The Legacy of the Crellin Laboratory

Linus Pauling in his office, Crellin Labs, 1955.

Linus Pauling in his office, Crellin Labs, 1955.

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

By the late 1940s, the Gates and Crellin Chemistry Laboratories had emerged as a major center of research globally; all of this accomplished despite the fact that the Crellin labs only opened in 1938.  With the conclusion of World War II, the labs were able to transfer their research back to their original pre-war queue. In the case of the Crellin Lab, this meant a resumption of work on projects deemed important to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Science of Man agenda.

In January 1947, after the conclusion of the very productive war years and almost a decade after a massive explosion and ensuing fire which caused about $14,000 in damages, the Gates and Crellin Laboratories were inspected for safety. The review showed a marked improvement in conditions since the inspection that followed the August 10, 1939 fire. Indeed, the building had seen scarcely any lab injuries since 1946.

Nonetheless, safety inspectors remained concerned, mostly because the facility was lacking in chemical showers – first response equipment crucial in the event of human contact with acid. The inspectors likewise found that too many laboratory doors were kept locked, that the workshop lacked adequate guards on its machines, and that the library’s ladders were too flimsy. On the plus side, the housekeeping was rated as “excellent.”

The Crellin Laboratory, ca. 1938.

The Crellin Laboratory, ca. 1938.

Within a few months of the inspection, a Barnstead purification system was installed on Crellin’s third floor to provide the chemistry labs with distilled water. The project wasn’t cheap – it was initially bid at just over $1,300 and Linus Pauling was infuriated when the contractor abruptly, and without explanation, increased this bill to $1,900. Regardless, the new addition was important, and helped the lab’s chemists to continue to improve upon their research.

In 1948 Pauling and his family moved to England for a two-term stay at Oxford University. Once everyone had settled in, Pauling took the time to write a friendly letter to Edward W. Crellin, the benefactor after whom the Crellin Laboratory is named.  “Now that spring has come here,” he wrote, “and the weather is more like that in Pasadena, I myself find that I think about you more and more often, and wish that I could just come up the street in order to have a talk with you.”

Alas, this opportunity would never present itself as, in mid-May, Pauling received a telegram from back home informing him that E.W. Crellin had died. Shortly afterward, Pauling received another note saying that E.W. Crellin had left $5,000 in his will for Crellin Pauling, at eleven the youngest Pauling child.


By the 1960s, Caltech had fulfilled a prediction made by Max Delbrück in 1947:  it had become to biology what Manchester was to physics in the 1910s. A major reason for this was the capacity for work provided for by the Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry. Their labs in organic chemistry and physical chemistry were used to help solve biological matters and had proven invaluable to science, especially to the Science of Man agenda.

In the roughly twenty years that Linus Pauling ran the labs, he increased the size of the departments using the space and boldly directed their activities as he saw fit. As with most periods of change, this era of progress was not without its discontents: some people felt that Pauling enjoyed being in the spotlight a little too much, and that this hindered collaboration. But few would even attempt to deny his effectiveness. That his tenure in Pasadena coincided with the flourishing of Caltech’s reputation is not a coincidence.

The Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry continue to stand as a globally renowned research center to this day. On the same token, Gates and Crellin also comprise the oldest facility still in use on the Caltech campus. The Gates portion of the structure was damaged in the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, but was rebuilt and revamped, and now remains a major component of Caltech’s research infrastructure. The Crellin wing currently houses laboratories in organic and bio-organic chemical synthesis, in addition to key departmental apparatus, specifically the nuclear magnetic resonance, electron paramagnetic resonance, and mass spectrometry facilities. While physical chemistry labs remain important in the space, now under the direction of Dennis Dougherty, organic chemistry research has taken on preeminence in the Crellin lab generally.

Jonas Peters, the Executive Officer of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech, (who was kind enough to answer our questions as we researched this piece) says that the future of the lab is dynamic and hard to determine, with projects and plans changing depending on the interests of its staff. Recently of note, a new biochemistry project was initiated in the Crellin Lab by Douglass Rees, one “dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of nitrogen fixation by the enzyme nitrogenase.”

Though the specifics are uncertain, it is apparent that the Crellin laboratory, now seventy-five years old, is thriving and will continue to provide useful and exciting research for many years to come.


Building the Crellin Lab (and keeping it standing)

Image of the Crellin Laboratory taken around the time of its dedication in 1938.

Image of the Crellin Laboratory taken around the time of its dedication in 1938.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 2 of 3]

During the 1930s, the Biology and Chemistry departments of the California Institute of Technology grew substantially, in part because of major support received from the Rockefeller Foundation. One of the most visible and dramatic examples of this growth spurt was the new Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry, an addition to the older Gates Laboratory of Chemistry. The new Crellin lab was under construction by 1937, set to be finished in 1938.

Indeed, 1938 was a big year for Caltech. Largely because of the efforts of Linus Pauling, the Rockefeller Foundation donated the huge sum of $800,000 to support research. Of that substantial amount, $250,000 was set aside to fund work in the new Crellin and Gates labs for the following five to seven years. The entire effort was in support of the Foundation’s “Science of Man” agenda, a cultural and scientific enterprise which has since proven to be somewhat controversial, due to the fact that a guiding principle of the project was eugenics.

Support for the study of eugenics largely lost credibility in the United States (and globally), after World War II and the widespread practice of eugenics by the Nazis. Specific to the U.S. concern, Nazi leadership testifying at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials cited American eugenics programs as being an inspiration and justification for their own programs, a declaration that horrified many Americans. Despite this sudden and dramatic distaste for eugenics – as historian Lily Kay and others have pointed out – the Science of Man agenda remained intact well after World War II had ended.

But in the Depression years of the late 1930s, funding from the Rockefeller Foundation continued to be instrumental and Caltech continued to hold a privileged position. From 1930-1955, Caltech was one of six schools that received the lion’s share of the Foundation’s research money allocations. In that time, Caltech and the University of Chicago received $5 million, Stanford and Columbia University received $1 million, and Harvard and the University of Wisconsin received $500,000.

By early 1938, construction of the Crellin laboratory was complete. The new building was three stories tall with two basements and contained over fifty rooms. The second and third floors were entirely dedicated to organic chemistry, a major passion of A. A. Noyes’, while the first floor and basements were set aside for physical chemistry. The lab was dedicated on May 16, 1938, and immediately began working productively. The years 1938 and 1939 both proved to be very fruitful, with substantial amounts of useful research conducted. But this otherwise excellent record was marred in the summer of 1939 by a very scary incident.

Pauling's notes on the 1939 explosion.

Pauling’s notes on the 1939 explosion. Note the final sentence: “Koepfli heard the explosion at his home, nearly a mile away.”

On August 10, 1939, two Caltech researchers, Leo Brewer and Thurston Skei, were conducting an experiment in room 351 of the Crellin Laboratory. In the midst of their work the bottom of a container fell off, spilling six liters of liquid ether all over the floor. Brewer and Skei quickly cleaned the spill up, and checked to make sure the room was safe, which it appeared to be.

At that point, Skei left the room to attend to matters elsewhere, leaving Brewer alone. Five minutes later, a spark from a motor running in the building’s ventilation ducts ignited ether fumes, which had been sucked into the ventilation system. The air in room 351 quickly ignited, severely burning Brewer, who immediately, and fortunately, ran from the room. Three seconds later, the lockers, desks, and storage containers in room 351, filled with flammable gasses and liquids, exploded, destroying all the windows on that half of the floor and blowing apart the room’s main entry door as well as part of a wall. Additionally, five other rooms sustained damage from the explosion.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

As if that weren’t enough, the ventilation fans in the fume hoods in Crellin 351 sucked the flames upward into the hoods, which ignited another set of drums containing ten gallons of liquid ether, in turn starting a massive fire which spread to two adjacent rooms. The force of the explosion had also shattered almost every piece of glass on the entire floor and knocked over numerous storage shelves. As a result, various chemicals began to mix, and the entire third floor began to flood with poisonous gasses.

In quick response, graduate students and staff alike grabbed gas masks and fire extinguishers, and charged up to the third floor. Amazingly, they succeeded in containing the fire and prevented it from spreading into even more adjacent rooms, including the building’s library. They also managed to extinguish the burning walls in the main hallway. Not long after, the Pasadena Fire Department arrived, and firemen ran into room 351, which was furiously ablaze due to the drums containing the ten gallons of ether. The firefighters ripped 351’s fume hoods out of the wall with axes and eventually extinguished the last of the fire.

In the aftermath, Pauling passed along word of the explosion to several of his colleagues, though did his best to downplay it when communicating the news, seven days after the fact, to his main contact at the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver.

Perhaps you read in the papers that we had a fire in the Crellin Laboratory. Fortunately no one was injured and the damage was restricted almost entirely to the undergraduate organic laboratory, with very little research lost. We had complete insurance coverage and shall have the laboratory in shape for the students when the Institute opens next month.

In reality, the explosion and ensuing fire had destroyed almost $3,300 worth of equipment, and by the time the rather extensive repairs were done, the accident had cost about $14,000. Fortunately nobody was killed – Brewer was the only injury, and he made a full recovery. It is worth noting that lab fires were common enough at the time that the emergency procedures for the lab only required personnel to call the fire department if the staff and graduate students on hand couldn’t contain the fire themselves.

Regardless, Caltech quickly regained its footing. After the repairs were done, the labs continued with their research, and made major contributions during World War II and after.

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.”