Final Years as Division Chair: The End of Pauling’s Chairmanship

Pasadena Independent, June 1958

[Pauling as Administrator; Part 20 of 20]

The final years of Linus Pauling’s tenure as chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology were marked by steady change within the division and the Institute. One shift, first discussed in 1956, was a revision of the freshman chemistry curriculum to incorporate physics-based theoretical approaches that had been developed since 1940. By covering these topics in the first year, Caltech’s undergraduates would be adequately well-equipped to take organic chemistry as sophomores. Other curricular edits focused on removing a handful of junior- and senior-year requirements, thus freeing up room for electives.

Though the undergraduate population was robust enough to merit a rethinking of the coursework being offered, graduate studies at the Institute were suffering. The difficulties that Caltech was facing with attracting graduate students were in turn leading to a lack of people available to teach lower-level undergraduate courses. Seeking to address this problem, Institute President Lee DuBridge suggested to the division chairs that they consider increasing the stipend offered to graduate instructors. Amidst these conversations though, a steady buzz about Pauling’s growing public image, and its potential impact on Caltech’s well-being, could not be avoided. Pressures of this sort ultimately undermined Pauling’s position of leadership at Caltech and resulted in his stepping down from his administrative post.

Just two months after dealing with unfavorable press from conservative columnist Fulton Lewis, Jr. and subsequent threats from major donors to withdraw financial support from Caltech, Pauling appeared on the May 11, 1958 episode of Meet the Press. [Audio of this appearance is included below — credit: and the Gordon Skene Sound Collection]

At first, the panel cordially questioned Pauling about his petition to ban nuclear testing. But as the interview went on, panelists began to ask more leading questions about Pauling being a Communist, and the show became especially heated once the panel brought up Fulton Lewis’ allegations that the petition had cost $10 per signature. Pauling’s own calculations put the correct amount at 3¢ per signature, but he was cut off as he attempted to give his final response. Following the episode, Pauling received scores of letters thanking him for his work and sympathizing with how poorly he had been treated by the interviewers. Some correspondents even sent him money in hopes that their donation might assist with the petition initiative.

A decidedly different cache of letters came into President DuBridge’s office. Among them were expressions of outrage at Pauling’s activities accompanied by threats to withhold future donations to Caltech. DuBridge forwarded “one of many” of these letters to Pauling. Authored by someone who simply signed off as “Disturbed,” the letter writer described themself as being “truly frightened” by Pauling, a “psychopathic” character who was in “consistent alignment with Communist activities.” For Disturbed, Pauling’s appearance on Meet the Press held no redeeming value as far as Caltech was concerned. The author also pointed out that they had no children and threatened to remove Caltech from consideration in their will. For Disturbed, it was beyond to pale to have

men like this fellow in top faculty positions – men who may, for all I know, be in a position to share the secrets of defense production that go on at Cal-Tech.

As for DuBridge, this latest controversy was the last straw. After forwarding Disturbed’s letter, the Caltech president called Pauling into his office to ask that he stop his peace work and to tell him – according to Pauling’s notes – that he was the “laughing stock of people everywhere.” In this meeting, DuBridge stressed that Pauling’s activities were directly interfering with Caltech’s ability to raise money, noting specifically a development fund of $16 million that went to Harvey Mudd College instead. DuBridge also told Pauling that the Institute’s trustees had seriously considered dismissing him, but did not do so because of concerns related to academic freedom.

In response, Pauling told DuBridge that he would continue to follow his conscience, but also put forth a scenario that would give DuBridge a way out of his own political bind. Pauling’s proposal was that he be appointed a Research Professor with no teaching duties so that his salary would only be charged against research funds. Importantly, Pauling also suggested that he step down as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. In Pauling’s mind, this revision of duties would help to reduce potential damage to fundraising efforts caused by his public appearances.

A month later, Pauling again suggested to DuBridge that his duties be shifted, but this time asked that he not be appointed a Research Professor – after thinking about it for a while, he realized that he enjoyed teaching too much and did not want to give it up. He was, however, prepared to cede his administrative position immediately, telling DuBridge that he would stay on as chair longer if needed, but would prefer to exit as soon as he could.

Extra time was not necessary and Ernest Swift took over the chair on June 30, 1958. The annual report issued by the division marked this major transition by avoiding the politics of the situation. In it, President DuBridge gave his own spin on why Pauling was stepping down, saying, “He has served as Division Chairman for twenty-one years, and his desire for relief is entirely understandable.” The report also noted how, on seemingly equal footing, the transition to the new curriculum structure was continuing to go smoothly.

Once established, Ernest Swift took the division in a different direction, giving more sway to the sub-disciplines within the unit than had Pauling. Lab space was also reorganized, with Pauling and his research teams given less space. Pauling’s salary was likewise reduced from $18,000 to $15,000, a reflection of the argument that Pauling had made two decades earlier that his pay should be increased with the added responsibilities of being division chair.

And despite the hope that Pauling might be able to express his views in public more freely without harming Caltech’s finances, his public persona remained a source of problems. Even after Pauling had stepped down from the chair, President DuBridge continued to send Pauling letters that he had received from those who were upset with his public statements and his alleged communism. Pauling’s response to one such letter was “I think that he is a hopeless case – probably a junior member of the John Birch Society.”

Sadly, Pauling’s second Nobel Prize in 1963 only increased the tension, and neither the Institute nor his own division provided any formal recognition of the honor. Rather, DuBridge went so far as to disparage Pauling’s methods for seeking peace. The snub proved to be too much for Pauling, and not long after accepting the prize he announced that he would be leaving Caltech in favor of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. After a close and hugely productive association that spanned forty-one years, Pauling’s affiliation with Caltech was reduced to that of Research Associate, as defined by a series of unpaid contracts that were renewed annually into the late 1960s.