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.