Chairing the Division During the War: Maintaining Security and Revising the Curriculum

Linus Pauling, 1942

[Pauling as Administrator]

As chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Linus Pauling was tasked with focusing, administratively, on the big picture while also maintaining and protecting ongoing research. This was especially so with confidential work being conducted during the Second World War.

One early incident that required Pauling’s input came about near the end of Fall 1942 when Foster Strong, a physics instructor, observed an undergraduate student using a master key to enter unauthorized rooms in the Crellin Laboratory. Upon catching him, Strong broke the key while giving the student, according to Pauling’s subsequent report, a “severe lecture about the seriousness of the offense.” As it turned out, the lecture did not take.

The following February, Elizabeth Swingle, the division’s stockroom keeper, saw this same student using a key to enter the stockroom. The first time she caught him, the student claimed that he was only able to get in because Swingle had left the door open. When Swingle later walked in on the student – this time accompanied by others – in the stockroom after hours, Swingle went to Pauling. She described this second encounter in a formal report, noting that “a look of surprise and a flush spread over [the student’s] face when he saw me.”

When confronted by Pauling, the student originally said that he had copied another student’s key to obtain entry. Later he admitted that this was a lie, and that he had originally had two keys made. Being in possession of an unauthorized master key was, in Pauling’s judgement, a “serious offence” because of the “confidential nature of some of the work being done” at the labs as part of the war effort. Pauling directed that the student no longer work in the Crellin facility any more.

Just over a month later, Swingle found the Crellin stockroom unlocked on a Monday morning, despite having locked the door on her way out the previous Saturday. Upon inspection, she found that sixty liters of an anesthetic, absolute diethyl ether, and 150g of vanillin, an extract of vanilla, were missing. A few weeks later, Swingle found two keys left on a table by the stockroom; one would permit entry into the room.


At the next division council meeting, it was decided that this series of events was serious enough as to merit the hire of a security guard to keep an eye on both Gates and Crellin during nights and weekends. It was also decided that identification cards would be issued to those with clearance to access the building after hours. Master keys would be restricted to faculty members only, and the provision of additional master keys to others would be up to Pauling. Elizabeth Swingle, along with two other women, had their master key privileges revoked.

At the beginning of June, the Institute also came to a decision on a just punishment for the undergraduate whose activities had caused such concern. It was found that the student had violated Caltechs honor system and that he would be placed on disciplinary probation for the remainder of his time as an undergraduate. This meant that he could not hold elected office or work on campus.

Three days after the decision had been rendered, Swingle reported to Pauling that someone had left the stockroom a mess. “Some chemical had been spilled on my desk leaving the finish injured,” she wrote. In addition, “there was a yellow colored chemical on the floor, in the waste paper basket, and on two towels.” Upon further examination, Swingle determined that the yellow chemical was quinone, and subsequently found that 100 grams of the substance was missing from the stockroom’s inventory. Pauling asked around, inquiring if any research groups had been using quinone and if any lab workers may have removed it without filling out a charge slip. None of the colleagues with whom he inquired were using the chemical at the time.

By July the ID badge system had been put into place, restricting access to Gates and Crellin between 6:00 p.m. and 7:45 a.m. on weekdays, and between 1:00 p.m. Saturday and 7:45 a.m. Monday. A year passed without incident.

Then, in 1944, Biochemistry professor Arie Haagen-Smit saw a research assistant for the NDRC-Chem-13 project enter a laboratory in the Kerckhoff basement where confidential and secret war work was being carried out. Haagen-Smit confronted the researcher and asked how he got in. He replied that there were “a number of keys around which open practically all the doors on campus.” A friend who was a graduate student in mathematics had given him the key to see if there was any equipment in the restricted lab that he could use for his research in NDRC-Chem-13. In response, Pauling again directed that limitations be placed on master keys and the division encountered little trouble thereafter.


As World War II came to an end, the division recognized a pressing need to reassess its graduate offerings, which had been rapidly updated amidst the pressure to meet wartime demands. One area that had suffered as a result of this update was organic chemistry, a point that was emphasized to Pauling by his colleague Edwin Buchman. Noting that there was a lack of instruction and organization when it came to graduate training in organic chemistry, Buchman requested that Pauling form a committee to define policies around research and teaching in the division.

Pauling also worked beyond the division level to update graduate programs across the Institute through his committee assignments. A member and, on occasion, the acting chair of the Graduate Committee on Post-War Policies, Pauling also served on the Faculty Board and Curriculum Committee. During one meeting, Pauling became especially intrigued by physicist E.C. Watson’s idea that Caltech accelerate its graduate work through the implementation of new teaching methods. By doing so, Watson saw the potential for Caltech to repeat its successes from the 1920s, the decade during which they had initiated their current system, becoming an “excellent graduate school” frequently “copied by other technical schools” in the process. On a practical level, this would mean dropping applied courses for which there had been an urgent deman during the war, such as industrial design. Though expressed with the intention that they be applied across the Institute, Watson’s ideas lined up well with what Pauling had in mind for the division that he oversaw.


Another component of the graduate program requiring scrutiny was Caltech’s masters degree offerings. Differing from many other technical institutes, Caltech’s Master of Science degree was essentially a continuation of undergraduate work, with the degree awarded following the completion of a fifth year. To attract students to the program, Pauling proposed implementing a scholarship program similar to that offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which covered tuition and provided a stipend of between $700 to $1,000 for eight months of study. Much later, in the spring of 1953, Pauling suggested further expanding the program by lowering a barrier to entry. Pauling’s idea was that Caltech treat its undergraduate seniors as first year graduate students, thus allowing them to focus more on research and to gain entry to laboratory space.

As part of their fifth year, master’s degree-seeking students at Caltech were required to take one course in the humanities: an introductory survey of English literature, history, philosophy, or economics. During a December 1944 meeting of the Graduate Committee on Post-War Policies in which he was Acting Chair, Pauling pointed out that the addition of a humanities requirement had been made in 1928 as a result of faculty action and was “not a part of the general policies of the Institute as expressed by the Trustees.” Pauling’s comments came on the heels of a previous committee recommendation that the Board of Trustees “abolish” the humanities requirement for the master’s degree.

The humanities requirement was brought up again two weeks later, but no decision could be reached. At the meeting that followed, Pauling put forth an alternative idea — that the Institute consider adding courses in the history and philosophy of science. The committee agreed enough with this sentiment to recommend that the Division of Humanities look into hiring someone in the field. A few years, Caltech brought aboard Rodman W. Paul, whose research interests were in the histories of mining and agriculture. Student enthusiasm for coursework of this kind was such that Caltech eventually created an entire program in the history and philosophy of science.