A Cold War Division Chair: The Church Laboratory and a Big Step Toward Pauling’s Post-War Plan

Linus Pauling, unidentified [Norman Church?] and George Beadle participating in what is believed to be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Church Laboratory, circa 1955

[Pauling as Administrator]

Though pressures related to his political activism began to pose more and more problems for Linus Pauling, he was largely able to maintain effectiveness in his position as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Notably, in the midst of all the controversy, he was able to keep on track the planning for a new biochemical laboratory to be built on campus.

Plans for the new facility began to take shape in 1952, following a three-year fundraising effort. And as the architects started to work out the specifics of the new building, each research group within the division began to stake their claims to the amount of space they thought they needed.

Chief among these claimants was Pauling himself. With Dan Campbell, Pauling put in for 15,000 feet to be used by the immunochemistry group. A separate request for 12,000 square feet was also put forth by Pauling, joined this time by Robert Corey and the x-ray diffraction group. Both requests were double the space allocated to these activities in in the Crellin Lab. In addition, Pauling wanted an increase in his personal office and laboratory space, bumping up from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. By comparison, Carl Niemann’s enzyme group was to receive 4,500 square feet and the analytical chemistry group would get 3,000.

At the end of August 1952, fundraising for the new building received a big boost when Caltech accepted $750,000 from a local businessman, Norman W. Church. The gift was large enough to pay for the shell of a 70,000 square foot biochemical laboratory, though not enough to connect the new laboratory to Crellin, as was the ambition. (Caltech thought that it could potentially cover the cost of doing so itself.) Estimates to complete the entire building ran to $1,400,000, with another $270,000 anticipated for furnishings. By the next May, as the Institute began accepting construction bids, those estimates rose to around $2 million to complete the main wing.

As the project advanced, it became clear that the funds on hand were not sufficient. In August 1953, J. Holmes Sturdivant, who was supervising the Biology component of the project, conveyed to Pauling the bad news that the project was short to the tune of $500,000. To make amends, Sturdivant felt it likely that the design would have to scrap two planned basements and not furnish the building as originally conceived.

Pauling appointed a committee to address this matter, and the committee concluded that the two basements were crucial to the project because the new facility would be too small to function effectively otherwise. The group further suggested that it was fine to keep portions of the building unfurnished at the outset — the basement was the priority. Pauling agreed, telling Caltech President Lee DuBridge that they could always raise more money to fully furnish the space later on.

Entrance to the Church Laboratory. Image credit: California Institute of Technology

Not merely interested in the internal layout of the new biochemical laboratory, Pauling also wanted to make a stylistic imprint on the building’s exterior. In his visits to England and France four years prior, Pauling toured many eleventh and twelfth century Norman churches and was impressed by the elaborate receding arched doorways – many of them decorated with depictions of spirits – that adorned these houses of worship.

Since the new Caltech building would be called the Norman W. Church Laboratory, Pauling thought it appropriate to similarly decorate its main entrance using depictions of bacterial cells, viruses, animals, molecular crystals, and scientific instruments. In the end though, this idea did not come to pass. Whether it was from lack of interest or lack of funds, the final building boasted a much less ornate entryway.

Linus Pauling and George Beadle, circa 1950s

In 1952, Warren Weaver, Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, informed George Beadle, who was the chair of Caltech’s Biology division, that the foundation planned to reduce its support for biological projects due to an increasing number of alternative funding sources that were becoming available. That said, Caltech would still be at the top of the foundation’s list for research funding requests of “a more general nature.”

Knowing full well that the Institute was nearing the end of a seven-year $700,000 Rockefeller grant covering biochemical research, Weaver told Beadle of the potential for a new $1 million allocation that could fund ten to twenty years of biochemistry research with additional money allocated for equipment. In his communications with DuBridge and Pauling, Beadle emphasized that “Weaver made it quite clear without saying so directly that we would not be left high and dry.”

That Weaver had communicated this possibility to Beadle rather than Pauling was perhaps a sign of Pauling’s decreasing involvement in higher levels of active leadership at Caltech since the end of the Second World War. But while he no longer appeared to take the lead, Pauling did maintain an important role in securing funding as head of his division. And as he worked to generate funds to broaden the divisions horizons, he continued to cling to the original post-war vision for biochemical medical research at Caltech that he had first formulated eight years earlier, a vision that had thus far received relatively minimal financial support.

In making their formal appeal to the Rockefeller Foundation for further funding, Pauling and Beadle first laid out the extant funding sources that were currently supporting their two divisions. They began by noting that the Institute itself provided $325,000 per year for chemistry and $250,000 for biology. Another $600,000 in soft money was also on hand, including $100,000 per budget cycle from the current Rockefeller grant. Finally, an additional $300,000 was channeled annually to the two units from endowment funds.

Some of those endowments came from individuals who had willed their estates to the Institute. In May 1952, Pauling wrote to Caltech trustee George E. Farrand to express his gratitude to a Mrs. Robinson who had left “the bulk of her estate” to Caltech for cancer research. In his note, Pauling touted the Institute as being the perfect place to conduct fundamental research that might supplement clinical trials going on elsewhere. But he hastened to add that these kinds of donations were not enough to sustain the levels of medical research that he and his colleagues thought possible.

As Pauling and Beadle crafted their pitch to the Rockefeller Foundation, they stressed that future support needed to be long-term – at least fifteen to twenty years – if they were going to attract tenured faculty capable of conducting world class research. Covering a time span of this length would require around $3 million and the duo requested that the foundation commit to providing half this total, with the other half to be raised by the Institute from other sources. With funding at this level on hand, and with endowment interest accruing, the two divisions would be able to spend, at most, $150,000 a year for a minimum of fourteen years.

Happily, the foundation agreed to Pauling and Beadle’s proposal, with the proviso that the Institute generate the matching funds within the next three years. This major commitment from a key external partner appeared to finally secure Pauling’s postwar plan for long-term biochemical research at Caltech.

Chairing the Division After the War: Progress Toward Pauling’s Post-War Plan

Linus Pauling, 1947

[Pauling as Administrator]

In January 1946, Linus Pauling presented his plan for a joint research program to be shared between the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. Delivered for the third time to the Institute’s Board of Trustees, Pauling’s vision called for

an expansion of the work of these Divisions during the next fifteen or twenty years, in order that a very promising field of investigation intermediate between chemistry and biology may be cultivated; this field of investigation is also very closely related to medicine.

In putting forth these ideas, Pauling sought to build and expand upon previous research successes that had emerged from support provided by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In his talk, Pauling noted that the past two decades had brought about the development of immunochemistry, chemical genetics, and the use of radioactive tracers. These breakthroughs had made more feasible the potential determination of the “structure and nature” of substances smaller than the cell­­ – enzymes, proteins, genes, and viruses – that are not visible under a microscope. But determining these structures, Pauling told the board, would require

a considerable expansion in chemistry and biology, with the addition to the staff of specialists in fields such as enzyme chemistry, nucleic acid chemistry, microbiology, general physiology, and virology.

In making his argument, Pauling brought Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver into the mix by sharing “that in his opinion there is no place in the world so well suited for this work as the California Institute of Technology.” If the trustees agreed to go along, Pauling believed that the program could potentially bring in as much as $6 million worth of Rockefeller support to split between divisions and enable the construction of two new buildings.

While he had faith that the Rockefeller Foundation would provide significant external funding for his plan, Pauling also had his eye on other sources. One noteworthy resource in this regard was E. K. Wickman of the Commonwealth Fund, whom Pauling queried about granting capacity at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Wickman reviewed the foundation’s assets and earnings, and reported back that they likely had $10 million in their national reserves at the start of the year, and had since established a goal of raising another $25 million through their annual March of Dimes. Wickman added that this was a conservative estimate, and urged that

Considering that the National is now pricked by criticism for large accumulations, that it has just had fresh increases, and that as a relative newcomer in the philanthropic field it may want to establish a reputation in competition with the old foundations, you may well be coming to them at the right moment for a substantial grant.

Thus encouraged, Pauling, along with colleagues George Beadle and Alfred Sturtevant, drew up “A Proposed Program of Research on the Fundamental Problems of Biology and Medicine.” The proposal asked for $6 million over the next fifteen to twenty years and was submitted to the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The overarching goal of the proposed program was to “uncover basic principles” in the biochemistry of medicine including the structure and mechanism of genes, a general understanding of viruses and antibodies, and the physiological basis of drugs. The authors also expected that plenty of practical discoveries would be made along the way.

The proposal placed special emphasis on the need to attract people trained in biology and medicine as graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. It pointed out that the number of graduate students working in the divisions authoring the proposal had dropped by more than twenty since the end of the war, a trend that would need to be stanched were the Institute to achieve new heights. Fortunately, at least in the authors’ views, Caltech was particularly well-positioned to support a new and ambitious program, one that would usher in “a period of great and fundamental progress, similar to that through which physics and chemistry have passed during the last thirty-five years.”

Once they had evaluated the proposal, the Rockefeller Foundation, as was their custom, asked for assurance that Caltech would continue to support biochemistry and biophysics with its own institutional resources. The foundation was also not prepared to support the construction of new buildings. (With this information in hand, Pauling and Beadle pressed Caltech President Lee DuBridge to earmark other Institute funds for constructing the new buildings.)

Ultimately the Rockefeller trustees agreed to provide a measure of support, but it fell far short of the proposal’s ambitious ask. A semiannual grant of $50,000 was allocated, to be paid out over seven years for a grand total of $700,000 in funding. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis also agreed to a partial measure: a five-year grant totaling $300,000.

Pauling, Beadle and Sturtevant were glad to have these pledges of support in hand and saw other routes to arriving at the $6 million original ask; among them a $2.3 million private bequest recently made to the Institute. With funding momentum gathering, Pauling decided that he would shorten his forthcoming Eastman residency at Oxford University so that he could devote more time to creating action items and managing budgets.

Once implemented, it did not take long for the new plan to show fruit. By 1947, Institute researchers had set upon an ambitious research agenda that included studies of the structure, composition and molecular weight of amino acids, peptides, proteins, and viruses; the chemistry of enzymes and nucleic acids; immunochemistry; serological genetics and embryology; chemical genetics; virology; and intermediary metabolism in plants and animals. Nascent and proposed research ideas also included electron microscopy studies of viruses and proteins; the chemistry of nucleic acids; and other topics in microbiology, physiology and biophysics.

And yet, despite the new money, adequate funding emerged as an uncertainty once news of a $240,000 budgeted shortfall began to circulate. As a corrective, the division started to look at other pots of money to cover the gap, including another large grant that had been promised by the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as smaller sources, like a $3,300 award that George Beadle had received from the Eli Lilly Company to work on the biosynthesis of vitamins. Certain funding lines however, including a five-year $75,000 grant that Pauling had secured in 1945 from Union Carbide to support fundamental research on the structure of metals and alloys, remained out of bounds.

The fresh funding coming in for biochemical work aligned nicely with President DuBridge’s emphasis on returning Caltech to its pre-war focus on fundamental research. A return of this sort was needed because the war years had pushed the Institute towards contract work that was funded by the government and private entities. These contracts were particularly attractive to faculty, as the deals often served as a source of extra income on top of their Caltech salaries.

Indeed, more money for individual use was becoming a necessity. Notably, a 1947 report commissioned by DuBridge showed that the cost of living in Pasadena had increased “well over 40 per cent” since the start of the decade. To keep pace with Harvard, Berkeley and MIT, Caltech would need to raise its salaries by 50% above 1940 levels, followed by an additional 75% increase over the next three years. At the time that the report was issued, Caltech had only boosted its salaries by 20% since the start of the war.

One solution that DuBridge found to address this problem that allowed him to also enforce Caltech’s existing restrictions on doing contract work, was to change the salary structure for faculty such that they were paid a twelve month salary at the same monthly rate as their nine month salary. In instituting this change, DuBridge effectively gave his faculty a raise that was equal to three months of pay.

In the meantime, Pauling continued to recruit new faculty into the Institute. He assisted E. C. Watson, Caltech’s Dean of Faculty, in looking for a mathematician and solid state physicist while he was in residency at Oxford. One name that Pauling put forth was Mary Cartwright of Cambridge, who had recently been named the first female fellow of the Royal Society and who came recommended as the “most outstanding younger mathematician in England.”

Pauling had less luck finding good physicists in England, but did recommend Clarence Zener of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Metals. The following month, Pauling suggested that Paul Dirac – then of the Institute for Advanced Study – be invited to Caltech, which Pauling felt he might consider for a professorship. Ultimately none of these suggestions worked out, but Pauling’s grander vision for post-war science at Caltech was unarguably moving forward.