Pauling as an Adviser for the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships

Linus Pauling, ca. 1940s

Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation

As a member of both the Advisory Board and Committee of Selection for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Linus Pauling had to judge applicants both inside and outside the scientific community, and share his opinions in person at Committee meetings or in writing with Guggenheim secretary Henry Allen Moe. In conducting this work, Pauling would sometimes meet with applicants in person, but more often Moe requested Pauling’s opinion of applicants as they appeared on paper.

One early instance of Moe seeking Pauling’s judgment was Thomas W. Talley’s 1941 application for funding to write a new synthesis of chemical knowledge. Pauling did not look upon this idea favorably, believing that Talley had overestimated the value of his theory while offering no details of the discoveries that would support it. Pauling also thought that Talley’s proposal was “behind the times” as others had already used quantum mechanics to explain pieces of what Talley proposed.


On many occasions, Pauling was asked to give his opinion of work being conducted in the chemistry laboratories at Caltech; perhaps unsurprisingly, he often held these applications in high regard. In one instance, Pauling advocated that Frank Johnson, who had been awarded a Fellowship, be granted a four-month extension to finish working on a book. In a letter to Moe, Pauling explained that Johnson – at Pauling’s urging – had been caught up doing “extremely interesting and important” fundamental research on the impacts of high pressures on protein reactions, and thus had been afforded less time to work on his book.

Another colleague, Lindsay Helmholz, had worked alongside Pauling for twelve years before departing to Dartmouth for half a decade, and then returning to Pasadena in 1945. Pauling described Helmholz as “thoroughly trained,” an “excellent teacher,” and an “able and effective” researcher, if “not, however, very original or imaginative.” On account of these latter qualities, Pauling placed Helmholz outside the “top group of research men.” That said, Helmholz’ application was strong and could potentially lead to valuable results, and even with Pauling’s hedging endorsement, Helmholz was granted a Fellowship.


In 1951, Moe requested Pauling’s opinion of James Arthur Campbell, a chemist at Oberlin College who wanted to travel to England to learn more about crystal structure determinations. Pauling had met Campbell the previous year at a workshop in Oklahoma and thought him “ideal” to teach at Oberlin or somewhere similar. Pauling noted that Campbell’s interests were broad but his research was well-defined, which made it easier for his students to follow and provide assistance.

That said, in the wider constellation of those working in structural chemistry, Pauling found Campbell to be “not outstanding” and relatively lacking in experience. Nevertheless, Pauling also felt that Campbell would benefit from studying overseas, comparing him to Earl C. Gilbert of Oregon State College, a former professor of Pauling’s who visited Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 and 1929. Pauling suggested that Campbell and Oberlin would benefit from his receiving a Guggenheim just as Gilbert and Oregon State had done. Alas, that possibility was not enough to get Campbell funded for 1951, though he would earn a Fellowship twelve years later.


Pauling also consulted with his colleagues at Caltech about Guggenheim applicants. Many of these discussions were held with geneticist A. H. Sturtevant, astronomer Theodore Dunham, Jr., biochemist Carl Niemann, or mathematician E. T. Bell. Pauling’s frequent collaborator, geneticist George Beadle, was likewise frequently solicited for help in forming opinions, so much so that he eventually joined Pauling on the Advisory Board.

In 1951 Pauling reached out to Beadle for comment on Ohio State University professor Quentin van Winkle’s request to fund lab technicians who would assist in his use of electron microscopy to study chromosomes. After looking over van Winkle’s sample photographs, Beadle could not come to a firm conclusion since he could not interpret what he had been supplied. He did, however, think the work to be potentially important enough to merit large amounts of funding.

Pauling felt otherwise. For starters, the quality of the photographs was simply not good enough to demonstrate worthiness for a Fellowship. Additionally, whereas van Winkle’s past projects had used traditional methods better suited to distributed work in the lab, the new ideas that he wanted to pursue would required methodology that had not yet been fully developed enojght to assistants. As Pauling wrote to Moe, “Electron microscopy is at present an art, and it is hard to find the artist.” Van Winkle failed to earn a Fellowship.


Laszlo Zechmeister with the Pauling family, 1940.

Often, Pauling also served as reference for Fellowship proposals, and when he was enthusiastic about an applicant he did not hide it. In a 1948 reference letter for Laszlo Zechmeister, Pauling called his Caltech colleague the “leading authority” on chromatography over the past fifteen years and among the top twelve organic chemists in the United States. To emphasize his point, Pauling added that Zechmeister had been a U.S. citizen for about three years by that point, long enough to qualify for induction into the National Academy of Sciences.

In similar fashion, that same year Pauling described his former student E. Bright Wilson, Jr. as one of the best of the “younger” physical chemists anywhere. Original and precise, Wilson was among the “most able” of the many researchers to have worked under Pauling. Both Zechmeister and Wilson were awarded Fellowships that year.

A different Pauling-adjacent applicant from that year who did not succeed in obtaining a Fellowship was the Stanford physiologist George Feigen. Feigen had worked as a research assistant, graduate student, and post-doctoral fellow with Pauling, but despite this close connection Pauling demurred in his evaluation of Feigen’s work, in part claiming that he could not properly assess Feigen’s work as a physiologist.

Pauling could state that Feigen was an “unusually able” researcher who knew his discipline’s literature and was sound in technique. Furthermore, Pauling found Feigen’s research design to be original and he liked his proposed plan. But the promise implied by Feigen’s abilities had not yet materialized in noteworthy experimental work. In fact, Pauling went so far as to describe pieces of Feigen’s output as ineffective and unproductive, because he did not wrap projects up very well.


Henry Allen Moe to Linus Pauling, April 19, 1944

When applicants were rejected, they often reached out to Moe for reasons why. One such request led Moe to turn to Pauling for a more substantive explanation. In April 1944, F. P. Zscheile of Purdue University wrote to Moe asking for more details behind the rejection of his proposal to pursue spectroscopic studies of chlorophyll. Zscheile specifically wondered if his work was judged to be unimportant or untimely; if his age (37) did not mesh well with Foundation objectives; or if the competition was just too tough that year.

Zscheile had worked on an analysis of carotene with George Beadle, which perhaps led him to think that he might be in good favor with Pauling, and thus the Committee of Selection. Moe passed Zscheile’s query along to Pauling, knowing that he could offer more than the “clichés of soft words which mean little” that Moe usually supplied in response to these questions.

As requested, Pauling addressed Zscheile’s concerns directly. It was true that age was a factor and the competition stiff. However, the decision mainly came down to his proposal and past work. Pauling found Zscheile’s experimental techniques to be of good quality, but the problems he investigated were not that important since they had not led to any broad results. Zscheile’s proposal reflected this weakness as it gave more attention to empirical work than to fundamental questions. As an aside, Pauling told Moe that he was unsure if Zscheile should be encouraged to apply again, since it was not clear whether he had “the spark of scientific curiosity.”

Six months later, Pauling found his judgment confirmed after reading Zscheile’s latest article on carotenes. For Pauling, the publication demonstrated that Zscheile was a good technician but that he had “no originality at all” and “no goal toward which he is driving.” Indeed, Zscheile’s work, Pauling felt, was “not carried on as a result of the thoughtful consideration of the problems of science.” Zscheile also failed to reference Laszlo Zechmeister and Andor Polgar’s more recent investigations, which were done at Caltech. Thirteen years later, when Pauling was no longer on the Committee of Selection, Zscheile tried again for a Fellowship and succeeded.


As an advisor, Pauling drew on his scientific expertise and his large professional network to help him judge several Guggenheim applicants each year. Pauling’s conclusions did not always match those of the Committee of Selection as a whole, but he consistently supplied information that was well-rounded enough to leave room for disagreement.

First Years as Division Chair: Making Recommendations, Coping with an Explosion, and Bringing Aboard Zechmeister

[Pauling as Administrator]

With its brand new building and innovative, well-funded research program, the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, under the leadership of Linus Pauling, was increasingly coming to be recognized as a model for chemistry departments and divisions around the country.

This boost is stature is clearly evident in Pauling’s correspondence. In one instance, John C. Bailar, Jr., Assistant Professor and Secretary of the Department of Chemistry at University of Illinois, Urbana, wrote to ask about ways in which they could follow Caltech’s model to improve their own research and instruction. Likewise, Joseph George Cohen, Director of the Division of Graduate Studies at Brooklyn College, noted his ambition to “pattern [their] administrative practices on those schools which occupy a position of leadership in American Chemistry,” and asked how Caltech ran its laboratories and what responsibilities they gave to their PhDs and graduate assistants. Pauling was always willing to give his advice.


Pauling’s recommendations were also commonly sought by other programs looking to hire new staff. Although his picks were not always a match, Pauling increasingly found himself in a position to influence the shape of research around the country. During the fall of 1938 for instance, Pauling recommended a professional colleague, Gilbert King, to fill a position at Duke University. King ended up going to Yale and then MIT instead. After learning that King would not be coming, Paul Gross of Duke again reached out to Pauling, asking for another name.

Lindsay Helmholz

This second time around, Pauling leaned more heavily on his role as division chair and began advocating for an up-and-comer within the division. This individual was Lindsay Helmholz, whom Pauling described as “one of our best men.” Though he was reluctant to lose Helmholz’ skillset, Pauling worked hard in selling him to Gross, highlighting his research and teaching skills while also emphasizing the range of material that Helmholz was familiar with, including topics in physical, structural, and general chemistry. Pauling further pressed Gross to offer Helmholz a permanent position, as he would be more likely to accept it. For added measure, Pauling noted that “Dr. Helmholtz is married to a very pleasant and attractive young woman, and I am sure you would consider the Helmolzes an addition to your community.”

Helmholz ended up not going to Duke, leading Pauling to recommend him again the following summer to Elden B. Hartshorn of the Department of Chemistry at Dartmouth College. Pauling once more praised Helmholz’ ability to teach advanced courses and lauded his experimental and theoretical research skills. And as with his communications to Paul Gross, Pauling concluded with more personal information

Dr. Helmholz is a pleasant and cultured young man and is married to a pleasant and cultured young woman. His father is head of the pediatrics division of the Mayo Foundation at Rochester.

Hartshorn responded that they were looking for someone for the following year and hinted that they may not have the facilities to support Helmholz’ research. Helmholz ultimately ended up at Washington University after working on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Pauling saved his second-tier recommendations for less prestigious institutions, like the Department of Chemistry at his alma mater, Oregon Agricultural College. In this instance, F.A. Gilfillan, Dean of the School of Science at OAC, was looking for teaching fellows in 1939 and was eager to receive any ideas that Pauling might have in mind. In response, Pauling recommended Robert J. Dery, who had taught at Caltech for three years but had not completed his doctorate since he seemed “for some reason to lack the ability to carry on experimental research.” Dery, according to Pauling, was also “slow spoken, so that in conversation with him one may become impatient.” This habit did not affect Dery as a teacher however, as he spoke very well in front of an audience and, in Pauling’s estimation, was a good freshman instructor.


By April 1939, as the funding from the Rockefeller grant approached its second year, Pauling and Warren Weaver were still looking for someone to head biochemical research being supported by the grant. Pauling asked Weaver if he might further delay the hiring as no clear-cut match for the position had been identified. That June, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Board of Trustees, while discussing the following year’s budget, noticed that no one had been hired and questioned the need to approve the full $70,000 request for the following year. Ultimately the board agreed to the original request, but their hesitation to do so led Pauling to scramble.


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

In the meantime, Pauling continued to deal with the more mundane responsibilities that were assigned to him as chair. These included a wide range of hiccups presented by the move into the new Crellin Laboratory. One specific issue was the need to make sure that graduate students could access particular areas of the facility – most pressingly the student shop – that were normally only open during business hours. To solve the problem, Pauling requested that a lock be made for the shop that matched the locks on Crellin’s entry doors so that the students could enter more easily.

A much larger problem came to pass in August 1939, when a spark from a ventilating system motor ignited six liters of spilled ether in Crellin Room 351. Leo Brewer, who was in the room at the time, had been working with a twelve liter flask of ether on a ring stand. When he went to adjust the position of the flask on the stand, the bottom fell out of the flask. Brewer cleaned up the ether as best he could, but about five minutes later, as he wrote in his incident report, “suddenly there was a flash of fire which singed my hair, face, and hands.” He immediately left the room and “five seconds later there was an explosion which rocked the building” as the hoods sucked up the flames, igniting the ten gallons of ether in them. Students and stockroom workers equipped with gas masks and fire extinguishers combated the flames until firefighters arrived. In the midst of it all, a second explosion knocked over acid bottles, leading to reactions that produced poisonous gas. All told, the damage was assessed at $13,924.22 (the equivalent of more than a quarter-million dollars today).


Laszlo Zechmeister with the Pauling family, 1940.

While dealing with all of Crellin’s issues, Pauling also had to respond to increasing pressure from the Rockefeller board to find someone to head biochemistry research within the division. The more he thought about it, the more Pauling leaned toward hiring Hungarian chemist Laszlo Zechmeister, who had visited the previous fall. While current staffer Carl Niemann had shown promise, Pauling thought him too young to head the fledgling biochemical research program. Zechmeister, who was in his fifties, was arguably too old, but Pauling began to see his age as an advantage since he was certain someone would emerge from within Caltech itself to lead the program over the next ten to twenty years.

Zechmeister had maintained a correspondence with Pauling since his visit, keeping him informed in particular of Hungary’s increasingly close relationship with Nazi Germany. Zechmeister also told Pauling that, if there were a position available for him elsewhere, he would take it immediately. Pauling finally offered Zechmeister a professorship in organic chemistry in October 1939, which was quickly accepted. The only sticking point was that the contract needed to stipulate that the appointment was for one year only, as that was the longest period of time that Zechmeister was legally allowed to leave Hungary. Sadly, Zechmeister’s wife became sick before they came to Pasadena in 1940, and died the following year. And ultimately Zechmeister would not return to Hungary, spending the remainder of his career at Caltech.


Just two and a half years into his tenure as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Pauling saw to completion a variety of plans originally set in motion by his predecessor A.A. Noyes, including the construction of a new building. With the onset of the Second World War, an influx of federal funding would create new opportunities as more researchers and projects filled out the division’s buildings. With observations made and lessons learned along the way, the war would also set the stage for Pauling to build off of what he had inherited and take the initiative in further shaping the division.

First Years as Division Chair: Implementing the Rockefeller Grant and Dedicating Crellin

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

[Pauling as Administrator]

Towards the end of the summer of 1937, Linus Pauling was confident that the Rockefeller Foundation would award a $300,000 grant to both the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. Indeed, so confident was Pauling that he requested permission from the Caltech Executive Council to leverage the forthcoming funds and begin spending immediately on a combined recording microphotometer, densitometer, and comparator. Once permission had been granted, Pauling secured the services of Fred Henson, who had constructed an apparatus of this sort for J. W. McBain of Stanford. Henson agreed to deliver a similar device to Caltech within one year for $2,600 — a thousand dollars less than he normally charged. Pauling also used $850 from funding provided by the British hydrocarbon company M. W. Kellogg to purchase a different instrument.

These new purchases would be put to use in the nearly finished Crellin Laboratory, and staffing and outfitting the facility was an issue of pressing concern. While Pauling and Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver were still holding out a sliver of hope that the Scottish chemist Alexander Todd would relocate to Pasadena to head the new laboratory, another Rockefeller-funded hire, Carl Niemann, was in the process of equipping and stocking the facility. As he moved forward with this work, Niemann put forth the suggestion that a “central analytical laboratory for the entire department,” with one person in charge, be identified to save space and minimize redundant equipment purchases. This shared laboratory would cost about $3,500 to $4,500 to outfit, whereas the cost of consumables at comparable four-person laboratories ranged from $1,200 to $8,000. Niemann planned to finalize these arrangements in the fall before leaving for a year-long trip to Europe.


In December 1937, after years of negotiation and coordination, Pauling’s feelings of confidence were validated when the Rockefeller Foundation’s Board of Trustees finally approved the Caltech biochemistry grant. Funds would be dispersed beginning in July 1938, and would coincide with the Chemistry division’s move into Crellin. The proposed budget for the first year of the grant largely followed Warren Weaver’s earlier suggestion of $60,000, though Pauling made a successful push for an extra $10,000 to augment organic chemistry research salaries and equipment. When Alexander Todd, following a May visit, ultimately decided not to come to Caltech, the spending plan returned to $60,000. The following year, Pauling shifted the extra $10,000 allocation into hiring researchers and assistants while also purchasing more equipment.

In February 1938, as plans began to settle, Pauling wrote a letter of thanks to Weaver, expressing his gratitude to the Rockefeller board for approving their grant application, and to Weaver for his ideas on how best to develop organic chemistry at Caltech, an initiative that was going smoothly. Pauling likewise acknowledged his personal indebtedness to Weaver for helping to fund and secure his own research. Colleagues of significant consequence including Robert Corey and Max Delbruck had come aboard under the grant and were doing good work. Pauling himself was also warming up to Weaver’s vision, writing, “I am getting more interested in biological problems every day, and am anxious to see our new program in effect.”


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Pauling and Arthur Hill at Yale University, 1947

Amidst all of this progress, a test of Pauling’s commitment to his new position as chair arose less than a year after his official appointment. In March 1938, Arthur Hill, a chemist at Yale University, offered Pauling a Sterling Professorship, the highest professorial rank awarded by the university. Pauling’s proposed salary at Yale would be $10,000 and he would also benefit from the services of a private assistant.

Pauling thought hard about the offer, at first replying that he would need a week to think about it. That week stretched into five, and ended with Pauling’s decision to stay at Caltech. In turning down the opportunity, Pauling explained to Hill that he had only recently become chair of a growing division, a circumstance that not only promised to open up new areas of research for himself, but presented him with “an attractive opportunity for contributing effectively to science” by shaping the development of the division. Hill was disappointed, but admitted that the research capacity available at Yale could not compete with what had been built at Caltech.


Feeling more established in his new position as chair, Pauling wrote to Caltech Executive Council chair Robert Milliken in April 1938 that “The outlook for the Division during the next few years is very attractive, especially for the field of the organic chemistry of biological substances.” That said, Pauling was looking for further backing from upper administration. Pauling already had a promise in hand from Caltech’s Board of Trustees that $40,000 would be made available as a complement to the Rockefeller funds, but he wanted further reassurance from Millikan that the Institute would continue to support the division’s nascent biochemistry research well into the future. Buoyed by the momentum of recent months, Millikan was glad to offer this assurance.


On May 16, 1938, the Crellin Laboratory was formally dedicated at a ceremony featuring addresses from Pauling and the building’s patron and namesake, Edward Crellin. In his remarks, Crellin told the audience,

It is pleasing to note the physical union of this building with the new unit of the great William G. Kerckhoff Laboratories of the Biological Sciences, thus enabling Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan and Dr. Linus Pauling and their associates literally to join hands in the search for, if not the elixir of life, a better understanding of vital processes, leading to better health and longer and happier lives.

For his part, Pauling gave a largely impromptu address, noting how he would have to restrict himself as he was used to lecturing for an hour and not giving five minute speeches. Later, once the facility was up and running, Pauling asked Arnold Beckman to write about it for Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Analytical Edition, the predecessor journal of today’s Analytical Chemistry.


With Crellin dedicated and the Rockefeller grant in effect, Weaver and Pauling continued their brainstorming about who best to head research in the new laboratory. In the summer of 1938, Weaver mentioned to Pauling that Laszlo Zechmeister, a biochemist from Hungary who had developed chromatography methods to separate enzymes, was visiting the United States and suggested that Pauling invite him to Pasadena. Pauling obliged, arranging for Zechmeister to give three lectures on chromatography, carotenoids, and polysaccharides in November.

As it turned out, Pauling was impressed by the quality of Zechmeister’s presentations, and began to think more seriously about hiring him following a weekend trip to Mexico that he and Ava Helen took with Zechmeister and his wife. Pauling’s estimation of Zechmeister rose in particular once he had learned more about the extent to which Zechmeister had managed to produce as a scientist despite working in a poorly equipped Budapest lab. Though Zechmeister departed from Pasadena without a formal job offer, he would soon become an important figure at Caltech’s new research facility.