Remembering Barbara Low

Barbara Low in California, 1947. Credit: Low estate.

Barbara Low, a former research fellow for Linus Pauling and an esteemed scientist, died earlier this year at the age of 98. Low spent most of her career as a researcher and professor at Columbia University’s Vageos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is perhaps best known for her work with protein structures, particularly her work on the structure of penicillin and her discovery of the pi-helix.

Barbara Wharton Rogers was born in Lancaster, England on March 23, 1920 (she married in 1950 and changed her name thereafter). After receiving her B.A. from Somerville College – an Oxford women’s college – in 1942, she went on to earn an M.A. and D. Phil. from Oxford University. As a component of her education, Low learned the techniques of x-ray crystallography, a field within the chemical sciences that was emerging for women. A major reason for this trend was the fact that one of the leading crystallographers of the era, Oxford professor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, was banned from teaching to men, so instead she taught crystallography to women at Somerville.

Low was one of Hodgkin’s star pupils, and after Low received her B.A. in chemistry, Hodgkin became Low’s advisor for her graduate studies. It was during these years that Hodgkin and Low determined the structure of penicillin using x-ray crystallography. In 1964, Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work determining the structures of various important biochemical substances, penicillin certainly among them.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Credit: Luke Hodgkin

While she was working on her doctorate, Low spent a year at the California Institute of Technology as a research fellow, supervised by Linus Pauling. This was the start of what would become a fruitful and mutual working relationship between Pauling and Low. After leaving Caltech and graduating from Oxford, Low took a position as a research associate, and later as assistant professor of physical chemistry, at Harvard University. As her career advanced, Low kept in touch with Pauling and this connection proved beneficial on more than one occasion.


In the early 1950s, Low began to apply x-ray crystallographic techniques to a study of the structure of insulin. She did so during a period of much debate within the scientific community about the structure of various proteins. Pauling famously solved a piece of this puzzle in April 1951 when he published, “The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain” with collaborators Robert Corey and Herman Branson. In this paper, Pauling described for the first time the alpha helical structure of many proteins, a watershed moment that ushered in a whole new era of understanding across the discipline.

Barbara Low was, of course, also working on the structure of proteins, and she became particularly inspired to investigate the connection between structure and function after attending a lecture that Pauling gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1951. Low believed, as did Pauling, that the configuration of the folding of the protein was of more importance to its function than was the molecular make-up itself. Determined to apply this belief to her work on the structure of insulin, Low wrote several letters to Pauling asking him to verify the bond angle distances for the proteins about which he had lectured. Pauling gladly supplied Low with the requested data, even noting that he had double-checked the calculations as he was writing her back. Pauling also helped Low to secure scientific models for the structures that he had described.

Pi-helix diagram published by Low and Grenville-Wells, 1953

These data and models proved vital to one of Low’s most famous discoveries: the pi-helix. Like the alpha-helix, the pi-helix is a type of structure found in some proteins, though one that was not published by Pauling as part of his alpha-helix investigations. This failure may have been due to the pi-helix’ small size, which at the time of its discovery led some researchers to believe it to be an infrequent and rare structure. More modern day findings indicate however that the pi-helix is much more common than previously thought; present in about 15% of protein structures all told.

Low wrote about her discovery to Pauling shortly after the news was made public and received a mixed reply from her former mentor. At the beginning of his response, Pauling suggested that the pi-helix was most likely something that he “too ran across a while back” but acknowledged that Low’s structure was not “intermediate between the alpha helix and the gamma helix,” and thus both novel and genuine. The letter concludes with an admission from Pauling that his researchers may have “overlooked it” in their previous work.


Pauling’s hedging congratulations in this instance did not seem to negatively impact the duo’s relationship, and throughout their correspondence one intuits that the colleagues remained on friendly terms throughout the years. In many letters to Pauling, Low often concluded by giving her regards to Ava Helen. Low also developed a love for the comic Li’l Abner by way of Pauling, who had introduced her to the satirical strip at a dinner party in the early 1950s.

Pauling and Low were also, at times, involved in one another’s careers. When Pauling was denied a passport to travel to the Royal Society Meeting to attend the Protein Symposium in 1952, Low wrote to express her “shock” and to express how “shaken” she was that he had been treated this way. For his part, Pauling helped Low to secure grants and funding through multiple letters of support.

Pauling also provided assistance to Low as her research position at Harvard came to an end in June 1956 by putting her in contact with colleagues Detlev Bronk of Johns Hopkins University, John Kirkwood of Yale University, and DeWitt Stetten at the National Institute of Arthritis. While it is unclear how influential these contacts may have been in Low’s gaining her eventual position at Columbia, it is certainly worth noting that Stetten had recently left Columbia after having served there for nine years as an instructor of biochemistry.

However it came to pass, Low started at Columbia in 1956 as an assistant professor and was promoted to professor in 1966. She formally retired from Columbia in 1990, but stayed on as a lecturer until 2013. Like Pauling, Low was active both socially and politically, devoting significant time and energy to affirmative action activities at her institution. She passed away on January 10, 2019 at her home in the Bronx, New York.

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: pastdaily.com 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.

Final Years as Division Chair: Progress Within, Trouble Without

Linus Pauling, 1958. Photo Credit: Wayne Miller.

[Pauling as Administrator]

Linus Pauling’s last years as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology were punctuated by the construction of the Norman W. Church Laboratory for Chemical Biology, which commenced in August 1954. Earlier budget concerns, which threatened to reduce the size of the building and to leave much of it unfurnished, had been partially overcome when an extra $250,000 was allocated for the project. But even this fresh infusion of cash was not enough to get the building over the hump. Full funding was not in hand until the next spring, when a $368,000 construction grant was awarded to provide for the laboratory’s furnishings.

All told, the Church facility cost more then $2 million to complete. It was dedicated in November 1955 as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting, which was held at Caltech at Pauling’s urging. Faculty and staff did not fully occupy the building until the following summer, but everybody was pleased with the result and, in particular, the opportunities for collaboration between chemistry and biology that the shared space helped to facilitate. In short, things were continuing to look good for the division under Pauling.


Pauling’s 1956 division report was equally congratulatory. Echoing the tone of earlier years, the report recognized it’s head for developing a division that used chemical methods to advance critical questions that cut across disciplines. Decades before, the report noted, A.A. Noyes had attained similar heights in building a chemical division that was capable of applying physical methods to chemical questions. Now, in 1956, Caltech could boast of a unit that was “strong” in chemistry and chemical engineering and “especially outstanding” in research on molecular structure and the application of chemistry to biology and medicine.

The division’s strengths had a lot to do with the funding that it attracted and, despite some setbacks, Pauling remained fundamental to making this so. One major achievement from this time period was to secure matching funds for the $1,500,000 challenge grant that had been put forth by the Rockefeller Foundation earlier in the decade. Pauling played a key role in solidifying the Rockefeller money in many ways, including his successful authorship of a $450,000 Ford Foundation grant to support his research on the molecular chemistry of mental disease. In addition to being well-funded, the intellectual heft of this particular line of research greatly impressed many of the younger faculty in particular.


While the view inside the division was rosy, Pauling was coming under increasing scrutiny elsewhere. Time and again, Pauling’s loyalty to the United States was being questioned by government and media sources alike, a circumstance that led Caltech’s administration to apply more pressure on Pauling to reduce his profile as an activist.

One noteworthy instance came about in 1958 when Fulton Lewis Jr., a conservative newspaper and radio commentator, attacked Pauling’s recent circulation of a petition that called for an international agreement to end nuclear testing. Lewis accused Pauling of making money off of the petition, estimating that Pauling was earning $10 from each signature. Lewis also charged Pauling with damaging the security of the United States by focusing on the cessation of U.S. testing efforts and overlooking tests being conducted by other nuclear countries.

After reading Lewis’ column, T. C. Coleman, President of the Engineering Company of Los Angeles, wrote to Caltech President Lee DuBridge expressing his view that this was just another reminder of how Pauling was tarnishing Caltech’s image. Coleman then threatened to withhold any future financial support from the Institute

unless I again become convinced that a truly loyal attitude prevails, and that prominent staff members such as Dr. Pauling will be required to show cause why their political activities are not detrimental to the college and the country which deserves this loyalty.

In issuing this warning, Coleman claimed that he was not trying to suppress Pauling’s ability to express his opinions, nor was he concerned that Pauling would influence Caltech’s students, since, as Coleman put it, “as they mature they will grow more conservative.” What Coleman was most concerned about was that Pauling was not taking seriously the “heavy responsibility” that came with representing Caltech to a public who might be more easily persuaded by his views because of his scientific credentials. Coleman was sure that Caltech would have already dismissed him had Pauling not been such a well-respected scientist internationally and leader within the Institute.

President DuBridge forwarded Coleman’s letter to Pauling and to Albert Ruddock, the chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees. Ruddock responded directly to Coleman and in vigorous defense of Pauling, noting that his “unconventional opinions” were not evidence of disloyalty – a trait that Caltech would not tolerate. Ruddock further pointed out that accusing Pauling of being disloyal was absurd since his opinions on banning nuclear tests had by then been adopted by President Eisenhower. From there, Ruddock suggested that Pauling’s political activities had not interfered at all with his science, and that he was still “supreme in his field.” In fact,

The very independence of thought that leads Dr. Pauling into certain attitudes and opinions to which you and many others object is that which lies at the very basis of investigational research.

The board, Ruddock explained, would be hypocritical if they punished Pauling for exercising independent thought in one area, and encouraged it in another. Furthermore, disciplining Pauling would open a “Pandora’s Box of difficulties” that would “explode” as other faculty members rushed to defend Pauling, even if they did not agree with his activities.


For his part, Pauling’s only response was to DuBridge. Having read Fulton’s article, Coleman’s letter, and Ruddock’s reply, Pauling explained to the Caltech president that Fulton’s column was misleading in more ways than one. For starters, his petition called for both the United States and the Soviet Union to stop their nuclear tests. Pauling also corrected Fulton’s calculation of how much each signature cost, putting it at three cents each. Pauling himself bore most of this cost as he had hired a secretary to help him with the circulation effort, which was global in scope.

Pauling then confided his intent to file a libel lawsuit against Lewis using, with DuBridge’s permission, Coleman’s letter as evidence. Pauling concluded his letter as follows:

Let me say that I feel that the United States of America is in great danger from the group of powerful but misguided men, among them T. C. Coleman, who attempt to misuse their power in the way illustrated by Mr. Coleman’s letter.

Unfortunately for Pauling, letters like Coleman’s would continue to come across DuBridge’s desk, and the pressure on Pauling would continue to mount. It was only a matter of time until Pauling would decide to step down as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

Final Years as Division Chair: The Admission of Women

Dorothy Semenow

[Pauling as Administrator]

As the 1950s moved forward, Linus Pauling’s increasingly public stances on nuclear weapons and peace issues emerged as a public relations problem for the California Institute of Technology’s administration, as they repeatedly were forced to respond to charges that Pauling was a communist. As this problem became more pronounced, three of the Institute’s trustees made good on threats to resign because of Pauling’s public image.

That image also drew the attention of fellow scientists around the country. In one instance, W. H. Eberhardt of the Georgia Institute of Technology asked Pauling about Louis Budenz, a former Communist Party member turned informant, who had testified before a government panel in early 1953 that Pauling was a “member of the Communist Party under discipline.” In his reply, Pauling explained that the accusation meant that there was no actual evidence that showed that Pauling was a member of the Communist Party. Pauling added that he was “pretty irritated” by Budenz’ testimony, but as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Pauling was obliged to set his irritations aside as he dealt with a wide array of professional responsibilities.


As a division chair at Caltech, Pauling was, by default, forced to deny entry to any women applicants who wished to pursue graduate study within the unit. Caltech’s formal policy was that women not be admitted at any level, though they could be employed as post-doctoral research assistants.

In practice, even a post-doctoral appointment rarely happened. One potential post-doc, I. E. Keszler, was considered in the spring of 1953, but ultimately turned away by Lazlo Zechmeister because her interest in developing tests to determine the dyes used in wines was considered to be too tangential a research question. Women seeking to become graduate students did not, of course, receive even that level of consideration, but that would change the same year that Keszler was denied.


The woman who broke through Caltech’s glass ceiling was Dorothy Semenow, a graduate student in chemistry working with John D. Roberts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Roberts accepted a position at Caltech, Semenow expressed a desire to relocate as well, so that she could continue working with him. After receiving an “informal application” from Semenow in February, Pauling brought her case to William N. Lacey, Caltech’s Dean of Graduate Studies. Lacey replied that he would have to take this situation to the Graduate Committee, who would then need to make a recommendation to the Faculty Board and also gain the approval of the Board of Trustees.

The following week, the division faculty deliberated on the language of a request that would be made to the Faculty Board asking that the Committee on Graduate Study be empowered to admit women as graduate students. The guidance emphasized in the request, which would be echoed as the process moved along, was that women would only be admitted

when, in the opinion of the sponsoring Division and of the Committee on Graduate Study, the applicant possesses exceptional qualifications for admission to graduate study and gives unusual promise of continuing scientific productivity.

Since the Committee on Graduate Study would be deciding on individual cases, Pauling requested that they also provide their opinion to the Faculty Board. Carl Niemann seconded Pauling’s request and it was passed without dissent, though some abstained. A month later, Pauling forwarded the division’s recommendation to the Faculty Board who quickly approved it. It would take until the end of spring for the Board of Trustees to also agree to admit women as graduate students.


Semenow’s next hurdle was for the faculty of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering to vote to admit her as a Ph.D. student. She cleared this hurdle by a vote of 17 to 3 in favor, with Donald Yost, Dan Campbell, and J. Holmes Sturdivant voting against. William Corcoran and B. H. Sage voted in the affirmative, but with the stipulation that Semenow be permitted entry as long as doing so not prevent a comparable male applicant from being admitted. An additional faculty member, William Lacey, voted in favor with the caveat that he was generally against the admission of women to Caltech, but thought that “since the Faculty voted to permit it, I believe that Miss Semenow’s case is a suitable one to try out on the Committee of Graduate Study.”

To get the Committee on Graduate Studies to approve Semenow, the division next had to prove that she was a promising student. Carl Niemann was asked to assist with this process and, in due course, met with Mary Sherrill, chair of Chemistry at Semenow’s undergraduate alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. Following this conversation, Niemann reported to Dean Lacey that “Miss Semenow has a genuine interest in chemistry as a profession and has every intent to continue in this field after receiving her Ph.D. degree.” This affirmation was enough to secure Semenow’s spot at Caltech.

With Semenow’s case decided, the Institute felt more free to admit other women as graduate students. In April 1954, the Committee on Graduate Study recommended that Estelle Maxine Fowler be admitted as a Ph.D. student in mathematics, and the following spring they approved Elizabeth K. Rosenthal for graduate study in biochemistry and Caroline S. Teichemann in aeronautics. It would take more than two decades for Caltech to take similar action on the undergraduate level — not until 1973 did a woman receive a bachelor’s degree from the Institute.


In 1955, just two years after being accepted, Dorothy Semenow completed her Ph.D. in chemistry and biology, becoming the first woman at Caltech to do so. Following that, Semenow opted to remain in Pasadena and attempted to continue her research without access to laboratory space.

As it turned out, this caused problems. In July 1957, Carl Niemann, writing as acting division chair, informed Semenow that she had been seen entering the division’s laboratories twice after hours with a key. Niemann asked Semenow to return her key and warned her that she could be arrested if she was caught again without the accompaniment of an authorized staff member. She was also warned that she was not to use the laboratory facilities under any conditions. Thus admonished, Semenow continued to push forward her research while staying out of trouble with the division.

In the years that followed, Semenow went on to earn another Ph.D., this one in psychology. She also continued to pursue chemical research, focusing on the molecular components of potential neurotransmitters of acetylcholine and norepinephrine, and often colloborating with her spouse, Donald Garwood, whom she met while at Caltech.

The couple reached out to Pauling in 1968 in hopes that he might help them to secure a research position at the University of California – San Diego, where he was working at the time. After looking over their research statements, Pauling’s colleague Robert Livingston judged that Semenow and Garwood’s work did not overlap sufficiently with the interests of UCSD’s Neuroscience department, and so ended the inquiry. This appears to have been Linus Pauling’s last major interaction with Dorothy Semenow, a pioneering figure in the history of the California Institute of Technology.

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.

A Cold War Division Chair: Pauling Under Investigation

[Pauling as Administrator]

As Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Linus Pauling was obligated to deliver an annual report each year to Institute President Lee DuBridge. As he compiled these reports, Pauling solicited comments from members of the division that focused primarily on their research progress over the previous year.

In 1952, using the Division of Biology’s report as a model, Pauling added some specifics to his usual request for comment. This time around, he needed information about funding sources; a 100-500 word description of work completed that would be accessible to the general reader; and a list of awards received and publications authored. These extra details painted a generally positive portrait of the division, though they did not always reflect the budgetary strains being felt across the unit.

While Pauling oversaw an influx of funding that allowed the division to expand, the money on hand never seemed to be quite enough. As a result, Pauling needed to keep a close watch on the division’s budget, tracking staff salaries, fellowships, supplies, and special funds. In doing so, Pauling sometimes uncovered what appeared to be frivolous spending in unexpected places.

In 1951 for example, Pauling asked division staff to be careful about publishing in journals that charged page fees for article reprint orders. That year, Pauling noted, the division had spent $2,500 on reprints, including $700 for covers alone. Going forward, Pauling asked that, unless absolutely necessary, reprints be ordered without covers; a small sacrifice to conserve resources.


While modifying reprint ordering practices promised to save the division a bit of money, Pauling’s own activities outside of the division began to impact the division’s budget in a far more substantial way. By 1951, Pauling’s work as an anti-nuclear activist had been targeted for suspicion by external forces as well as Caltech’s own administration. That same year, a tangible outcome of this suspicion hit the division’s bottom line hard when the United States Public Health Service denied Pauling a $40,000 grant on the basis of his alleged communist ties.

Around this time, with Red Scare fears intensifying, Caltech decided that all individuals serving on the Institute’s Contracts Committee be required to pass a low-level security clearance, to be administered by the Industrial Employment Review Board (IERB). In part because it was meant to be a routine, low-stakes review, this directive was something that should have posed no complications for Pauling. However, problems did indeed arise after Pauling’s name was erroneously (and accidentally) included on a list of upper level administrators connected to Project Vista, a top secret hydrogen bomb research program with which Pauling, in actual fact, had no affiliation.

As a scientist, Pauling’s IERB case was to be evaluated by a military panel. At the beginning of August 1951, Pauling received notice from Lieutenant Colonel W. J. King that he had been denied a security clearance due to his being a “member of” and a “close associate” of the Communist Party since 1943. In backing this claim, King cited as evidence Pauling’s support of “known Communists,” a likely reference to the fundraising effort that Pauling had helped lead for Sidney Weinbaum’s defense the previous year. Pauling adamantly denied the charges, calling anyone who accused him of being a communist a “liar.” Pauling did concede that he may have defended communists in the past, but also maintained that he had the right to defend those who “deserve to be defended.”


King informed Pauling that he could submit evidence in his own defense before a final decision was made, at which point Pauling turned to his scientific colleagues, asking them to vouch for him through character reference letters. In making this appeal, Pauling sent out a form letter describing how he had signed the Espionage Act several times over the previous eleven years, a period during which he had carried out war work that made use of large amounts of classified information. The letter also stressed that Pauling wanted to continue working on similar research as a “service to the Government,” but that he would not be able to do so without approval from the IERB. The letter concluded with Pauling’s feeling that his own political actions to “help improve our national politics and to prevent and rectify injustices to individuals” should not be held against him.

One supporter, Frank Aydelotte of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, told the IERB that Pauling was definitely not a communist. In his letter of reference, Aydelotte wrote

Professor Pauling is a liberal; he is a man of great personal courage who would not hesitate to defend anyone whom he believed to be the victim of injustice, but he is at the same time a man of complete integrity and proven loyalty to the United States Government.

But not all of the colleagues solicited by Pauling gave their unconditional support. One of them, Karl Compton, the Chairman of the Corporation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserted that Pauling’s scientific and personal character were admirable, but also pointed out that he had never spoken with Pauling about communism and so could not say whether or not Pauling was a communist.

Caltech President Lee DuBridge also agreed to write a letter of support for Pauling, but added that he was not surprised by the decision that the IERB had reached, an admission that shocked Pauling. For DuBridge, the issue was mostly a headache that he wanted settled “one way or another.” As Pauling’s activities had come under increasing scrutiny, some of the Institute’s trustees had threatened to leave the board, and DuBridge himself was in danger of being replaced if he could not find a way to keep Pauling in line.

By the end of September, it appeared that the letters of support had fallen on deaf ears when Pauling’s clearance was once again denied. Following Pauling’s immediate appeal, another month passed until the Project Vista clerical error came to light. And while this revelation led to a momentary lessening of tensions, problems related to Pauling’s public persona would only continue to interfere with his duties at Caltech and within his division.

A Cold War Division Chair: Political Activism and Institutional Pressure

Linus Pauling, 1950

[Pauling as Administrator]

Even before becoming Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Linus Pauling had been viewed by some of his colleagues, particularly his predecessor A.A. Noyes, as being inclined to delegate responsibilities. This tendency became more evident following the conclusion of World War II, as the push to promote biochemical research within the division moved forward. While Pauling continued to steer the division toward a future focused intently on biochemistry – advocating for and securing funds to support biochemical medical research – he also began to withdraw from other duties, shifting some of them to his colleagues.

A significant factor behind the need to delegate was Pauling’s increasing involvement in peace activism and, particularly, his schedule of public speaking related to the use and testing of nuclear weapons. These activities ultimately brought Pauling before Caltech’s Board of Trustees, who contemplated his dismissal.


In 1949 the board communicated to Caltech President Lee DuBridge that public statements being made by Pauling on issues of peace and nuclear weapons were “damaging” to Caltech’s reputation. In response, Pauling is said to have “pledged” to DuBridge that he would cut back on his political activism, since he did not want his political views to interfere with his scientific work. President Truman’s decision to develop a hydrogen bomb the next year changed Pauling’s mind however, and he was again brought to the attention of Caltech’s leadership. This time, Pauling told DuBridge that he wished to speak with the trustees directly.

Meanwhile, the board had formed a committee made up of five trustees and five faculty members who were asked to determine whether or not Pauling should be dismissed from Caltech. In a statement dated July 14, 1950, Pauling expressed shock at having learned of this unexpected action by the trustees. In particular, Pauling’s tenure rank and hugely successful twenty-eight year career at Caltech had not prepared him for such an extreme possibility.

Three days later, on July 17, Pauling was given the chance to speak to the board and repeated to the trustees what he had earlier told DuBridge: he wanted to cut back on his political activities. But this ambition was couched, with Pauling noting that

I still propose to do this, at a rate determined by the world situation; however, I remain unwilling to pledge myself to cease all political activities.

Regardless, Pauling made it clear that he did not want to harm Caltech and would do “anything compatible with my conscience and my principles” to protect its reputation.


Sidney Weinbaum

In actual fact, Pauling did not believe that he was harming Caltech’s reputation at all. Rather, after surveying several colleagues and students who told him that his activities had caused no “appreciable damage” to them, Pauling concluded that he was actually helping the institution’s standing.

President DuBridge harbored a decidedly different point of view, informing the board that “many staff members” had told him that Pauling’s actions had “damaged them greatly.” These sentiments focused in particular on Pauling’s support for Sidney Weinbaum, a Russian émigré who became a United States citizen in 1927 and completed his Ph.D. at Caltech in 1933.

Weinbaum, who was Pauling’s research assistant in 1929, had been charged with being a communist, and his case eventually drew the FBI to Caltech. This led to Weinbaum’s removal, as a possible security risk, from his position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1949. During his appeal, which was supported by Caltech, Weinbaum denied being a communist. The government subsequently dropped their previous allegations against Weinbaum in favor of new charges of perjury, for which he was arrested.

Pauling and Weinbaum were friends, so much so that the Paulings offered a room in their home to Weinbaum’s spouse following his arrest. Pauling also offered $2,000 for Weinbaum’s legal defense, and helped to raise more from other sources.

But DuBridge did not like the potential optics of the situation and suggested in particular that Pauling raise money by word of mouth, and not through the mail. An undated form letter authored by Pauling and five others, and appealing for money to support Weinbaum’s case, suggests that Pauling either ignored DuBridge’s advice or that DuBridge was trying to reel Pauling back in. Ultimately, Pauling’s efforts did not take, and Weinbaum was sentenced to four years in prison.


As the year moved forward, Pauling’s public persona continued to emerge as a source of concern for DuBridge and Caltech’s board. In October 1950, Pauling came under further scrutiny after being named by Senator Joseph McCarthy as a communist. McCarthy fanned the flames of this allegation by also defining Pauling as an atomic scientist who had received classified information from the Atomic Energy Commission as a result of his connections with the Guggenheim Foundation. The Senator was quick to add that the foundation was rumored to have “a flagrant record of giving fellowships to Communists.”

Responding internally, Pauling explained to Charles Newton, DuBridge’s assistant, that he was only on the Committee of Selection for the Guggenheim Foundation and could in no way be involved with the organization in the ways that McCarthy had suggested. Pauling added that McCarthy was likely targeting him for his peace work.

With interest in his politics hanging over his status at Caltech like a sword of Damocles, Pauling remained in the dark about any conclusions reached by the Board of Trustees’ select review committee, before which he had never been called to testify. Another twelve years would pass before DuBridge finally informed Pauling that the committee had recommended, in May 1952, that nothing be done to punish Pauling. Instead, the committee suggested that Pauling be continually pressed to end his political activities in order to forestall criticism of the Institute. And indeed, as time went on, the internal pressure on Pauling was increased.


Though Pauling’s political activism began to intrude more frequently on his daily responsibilities, he continued to take pride in heading Caltech’s chemistry division, which was racking up the successes. In 1950, Pauling reported to division staff that the Committee on Professional Training had given the chemistry program an overall grade of A, as well as A grades in physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and analytic chemistry, with a lone B issued for organic chemistry. Pauling delighted in boasting of these types of accomplishments, and also continued to actively work with incoming students.

One such student, Fernando L. Carraro of Brazil, first wrote to Pauling in 1950, expressing an interest in Pauling’s research on antibodies. Over subsequent exchanges, it became clear that Carraro wanted to study with him at Caltech. In response, Pauling suggested that Carraro apply to the Institute in 1953, and that he also seek funding from the Guggenheim Fellowship for Latin American students. In the meantime, Carraro wanted to know what he should study, to which Pauling offered the idea of mathematics.

In providing guidance related to the Guggenheim fellowship, Pauling further suggested that Carraro could focus on the structure of proteins, the application of quantum mechanics to molecular structure, or the analysis of gas molecules by electron diffraction during his stint in Pasadena. Pauling also warned Carraro that he would likely not be given a graduate assistantship since he had not attended an American university.

Carraro’s fellowship was ultimately approved and he studied under Pauling from 1954 to 1955. Though a small story in the grand scheme of Pauling’s life, his interactions with this student from Brazil serve as evidence that, despite everything else that was vying for his attention, he continued to set aside time for those wishing to learn.