Pauling v. Wrinch

“Report on the work of Dr. Dorothy Wrinch.” Written by Linus Pauling and submitted to the Rockefeller Institute. March 31, 1938.

[Part 3 of 4]

Dorothy Wrinch’s 1937 American tour brought her, and her highly controversial cyclol hypothesis, into the public consciousness. She attracted a lot of attention, but mistook that attention for firm support. Thus buoyed, she began making outsized claims as to the importance of her theory and, more importantly, false claims that it had already been scientifically proven. Wrinch’s rhetoric caused many of her friends and colleagues to distance themselves from her and her ideas. And when Pauling ultimately agreed to meet with Wrinch in Ithaca, New York, the gloves came off: Pauling slammed her ideas as plainly ridiculous, more fancy than fact.

The critical reaction to Wrinch’s ideas soon built into an onslaught. When she returned to the U.K., a group of British x-ray crystallographers argued that her suggestions were false. While Wrinch claimed that x-ray crystallography proved her theory, these scientists pointed out that, to the contrary, crystallographic results actively disproved her cyclols.

Stateside, Linus Pauling and Carl Niemann officially got in on the act with their publication of “The Structure of Proteins” in the July 1939 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In it, the authors declared that Wrinch’s cyclol cage was so thermodynamically unstable that it couldn’t even be produced in a lab intentionally, let alone be found in nature. From the article:

[We] draw the rigorous conclusion that the cyclol structure cannot be of primary importance for proteins; if it occurs at all…not more than about three percent of the amino acid residues could possess this configuration. [emphasis theirs]

Wrinch, who was looking for work in the U.S., was forced to respond to Pauling’s article with one of her own. In it she publicly questioned his competency and stated that “opponents of the cyclol hypothesis have felt compelled to fall back upon arguments which are specious (due to errors in logic), and upon experiments which are irrelevant…or incompetent to decide the issue.” (Although it wouldn’t be known until 1952, the last part of her accusation was correct – Pauling’s hypothesis was also partially inaccurate.) In an effort to keep the peace, JACS refused to publish her rebuttal until Pauling had been given a chance to review it. Once done, Pauling and Niemann wrote another response to Wrinch’s piece – one equally acidic as Wrinch’s – rebutting her response point-by-point, just as “The Structure of Proteins” had done to cyclol theory.

Their battle, played out in the pages of newspapers and among the referees of major scientific journals, was defined by vitriol for it duration. Wrinch would attack Pauling, even going after his earlier theories on chemical bond resonance; Pauling would respond, calling Wrinch’s theories unworthy of serious scientific debate. At one point, 13-year old Pam, Dorothy’s daughter, wrote a letter to Pauling, which suggested

Your attacks on my mother have been made rather too frequently. If you both think each other is wrong, it is best to prove it instead of writing disagreeable things about each other in papers. I think it would be best to have it out and see which one of you is really right.

As time passed, evidence continued to grow that Wrinch’s cylol theory was wrong. Nonetheless, she continued to defend the work with vigor. In her 1987 book on women in science, historian Pnina Abir-am wrote that Wrinch developed a “lifelong obsessive defense of her theory and refusal to follow the shifting scientific frontier.” Additionally, her counterattacks on Pauling were full of shaky logic and bad science, which reduced her credibility far more than it reduced his.

Wrinch gathered little support in the scientific community by going after Pauling, by then known to many as a major scientific figure. Frustrated, her ego again got the best of her, and she accused her colleagues of being “cowards” who were too scared of Pauling to see the truth of her theories. This strategy bore little fruit and the remainder of her support had largely vanished by the end of 1939.  By 1941 Pauling had emerged victorious and Wrinch was largely ostracized from the scientific community.

An uncommonly vitriolic letter from Pauling to David Harker concerning his role in the Wrinch affair. July 6, 1940.

Victory aside, Pauling did not cloak himself in glory with his actions. In the estimation of Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, the saga managed to “illuminate less appealing sides of Pauling’s character,” his strong-arm tactics “a demonstration of his new power.” Clearly a rising star within the scientific world, Pauling’s

prestige and acclaim brought out negative factors in his personality that became more evident as his power grew: a tendency toward self-righteousness, a desire to control situations and frame debates, and a willingness to silence those with aberrant ideas.


The aftermath of the drama found Wrinch in a severely compromised position. For starters, the Rockefeller Foundation terminated Wrinch’s fellowship, rendering her without funding as a result of her having failed to find more solid support for the cyclol theory in the five years allocated to her.

Wrinch spent the years 1939–1941 searching for jobs in the US and Canada. She lamented to her close friend, Otto Charles Glaser: “I am notoriously poor at institutions about people.” Glaser was a frequent correspondent and a big supporter of her work. Finally, in 1941, Glaser engineered a deal for Wrinch and she was offered a position as a joint visiting research professor at Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges.

Not long after she had moved to her new position in western Massachusetts, a mutual friend approached Wrinch and told her that Glaser was wildly in love with her. Wrinch was caught completely off guard by this news and was even more surprised when, shortly afterward, Glaser proposed to her. Wrinch asked for time to think about it before answering; she was still a bit nervous, seeing as how her first marriage had been so unhappy and ended poorly.

As she deliberated, Wrinch drew up a table of pros and cons on the topic of marrying Glaser, using terms including “net losses” and “net gains” in her contemplation. She asked Pam what she thought and her daughter told her to be careful, since her first marriage had been so awful. But on the same token, Pam thought, Glaser was a good man and Dorothy was clearly close to him. Ultimately Wrinch and Glaser were married on August 20, 1941, in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The wedding was a private affair, but still highly photographed and publicized. The couple permanently settled down in Massachusetts. As always, Dorothy was dedicated to maintaining her career, marriage, and her motherhood.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

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The Origins of the Crellin Laboratory

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 1 of 3]

By the early 1920s, the California Institute of Technology had become, in the minds of some, “the hub of America’s scientific establishments.” This point of prestige was especially notable because Caltech was so new and very geographically distant from other major scientific research enterprises, which were predominantly located on the east coast or around the Great Lakes region. Part of this success was due to the construction of the Gates Chemistry Laboratories, built in 1917 and expanded in 1927.

The prestige and skill exhibited by Caltech caught the attention of the very influential and wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, which began supporting certain of the Institute’s operations in the early 1930s.  This support was crucial for many reasons, one of them being that, by 1930, the Gates Laboratory had reached capacity. A.A. Noyes, chair of the Chemistry department at the time, commented that there was “literally no space for another research man,” and that greatly expanded facilities were exactly what the department needed to fulfill its vast potential. Linus Pauling, working in the Gates Lab, opined that the Institute was home to “the most forward looking Department of Chemistry with respect to physical chemistry in the world.” This was in no small part due to the superior leadership of Noyes, who had dramatically expanded the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering departments during his legendary tenure.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling's desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling's hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling’s desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling’s hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

The Rockefeller Foundation apparently agreed with Pauling’s assessment of Caltech’s capabilities, and in the early 1930s began to grant substantial funds to the Institute to further its leading positions in the fields of biology and chemistry. Specifically, the Institute held a key position in the development of a new field being pushed by the Foundation – a field described in 1938 as “molecular biology” by Rockefeller staffer Warren Weaver. Considering that the Great Depression was still in full swing, these additional funds were a godsend as research money was understandably difficult to come by.

In 1936, after some debate and controversy, Pauling was appointed the Chairman and Director of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and also the Director of the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, a position he held until 1958. Pauling was pleased with his increased responsibility and control, and decided that he wanted to revamp the department, and the labs in general, to better suit his vision for Caltech.

The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to provide Caltech with more money for purposes of expanding the Chemistry department and the Gates Lab. To this end, the Foundation also courted Edward W. Crellin, a retired steel magnate who lived in Pasadena. Fairly quickly, still in 1936, Crellin agreed to donate $350,000 – about $5.7 million in today’s dollars – in support of the construction of an expansion to the Gates lab, which was to be renamed the Gates and Crellin Chemical Laboratories. A year later, Crellin donated an additional $5,000 to provide floor coverings for the lab.

Edward W. Crellin.

Edward W. Crellin.

Pauling was so pleased by Crellin’s contributions that he named his son, born June 4, 1937, Edward Crellin Pauling. Even though Edward Crellin and Crellin Pauling never got to know each other – Edward Crellin died when Crellin Pauling was only 11 – he was still flattered by Linus Pauling’s gesture, and left $5,000 in his will for Crellin Pauling.

The architects for the building initiative were Francis Mayers, Oscar Murray, and Hardie Phillip, and the project was expensive. In March 1937, Pauling received a memo from the Chemistry department that suggested cuts to the building, in order to reduce costs. The memo listed 29 suggested reductions that would lower the total cost by $47,039. The list also included three suggested additions, which would add $965 to the bill. His eyes firmly set on a world-class facility, Pauling agreed to consider only a few minor possibilities: “omit some ceiling inserts” ($240), “simplify water proofing on vertical walls” ($450), “omit birch strips on exterior walls” ($158), and “use skim coat plaster” ($200).

In addition to the building itself, outfitting costs for the new space were also high. The equipment required for the lab to function ran to $36,000 – $51,000, depending on the contractor. In addition, basic chemicals were an extra $1,200. The Chemistry department rejected Pauling’s request for more specialized analytical machines, as they would tack on an extra $4,500.

The process of bartering for and ultimately purchasing the materials that the new lab would need was slowed down in July 1937 by over three weeks, when Carl Niemann, a colleague that Pauling had entrusted to do much of the purchasing, was hospitalized. Niemann wrote in a letter to Pauling that he had gone to see a doctor because he had a chunk of rust embedded in the cornea of his left eye, “and the first attempt to remove it was not particularly successful.” He was then hospitalized and had to “have the disturbing element removed and the seat of the injury cauterized.” Despite the potential severity of the injury, Niemann made a full recovery, and the quest to secure the necessary chemicals resumed.

Once the needed equipment and chemicals had been secured, more attention was paid to the new laboratory’s décor, and Caltech had a bronze tablet cast. The tablet, which was eventually installed at the entrance of the lab, read simply: “Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry. The Gift of Edward W. and Amy H. Crellin. 1937.”

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History

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Today is Linus Pauling’s birthday – he would have been 112 years old.  Every year on February 28th we try to do something special and this time around we’re pleased to announce a project about which we’re all very excited: the sixth in our series of Pauling documentary history websites.

Launched today, Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins is the both latest in the documentary history series and our first since 2010’s The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling. (we’ve been a little busy these past few years)  Like Pauling’s program of proteins research, the new website is sprawling and multi-faceted.  It features well over 200 letters and manuscripts, as well as the usual array of photographs, papers, audio and video that users of our sites have come to expect.  A total of more than 400 primary source materials illustrate and provide depth to the site’s 45-page Narrative, which was written by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager.

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Warren Weaver, 1967.

That narrative tells a remarkable story that was central to many of the twentieth century’s great breakthroughs in molecular biology.  Readers will, for example, learn much of Pauling’s many interactions with Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation, the organization whose interest in the “science of life” helped prompt Pauling away from his early successes on the structure of crystals in favor of investigations into biological topics.

So too will users learn about Pauling’s sometimes caustic confrontations with Dorothy Wrinch, whose cyclol theory of protein structure was a source of intense objection for Pauling and his colleague, Carl Niemann.  Speaking of colleagues, the website also delves into the fruitful collaboration enjoyed between Pauling and his Caltech co-worker, Robert Corey.  The controversy surrounding Pauling’s interactions with another associate, Herman Branson, are also explored on the proteins website.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Much is known about Pauling’s famously lost “race for DNA,” contested with Jim Watson, Francis Crick and a handful of others in the UK.  Less storied is the long running competition between Pauling’s laboratory and an array of British proteins researchers, waged several years before Watson and Crick’s breakthrough.  That triumph, the double helix, was inspired by Pauling’s alpha helix, discovered one day when Linus lay sick in bed, bored and restless as he fought off a cold. (This was before the vitamin C days, of course.)

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Many more discoveries lie in waiting for those interested in the history of molecular biology: the invention of the ultracentrifuge by The Svedberg; Pauling’s long dalliance with a theory of antibodies; his hugely important concept of biological specificity; and the contested notion of coiled-coils, an episode that once again pit Pauling versus Francis Crick.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins constitutes a major addition to the Pauling canon. It is an enormously rich resource that will suit the needs of many types of researchers, students and educators. It is, in short, a fitting birthday present for history’s only recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Happy birthday, Dr. Pauling!

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