjustments to the building plans needing to be made. In May 1937, recognizing that the project was over budget, the Division Council began looking for ways to save money on equipment like table tops and hoods. When September arrived and the project was still short, Edward Crellin agreed to make an additional gift of $5,000 specifically for floor coverings, an amount that was still not enough to fully cover costs.

That fall, Pauling was in residence at Cornell University as George Fischer Baker Lecturer, and he took the opportunity to investigate the floors that had been installed at the Baker Laboratory. Once done, Pauling wrote to his Caltech colleague Arnold O. Beckman, who was overseeing the furnishing of the Crellin facility, and told him that Battleship linoleum had done well in its fourteen years of covering the halls and offices at Cornell. Resolite, on the other hand, had not endured quite so nicely. Beckman followed up accordingly by testing Resolite against Tex-tile, which Caltech’s contractor had recommended as a possible alternative. Beckman reported that both materials “softened” when they came into contact with organic solvents, but Resolite would be a more economical purchase. As a result, Beckman decided that they would use Resolite in the laboratories, despite Pauling’s misgivings, and linoleum in the hallways and offices. Otherwise, the building was nearing completion as it had been painted and awaited furnishing.

As chair, Pauling was obligated to keep a close eye on the division’s budget and to think hard about the best ways to direct funding. In this, Pauling’s bias was clearly in favor of devoting funds to research. In one instance, when colleague Howard J. Lucas requested support to attend a conference on the East Coast, Pauling replied that because Lucas was not presenting a paper, the division could not provide funding. In the future, Pauling suggested, Lucas should arrange to give talks when travelling east. Pauling did, however, agree that it would be a good idea for Lucas to hire an assistant to help him with his research on bean pod hormones and set about securing funding for a six month temporary position.

Though administrative responsibilities now occupied much of his time, Pauling continued to teach, including the graduate courses “On the Nature of the Chemical Bond” and “Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Chemical Applications.” As chairman, Pauling also held more sway in shaping what was taught both within the division and across Caltech. Before his first year as chair had been completed, Pauling used his new title to push for the development of broader course work in organic chemistry across the campus. And in this case Pauling saw quick results, in no small measure because of lingering momentum from A.A. Noyes’ activities as the previous division chair and the influx of money coming from the Rockefeller Foundation. Indeed, one might intuit Pauling’s satisfaction in writing “Carried!” next to an agenda motion stipulating that, for seniors in physics, applied physics and astronomy, Caltech remove required courses in statistics and replace them with organic chemistry classes.

Within the division, Pauling had to work with the Division Council before proposing any changes to the curriculum. In spring 1938, the council approved an optional second year of organic chemistry for seniors, a request that the students themselves had been making. By 1942, the organic chemistry requirement became uniform across the division, with applied chemistry majors taking the coursework as juniors alongside chemistry majors. In 1955, Pauling suggested that the organic chemistry requirement be moved to the sophomore year. He also felt that there was too much physical chemistry in the sophomore curriculum.

Early on as chair of the division, Pauling also worked to keep graduate students connected to the research of the division’s rapidly growing staff, which, bolstered by Rockefeller support, had increased by fifteen people in his first year. The total number of graduate students also increased from 25 to 45, each of whom received stipends of $600 to $860 a year as assistants. When he first became chair, Pauling was only ten years older than most of these graduate students, and he made a point of inviting them to his home or to desert camping trips to learn more about their work, ambitions and points of view. Pauling wanted this closeness to translate across the division and, in September 1938, proposed that faculty participate in regular seminars where they would present their research internally. Pauling gave the first talk in this series, providing an update on his hemoglobin studies. He also made it clear that he expected others to follow his lead.

Though he was aggressive in putting forth and pushing his agenda, Pauling also demonstrated an ability to respond to faculty concerns, the first instance being complaints calling for a new instrument maker within the division. Specifically, Pauling asked Arnold Beckman about the possibility of replacing the current instrument maker with someone younger who would manage all of the responsibilities assumed by the instrument shop. As it turned out, Beckman had already been searching for someone new, but had not found anyone yet. Beckman preferred looking off campus, and would continue his search there.

The most significant administrative tasks on Pauling’s plate were the building of the Crellin facility and the securing of stable funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. In May 1937, Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver sent Pauling a detailed four-page letter outlining the ways in which Caltech could improve its Rockefeller grant application by including the anticipated costs of equipment along with more details on how the Division of Biology would use their allotment of funds. Weaver also warned Pauling that his request for an increase from $10,000 to $15,000 per year for his own research in structural chemistry was a “retrograde step” that was best avoided. Further suggestions from Weaver laid out an ideal path for distributing funds from a potential $60,000 annual award, with $10,000 going to Biology, $10,000 to structural chemistry, $35,000 to organic chemistry research, and another $5,000 earmarked for organic chemistry equipment.

These suggestions, which Weaver also conveyed to T. H. Morgan in the Division of Biology, were incorporated into a revised application that was submitted by the two divisions in August 1937. At that same time, the Chairman of the Caltech Executive Council, Robert Millikan, told Weaver that, if Caltech received the grant, they would prefer that it begin the following July, when the new Crellin Laboratory would be ready.

While Pauling continued to work out the details of the Rockefeller request, he also took steps to safeguard support for his own projects in negotiation with Caltech’s Executive Council. While Weaver wanted assurance from the council that they would continue to support biochemical work after the Rockefeller grant had been exhausted, Pauling too was seeking a guarantee that they would continue funding his structural chemistry work, since the Rockefeller Foundation would not increase its contribution. Pauling eventually asked the Executive Council provide $50,000 a year for the former and $5,000 a year for the latter. Robert Millikan and Richard Tolman made a similar appeal to Caltech’s Board of Trustees the following month, and the board agreed to this request.

Meanwhile, Weaver continued to push Pauling on who he should hire with the Rockefeller money, qualifying his reactions to Pauling’s choices thus far as “not entirely enthusiastic.” For Weaver, Pauling’s suggestion of the brothers R. R. Williams and Roger Williams represented “a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise between the ideal of a young, well-trained and exceedingly brilliant man, such as [Alexander] Todd or [Carl] Niemann, and a thoroughly experienced and broadly interested world leader, such as we should like to find but cannot.” In response, Pauling suggested that they shift their energies to support someone like Niemann, who was already coming to Caltech the following year. Pauling and Weaver alike assumed that Todd, a future Nobel Prize-winner who was based in London, was likely not available, but both did their best to try to recruit him to Pasadena.


The Oxygen Meter

The Pauling Oxygen Meter. approx. 1940.

Have most promising method determination partial pressure oxygen. Best available post-doctorate assistant offered job elsewhere. May I hold him. Please telegram or telephone.

-Telegram from Linus Pauling to James B. Conant, October 8, 1940

On October 3, 1940, Pauling met with his colleague, W.K. Lewis, in New York City. At this meeting Lewis informed Pauling that the military needed an instrument capable of measuring the pressure of oxygen in a mix of gases. He explained that soldiers operating in low-oxygen environments – primarily airplanes and submarines – were sometimes affected by loss of consciousness and even death due to unchecked oxygen depletion. An oxygen meter would enable pilots and submariners to track oxygen levels within the cabin, allowing them to adjust for dangerous decreases.

The following day, Pauling began mentally sketching out plans for the instrument and before long he had struck on a possible design. On October 8, he sent a telegram to National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) administrator James Conant stating that he had a “most promising” means of determining the partial pressure of oxygen. Soon after, Pauling received an unofficial order from Harris M. Chadwell, Conant’s right hand man, to begin experimenting with the design. After another exchange of letters, Pauling was appointed “official investigator” for the project and given a budget which funded Pauling and his colleague Reuben Wood, a temporary assistant, with materials and equipment for a six-month probationary period.

Torsion balance used in the Pauling oxygen meter. approx. 1945.

The apparatus was based on the principle of a torsion balance, a measuring device originally developed by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb in 1777. Wood created the balance by connecting a tiny metal bar to a quartz fiber. He then attached a hollow glass sphere to each end of the bar and a mirror to the fiber crossbar. The entire device was then strung between the points of a standard horseshoe magnet and shielded by a bell jar. When the spheres were filled with air, the paramagnetic forces present in oxygen atoms would cause the dumbbell setup to rotate, twisting the quartz fiber. The mirror on the fiber, as it twisted, would alter the angle of a reflected light beam, striking a photocell. The photocell readings would then register on a dial, in the process giving an approximate measure of present oxygen levels.

By November 1, less than a month after receiving the assignment, Pauling and Wood had constructed and tested a model. Though fragile and prone to decalibration, it worked.

After presenting his and Wood’s work to government officials, Pauling was told that the meter would need to be usable despite frequent acceleration and deceleration, tilting on all axes, and constant shock and vibration. In response, the duo designed an adjustable support for the apparatus which allowed it to remain stable despite movement and shock. Shielding and damping techniques were developed too, allowing the meter to give accurate readings under moderate strain from outside forces.

There were, of course, setbacks. The quartz fibers were nearly invisible and required special tools to create and place. The glass bubbles used on the instrument had to be hand-blown but were so delicate that it took many tries – sometimes hundreds – to create a single perfect bulb. Supplies, too, were difficult to acquire. Liquids for damping, metals, and magnets all proved hard to find, further slowing the research process.

Though development was cumbersome and sometimes frustrating, it was clear by the summer of 1941 that Pauling’s oxygen meter was a success. The NDRC, pleased with Pauling’s work, renewed his contract, requesting that five additional meters be manufactured and distributed according to committee orders. Despite the production demands placed on his team, Pauling insisted that the design be further improved. Wood suggested a prototype using two magnets rather than one – a new approach which allowed for a sturdier, more accurate model.

Reuben E. Wood. March 1948.

Despite the creation of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, an entirely new war research agency, and major changes in hierarchy and administrative procedure, Pauling’s group worked for seven months manufacturing oxygen meters with little interference from officials. By early 1942, it was clear that his team could not keep up with growing demand for the device.

In response, Pauling turned to Caltech staff member Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, a skilled instrument-maker who, after a meeting with Pauling, accepted a contract with Caltech for the manufacture and distribution of the oxygen meter. To simplify the production process, Beckman built the world’s smallest glass-blowing device for purposes of creating the meter’s bulbs. Through this and a few other innovations, Beckman increased his manufacturing capacity to nearly one-hundred units monthly – at least ten times what Pauling’s team could have hoped to achieve.

For the remainder of the war, Pauling continued to oversee the production and distribution of the oxygen meter and Beckman, with his refined manufacturing process, succeeded in equipping Allied forces with hundreds of the devices. Customized models were also provided to laboratories and government institutions in both the U.S. and abroad, and were instrumental in the development of life-support systems for both pilots and submariners.

The use of Pauling’s oxygen meter did not end with the war. Following the close of hostilities, the meter was repurposed for the incubators used to house and protect premature infants. Hospital staffs were now able to maintain safe oxygen levels, reducing the risk of brain damage and death among newborns. Pauling was proud of his instrument’s peacetime applications and occasionally noted it as one of his more significant accomplishments.