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


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.”


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.

First Years as Division Chair: Responsibilities Large and Small


Pasadena Post, May 5, 1937

[Pauling as Administrator]

During the final phase of Linus Pauling’s ascension into the positions of Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Director of the Chemical Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology, the construction of the Crellin Laboratory lurked in the background with several adjustments to the building plans needing to be made. In May 1937, recognizing that the project was over budget, the Division Council began looking for ways to save money on equipment like table tops and hoods. When September arrived and the project was still short, Edward Crellin agreed to make an additional gift of $5,000 specifically for floor coverings, an amount that was still not enough to fully cover costs.

That fall, Pauling was in residence at Cornell University as George Fischer Baker Lecturer, and he took the opportunity to investigate the floors that had been installed at the Baker Laboratory. Once done, Pauling wrote to his Caltech colleague Arnold O. Beckman, who was overseeing the furnishing of the Crellin facility, and told him that Battleship linoleum had done well in its fourteen years of covering the halls and offices at Cornell. Resolite, on the other hand, had not endured quite so nicely. Beckman followed up accordingly by testing Resolite against Tex-tile, which Caltech’s contractor had recommended as a possible alternative. Beckman reported that both materials “softened” when they came into contact with organic solvents, but Resolite would be a more economical purchase. As a result, Beckman decided that they would use Resolite in the laboratories, despite Pauling’s misgivings, and linoleum in the hallways and offices. Otherwise, the building was nearing completion as it had been painted and awaited furnishing.

As chair, Pauling was obligated to keep a close eye on the division’s budget and to think hard about the best ways to direct funding. In this, Pauling’s bias was clearly in favor of devoting funds to research. In one instance, when colleague Howard J. Lucas requested support to attend a conference on the East Coast, Pauling replied that because Lucas was not presenting a paper, the division could not provide funding. In the future, Pauling suggested, Lucas should arrange to give talks when travelling east. Pauling did, however, agree that it would be a good idea for Lucas to hire an assistant to help him with his research on bean pod hormones and set about securing funding for a six month temporary position.

Though administrative responsibilities now occupied much of his time, Pauling continued to teach, including the graduate courses “On the Nature of the Chemical Bond” and “Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Chemical Applications.” As chairman, Pauling also held more sway in shaping what was taught both within the division and across Caltech. Before his first year as chair had been completed, Pauling used his new title to push for the development of broader course work in organic chemistry across the campus. And in this case Pauling saw quick results, in no small measure because of lingering momentum from A.A. Noyes’ activities as the previous division chair and the influx of money coming from the Rockefeller Foundation. Indeed, one might intuit Pauling’s satisfaction in writing “Carried!” next to an agenda motion stipulating that, for seniors in physics, applied physics and astronomy, Caltech remove required courses in statistics and replace them with organic chemistry classes.

Within the division, Pauling had to work with the Division Council before proposing any changes to the curriculum. In spring 1938, the council approved an optional second year of organic chemistry for seniors, a request that the students themselves had been making. By 1942, the organic chemistry requirement became uniform across the division, with applied chemistry majors taking the coursework as juniors alongside chemistry majors. In 1955, Pauling suggested that the organic chemistry requirement be moved to the sophomore year. He also felt that there was too much physical chemistry in the sophomore curriculum.

Early on as chair of the division, Pauling also worked to keep graduate students connected to the research of the division’s rapidly growing staff, which, bolstered by Rockefeller support, had increased by fifteen people in his first year. The total number of graduate students also increased from 25 to 45, each of whom received stipends of $600 to $860 a year as assistants. When he first became chair, Pauling was only ten years older than most of these graduate students, and he made a point of inviting them to his home or to desert camping trips to learn more about their work, ambitions and points of view. Pauling wanted this closeness to translate across the division and, in September 1938, proposed that faculty participate in regular seminars where they would present their research internally. Pauling gave the first talk in this series, providing an update on his hemoglobin studies. He also made it clear that he expected others to follow his lead.

Though he was aggressive in putting forth and pushing his agenda, Pauling also demonstrated an ability to respond to faculty concerns, the first instance being complaints calling for a new instrument maker within the division. Specifically, Pauling asked Arnold Beckman about the possibility of replacing the current instrument maker with someone younger who would manage all of the responsibilities assumed by the instrument shop. As it turned out, Beckman had already been searching for someone new, but had not found anyone yet. Beckman preferred looking off campus, and would continue his search there.

The most significant administrative tasks on Pauling’s plate were the building of the Crellin facility and the securing of stable funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. In May 1937, Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver sent Pauling a detailed four-page letter outlining the ways in which Caltech could improve its Rockefeller grant application by including the anticipated costs of equipment along with more details on how the Division of Biology would use their allotment of funds. Weaver also warned Pauling that his request for an increase from $10,000 to $15,000 per year for his own research in structural chemistry was a “retrograde step” that was best avoided. Further suggestions from Weaver laid out an ideal path for distributing funds from a potential $60,000 annual award, with $10,000 going to Biology, $10,000 to structural chemistry, $35,000 to organic chemistry research, and another $5,000 earmarked for organic chemistry equipment.

These suggestions, which Weaver also conveyed to T. H. Morgan in the Division of Biology, were incorporated into a revised application that was submitted by the two divisions in August 1937. At that same time, the Chairman of the Caltech Executive Council, Robert Millikan, told Weaver that, if Caltech received the grant, they would prefer that it begin the following July, when the new Crellin Laboratory would be ready.

While Pauling continued to work out the details of the Rockefeller request, he also took steps to safeguard support for his own projects in negotiation with Caltech’s Executive Council. While Weaver wanted assurance from the council that they would continue to support biochemical work after the Rockefeller grant had been exhausted, Pauling too was seeking a guarantee that they would continue funding his structural chemistry work, since the Rockefeller Foundation would not increase its contribution. Pauling eventually asked the Executive Council provide $50,000 a year for the former and $5,000 a year for the latter. Robert Millikan and Richard Tolman made a similar appeal to Caltech’s Board of Trustees the following month, and the board agreed to this request.

Meanwhile, Weaver continued to push Pauling on who he should hire with the Rockefeller money, qualifying his reactions to Pauling’s choices thus far as “not entirely enthusiastic.” For Weaver, Pauling’s suggestion of the brothers R. R. Williams and Roger Williams represented “a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise between the ideal of a young, well-trained and exceedingly brilliant man, such as [Alexander] Todd or [Carl] Niemann, and a thoroughly experienced and broadly interested world leader, such as we should like to find but cannot.” In response, Pauling suggested that they shift their energies to support someone like Niemann, who was already coming to Caltech the following year. Pauling and Weaver alike assumed that Todd, a future Nobel Prize-winner who was based in London, was likely not available, but both did their best to try to recruit him to Pasadena.


Becoming Division Chair: Pauling Takes the Reins


Linus Pauling, 1936.

[Pauling as Administrator]

In mid-July 1936, Pauling received a thought-provoking letter from Christopher Kelk Ingold of University College London. In it, Ingold wondered if Pauling might be tempted to replace F. G. Donnan as chair of the university’s Department of Chemistry. For Ingold, this was a bit of a fishing expedition and he made it plain that he did not really expect Pauling to take the idea seriously.

As such, it likely came as a surprise when Ingold received Pauling’s response a month later. In his reply, Pauling revealed that he had been devoting a great deal of thought to the offer and divulged his motivations for doing so, writing

In general I have been in the past very well pleased with my opportunities here for teaching and carrying on research. Subsequent to the death of Professor Noyes, however, the affairs of our Chemistry Division have been in some confusion, and the problem of administration has not yet been solved.

Pauling also relayed his intrigue at the possibility of working with Donnan and living in in such a radically different location.

Though adjusting to life in England would surely be difficult for Pauling and his family, the challenge of doing so did not appear to be an issue of pressing concern. Rather, the only major obstacle impeding Pauling’s acceptance of the offer was its base salary of £1,200 per year, which he calculated to be less than his current Caltech salary of $6,300. Pauling also discerned that the taxes on his University College earnings would amount to £360, which was about $1,000 more per year than what he was paying in California.

Pauling communicated his concerns about the proposed salary package to Ingold, perhaps hoping that University College would reply with a counter. Instead, Ingold merely repeated the offer while reiterating his sense that it might not be enough to attract a talent of Pauling’s magnitude.

In his reply, Pauling took up their correspondence on chemical matters, but also described how the experience of meeting biophysicist Archibald Hill, who was visiting Pasadena, had made him “realize more keenly than before” that he would not miss coming to London. The courtship had reached its conclusion.

Not long after declining the University College offer, Pauling was similarly recruited for a one-year stint at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and also for the George Fischer Baker Lectureship, a six-month visiting appointment offered by Cornell University’s Department of Chemistry. While neither of these opportunities would have taken him away from Caltech permanently, they did serve the important function of demonstrating to Pauling that he had reached a new level of stature within the profession.

Pauling’s first inclination was to choose the Baker Lectureship, though he made inquiries at Caltech to determine whether or not he could receive enough leave to fill both visiting positions. Ultimately he was extended only one semester’s worth of paid leave and so chose Cornell.

In weighing his leave options, Pauling had consulted with Robert Millikan, the chair of Caltech’s Executive Council. Millikan was pleased with the decision that Pauling made and, as a byproduct of their recent conversations, once again broached the idea of Pauling moving in to the position of division chair.

With several months having now passed, Millikan specifically asked if Pauling might still have the “desire to suggest changes in the organization of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering such as would make your continued association with and leadership of that Division satisfactory to you.” With plans for the new Crellin Laboratory finally set and construction soon to begin, resolving the question of division leadership was becoming more and more important.

Noting that Millikan was open to negotiation and sensing that he had the upper hand, Pauling waited for the new year, 1937, to respond. In doing so, Pauling made it clear that the changes that he would desire remained consistent with the suggestions the suggestions that he had put forth in his letter to the Executive Council of November 1935. Pauling also communicated his willingness to directly discuss the points he had made in his August letter with the Executive Council. As it turned out, Millikan had never forwarded Pauling’s letter to the Executive Council, so a discussion of this sort would prove essential to satisfying Pauling’s demands.

Around this time, Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, who had favored Pauling as division chair from the start, came to Pasadena to help mediate the situation. Weaver chose to interject himself in part because Millikan, who had little interest in biochemical research, had taken over management of the potential Rockefeller grant that had been worked out with A.A. Noyes prior to Noyes’ death.

While in Pasadena, Weaver met with Pauling and listened to his concerns over the lack of power invested in the chair under the stipulations put forth by the Executive Council in Fall 1935. Pauling also discussed with Weaver his salary ambitions and desire for an appropriate title. Using the sway that he had accumulated as a major source of funding for the division, Weaver then began negotiating on Pauling’s half. It did not take long for Pauling’s salary to be increased to $9,000 in addition to the title of Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Director of the Chemical Laboratories. It would still take several months however, before all of the details were worked out.

As Pauling and Millikan mended fences, Pauling began thinking in concrete terms about the future of the division. In mid-March 1937, he wrote a note to himself about the unit’s financial future which, in the midst of the Depression, depended heavily on the Rockefeller Foundation. Be it by choice or necessity, it is clear that Pauling was on board with the foundation’s involvement, writing that it “would help the Division as a whole both scientifically and financially.”

By now, the foundation’s influence on division affairs had become increasingly evident. One particular instance involved the hiring of Carl Niemann, a biochemist working at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, who was brought on to help staff the brand new Crellin Laboratory. At Weaver’s urging, Niemann was invited to visit Pasadena with the understanding that he would be offered a $3,000 assistant professorship starting that September. This despite the fact that Niemann was obligated to remain in Zurich until the following year.

On April 14, 1937, Millikan conveyed to Pauling that it had been informally agreed upon by the Executive Council that Pauling’s salary would increase to $9,000 in 1938 and that he would receive the title of division chair at the next Executive Council meeting. In his documentation of that conversation, Pauling wrote that

Professor Millikan intimated that I might desire the action to be postponed a little beyond that time in case that [historian William Bennett] Munro and [physicist Richard] Tolman could not be raised simultaneously to $9000 from $8100, and I replied that I preferred a definite understanding in order that I might incur certain obligations.

At a meeting of the Division Council, held on April 23, Pauling was recognized for the first time as chair, and on May 4 he was informed that the Executive Council had officially approved his appointment. By mid-August 1937, all agreements had been formalized and approved by the Board of Trustees. At long last, Pauling was finally chair.

Becoming Division Chair: Staffing a New Laboratory, Noyes’ Death, and a Conversation with Harvard


Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

[Pauling as Administrator]

In November 1935, Edward Crellin, a retired Pasadena steel magnate, and his spouse Amy, informed Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes of their wish to provide majority funding for a new building to be used by the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Planning for this new facility promptly commenced and, by the next month, had advanced to the point where Noyes could tell the Division Council that construction would begin in spring 1937. In the meantime, fundraising and design work continued, a process that was aided by Crellin’s forgiveness of a $60,000 annuity owed to him by Caltech.

By spring 1936, the final plans appeared to be coming together for the new space. It would be called the Crellin Laboratory, and the division’s existing facility would become the Gates Laboratory. One issue of particular concern was the square footage to be made available for biochemistry research supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Another key need was finding a person suitable to organizing this work.


Carl Niemann, 1950

Linus Pauling was tasked with leading the search for the head researcher position but, as had happened the previous year, his inquiries yielded few leads. In his correspondence with Thorfin Hogness, a close colleague at the University of Chicago, Pauling learned that they too were looking for someone similar. This shared difficulty encountered by both institutions reflected a growing interest in biochemical research nation-wide that had been catalyzed, in no small measure, by the Rockefeller Foundation.

More promising suggestions came from Moses Gomberg at Johns Hopkins University and from the Rockefeller Foundation itself, in the form of Warren Weaver. Gomberg suggested Edwin Buchman and Weaver suggested Carl Niemann, but both struck Pauling as being too early in their careers to fill this position. Making a trip back East, Pauling began to search in person, interviewing “young bio-organic chemists” and getting “advice from several older ones.”

The most important conversation that Pauling had during this trip was with Warren Weaver. In it, Pauling learned that the Rockefeller Foundation would not commit to even a “small grant” for “preliminary investigations,” if the division was not able to meet an April 1937 deadline for submitting a “well worked out plan” for initial implementation in September. Weaver also shared his sense that the foundation’s trustees would likely not consent to supporting a program headed by “only young and relatively untried men at the beginning of their careers.”

Having received this guidance, Pauling suggested that Caltech hire a mid-career candidate who had already made significant contributions, and then add young men who could be groomed by this individual. The only person whom Pauling had met so far who approached this description was Hans T. Clark, a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry at Columbia University. Pauling worried though, that Clark’s research was not “outstanding.” Another possibility was Samuel Gurin, a National Research Fellow at the University of Illinois and Pauling’s favorite among the “young men” that he had interviewed.

In the end, neither Clark nor Gurin was hired. Instead, Edwin Buchman and Carl Niemann – the two candidates suggested by Moses Gomberg and Warren Weaver – were brought on as temporary junior appointments. Though young, both were brimming with promise: Niemann had already published ten papers by the age of twenty-five, and Buchman quickly secured funding for his research on vitamin B1. As it turned out, both also stayed at Caltech for the remainder of their careers.


A.A. Noyes

On June 6, 1936, with the Crellin facility still in its planning phase and a succession plan for division leadership still not in hand, A.A. Noyes passed away. For many in the division, sadness at Noyes’ passing was amplified by feelings of resentment toward Pauling, the likely new chair, who was widely seen as having pressed the issue of succession too aggressively during Noyes’ final days. For this and other reasons, many colleagues favored the appointment of physicist Richard Tolman instead, forcing him, just four days after Noyes’ death, to clarify that he would not accept the position if offered.

Tolman’s preemptive refusal fell on deaf ears with the Executive Council, who recommended him anyway. Tolman, who was already Dean of the Graduate School and whose research did not comfortably align with the division’s broader work, responded to the council once more at the end of June, explaining

I am very appreciative – and indeed quite touched – by this expression of confidence on the part of the members of the Executive Council. Nevertheless, both from the point of view of my own work and from that of the welfare of the Institute, I do not think that it would be wisest for me to accept.

For his part, Tolman still favored the plan that he had devised the previous year with Noyes, George Ellery Hale and Robert Millikan, wherein it was recommended that Pauling take over as leader working in tandem with the Division Council. Tolman noted that as “an outstanding chemist, who is actively engaged in chemical research, who has a good knowledge of the chemical work being done in this and in other countries, and who is himself recognized as a man who is now making important contributions to chemistry,” Pauling was the perfect candidate. Tolman also hoped that the Division Council structure could be maintained and put forth that, as originally planned, he would continue to serve on the council since it was a position from which he could most effectively benefit the division.

Pauling’s strong objections to the Tolman group’s proposal in general, and the Division Council structure in particular continued to hold. Feeling that the window for advancing on acceptable terms at Caltech was nearing its close, Pauling also began to seriously entertain the idea of working elsewhere.

In 1929, Harvard University had recruited Pauling for a position as Professor of Physical Chemistry, an offer that Pauling ultimately refused. Seven years later, the division chairmanship seemingly out of reach, Pauling wrote to the new President of Harvard, James B. Conant, asking if the 1929 offer was still a consideration. Conant replied that the position had since been filled by one of Pauling’s former students, E. Bright Wilson, and that Harvard was not presently in a position to create a new job for Pauling. This news came as a disappointment, but other opportunities were soon to arrive.

Becoming Division Chair: The Division Council, Pauling’s Demur, and Weaver’s Promise


Linus Pauling, 1935

[Pauling as Administrator]

In 1935, after being diagnosed with colon cancer, A.A. Noyes knew that he would soon have to step down from his position as Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As such, Noyes began planning how best to transition his administrative portfolio to whomever might be elevated as the next chairman. Noyes favored the idea of promoting a strong researcher – rather than an experienced administrator – into the position, and was likewise keen to continuing strengthening the divisions’s ties to the Rockefeller Foundation. With these criteria set, Noyes quickly settled on Linus Pauling as his favored successor.

Pauling was aware of Noyes’ preferences and, as time moved forward, began to press the issue himself. When July arrived and little movement had been made toward appointing a new chair, Pauling approached Robert Millikan, professor of physics and Chairman of the Executive Council at Caltech, to make his case more aggressively. As a close friend of Noyes, whose health was on the decline, (he would die less than a year later) Millikan was infuriated with Pauling’s insensitivity to the circumstances. But this did not stop Pauling: within two weeks, after thinking the situation over, Pauling addressed Noyes directly by letter, claiming that he was considering leaving Caltech since the promised chairmanship had apparently been taken away.

For his part, Noyes still wanted Pauling to succeed him as chair. Upon receiving Pauling’s letter, Noyes passed it on to astronomer George Ellery Hale, who had been central to shaping Caltech into a prestigious institution over the previous two decades. Noyes also met in person with Hale, Millikan, and physicist Richard Tolman to discuss the question of his successor.

Millikan favored Tolman for the position, in part because he was concerned that Pauling’s modest upbringing would impact his ability to engage with and woo wealthy donors. Noyes also admitted to harboring concerns about Pauling’s leadership style, the result of having observed him in the laboratory, where he was inclined to delegate specific tasks to his students and staff rather than allowing those under him to think through problems for themselves.

Ultimately the four decided that the best course of action was to split the leadership of the division in half. Pauling would be anointed as chairman but would be asked to work with a new Chemistry Division Council, to be comprised of a selection of five of Pauling’s fellow faculty. The group also decided that Tolman would represent the division to the Caltech Executive Council and retain primary responsibility for interacting with donors.

The creation of the Division Council, which was modeled on the Institute’s existing Executive Council, reflected the inclusive approach to running the division that Noyes had developed during his tenure and insured its institutionalization. In a letter requesting the Executive Committee to establish the Division Council, Noyes and Tolman described the duties of the chairman as being in a “spirit of cooperation” with the council, such that the chairman would bring matters before the council and make recommendations.

A separate memo further clarified the roles to be played by the chairman and council, noting that the chairman would represent the division to the broader Caltech community, but with certain restrictions. Among them, the memo envisioned the council as having “final authority and responsibility” for making recommendations to the Executive Council concerning budgets and major expenditures, staffing and promotions, and decisions on the usage of laboratory space. The council was tasked with meeting every month during the academic year or when called by the division chair.

The annotations that Pauling made to his own copy of the memo are indicative of his point of view. In it, Pauling highlighted that the chairman would

personally decide all administrative questions, except that he will refer matters upon which a consensus of Division opinion is desirable to the Council or to the Committee of the Division, or to the Division as a whole, as indicated in the statement given below of their respective functions.

The various restrictions outlined in the memo were unacceptable to Pauling, and he refused to sign off on its contents. Instead, he replied to the memo with a written rejoinder addressed to the Executive Council. In it, Pauling expressed his feeling that the Division Council approach would prove inefficient and stagnate the progress of the unit as a whole. “The more reactionary and less ambitious members of the group,” he worried, “will determine its policy, inasmuch as to move ahead is harder than to stand still.” More specifically, Pauling was concerned that the council would be ruled by those who were most out of touch with current trends in research and the instruction, and that the quality of the division would suffer accordingly.

Hesitations about trying to work within this structure, compounded by the difficult financial times being endured nation-wide, were such that Pauling chose to the decline the chairmanship under the terms offered.

I would not accept appointment as Chairman of the Division with authority vested in a Council, inasmuch as it would be impossible or difficult to build up the Division under these circumstances. With someone else as Chairman, I would not feel called on or justified in making any effort to build up the Division, this being then the responsibility of the Chairman. Professor Morgan says that there is no chance of building the West Wing of Gates for five years, no chance of increasing the Chemistry budget, no chance of getting new staff members, no chance that the Institute would promise an increase in budget at some definite time in the future. With no prospect of developing the Division, I would not accept its Chairmanship.

Ignoring Pauling’s objections, the Executive Council approved the Division Council on November 2, 1935, the day after Pauling authored his letter. From that point, it would take more than two years to resolve the disagreement between Pauling and upper administration. Central to the healing process was Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation.

In March 1936, Weaver informed Pauling of the Rockefeller Foundation’s interest in supporting “an attack on cancer from below (structure of carcinogenic substances, etc.) but not from above.” The following month, further details about the Foundation’s proposed level of support were shared at a Division Council meeting, where it was conveyed that the grant could fund research in organic chemistry at rate of $250,000 over five to seven years, with an additional $50,000 going to the Division of Biology. The Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering was asked to submit its grant application by August. Needless to say, a potential windfall of this magnitude served as a powerful motivator for the division to shift its attention toward biochemistry and also provided Pauling with significant leverage in his pursuit of the division’s chair.

This leverage first began to manifest when Noyes put Pauling in charge of identifying three research fellows to attach to the grant. The previous year, Pauling had conducted a similar search and was unsuccessful. During this first attempt, Pauling had sent out letters to chemistry and medical departments at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Washington University, and Harvard describing the ideal candidate as “original and energetic” but not requiring plum facilities to carry out effective research. This second time around, Caltech’s relative lack of facilities would be less of a problem. The potential Rockefeller grant was partly responsible for this, as was a plan to begin construction on the Crellin Laboratory the following year.

Pauling as Administrator: Becoming Division Chair

[Ed Note: Over the past eleven years, one of the Pauling Blog’s areas of interest has been the exploration of different institutions with which Linus Pauling was affiliated. Posting series authored in support of this interest include examinations of Pauling’s time at The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the University of California, San Diego, Stanford University, and the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

Pauling is, of course, most famously associated with the California Institute of Technology, his institutional home from 1922-1963. But attempting to develop a series of blog posts that delve into his institutional relationship with Caltech is a daunting task — in addition to being there for a long time, a great deal happened during those forty-one years.

Today, however, we begin to approach this weighty subject with the release of the first post in a lengthy series that will examine Pauling’s work as an administrator while also a member of the Caltech faculty. Among the more ambitious projects that the Pauling Blog has undertaken, this topic will be our primary point of emphasis from now until June 2019.]


Linus Pauling, 1937

Linus Pauling became Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Director of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in 1937, succeeding long-time head A.A. Noyes. But before this time, he had taken on administrative responsibilities that would prepare him for the position and demonstrate to his superiors that he was a suitable candidate. By 1937, Pauling had also long since proven himself to be a world-class researcher and his rank had advanced accordingly: appointed Assistant Professor of Theoretical Chemistry in 1927, he was promoted to full professor just four years later. Importantly, Pauling’s research interests also led to the fostering of a strong working relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation during a key moment in institutional history.

Pauling’s demonstration of administrative skill and his research achievements, in tandem with his valuable ties to the Rockefeller Foundation, all contributed to the viability of his candidacy for division chair in the post-Noyes era.


From the very beginning of Pauling’s tenure as chair, the need for and allocation of space ranked high as an ever-present concern. Prior to his appointment as division head, Pauling had gained useful experience with the administration of space. A member of a 1929 sub-committee charged with exploring ways to improve graduate instruction and research in physical chemistry, Pauling found that space devoted to graduate research was a pressing need and advocated that the division act accordingly. Later, Pauling himself dealt with shortages in space when compelled to move his laboratory to the astrophysics building beginning in 1932. Once Pauling became chair, these problems continued to linger, if softened somewhat by the construction of two new facilities, the Crellin and Church Laboratories.

In addition to raw square footage, the organization of available space was a regular topic of discussion. During his years as chair, A.A. Noyes sought to address the issue by  organizing spaces according to research program, with areas for inorganic, organic, physical, and applied chemistry designated within the newly occupied Gates Laboratory. Pauling took issue with this approach, writing to Noyes in 1931 that the compartmentalization served “no useful purpose and would seriously weaken the Division by the introduction of artificial barriers.”


The Gates Laboratory, circa 1930s. Credit: Caltech Archives.

It was Pauling’s opinion that the division ought to continue promoting its well-recognized physical chemistry program instead, rather than incurring the risk that organic chemistry, a more emergent program, begin to overshadow an existing area of strength. “I am not opposed to the development of work in organic chemistry,” Pauling hastened to add, “But I feel that the work in physical and inorganic chemistry is one of the Institute’s strongest assets, and that development of organic chemistry should not be made at the expense of physical chemistry.”

Pauling even went so far as to put forth a suggested floor plan: the sub-basement, basement, and first floor should be devoted to physical chemistry, he felt, and the second and third floors to organic. Pauling further suggested that, as the division continued to grow to the point of overcrowding, a new building devoted to organic chemistry could be built, leaving physical and inorganic chemistry to occupy all of Gates. And as it turned out, Pauling’s vision proved accurate: a new building did come very soon, with construction of the Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry first proposed in 1935 and completed in 1938, not long after Pauling took up the chairmanship.


In the years prior to his taking charge, Pauling also developed a reputation as an advocate for his fellow faculty; a stance that sometimes put him at odds with the Institute’s upper administration. In 1932, Robert Millikan, a Nobel laureate who was then the Chairman of the Caltech Executive Council, asked that the faculty vote to take a 10% pay cut in response to the economic depression then gripping the United States. Pauling vocally opposed this request, noting that only the Institute’s Board of Trustees could take such an action.

Three years later, Pauling voiced his support for raises that were pending for newly tenured colleagues Richard Badger and Don Yost, despite continuing budget woes. Pauling argued that the raises would help the division maintain its position as a leader within the profession by rewarding the successes of deserving researchers. As Pauling told Noyes, “I feel that in university administration, just is to be esteemed above expediency, and a satisfied staff above a balanced budget.” Pauling’s attention to faculty pay remained a hallmark of his tenure as chairman. Indeed, one of his final gestures as division leader, put forth in 1957, was a $1500 gift earmarked for Caltech faculty salaries.


Another issue with which Pauling would grapple as chair was the imperative that the division be properly equipped, a problem that Pauling had encountered in his own research. In 1930, Pauling spent part of his summer at Arnold Sommerfeld’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, and upon his return to Pasadena, he requested institutional support for an electron-diffraction apparatus that was similar to Sommerfeld’s. As with his advocacy of faculty raises, Pauling’s request was in keeping with his ambition that the division maintain a position of prominence, this time in crystal structure research.

In making his case, Pauling argued that the research infrastructure at other campuses like the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were beginning to leave Caltech in their wake. He expressed this concern to Noyes, writing

I should not like to have this laboratory, which has played a significant part in the development of crystal structure since the early days, fall far behind the other and newer crystal structure laboratories in this country.

Pauling likewise believed that researchers themselves, rather than administrators, were in the best position to determine what sort of laboratory equipment was needed to carry out cutting-edge work. And though an admittedly risky proposition, he felt that each researcher should be given their own funding to do with as they pleased. Again to Noyes,

The most interesting experiments are the least safe – those which might give a surprising result, but which might fail. It is difficult to use these as an argument for buying new apparatus, inasmuch as success cannot be guaranteed. I feel nevertheless that these experiments are fully important as the routine ones.

Over time, Pauling continued to exert influence on decision-making related to the divisions’s general equipment needs, and became a formal member of its Equipment Laboratory Committee in 1935.

The Rockefeller Foundation

Without doubt, a major factor behind Pauling’s elevation to chairman was the strength of his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation and, more specifically, its Director of the Natural Sciences, Warren Weaver. Pauling had been cultivating ties with the Foundation and Weaver for at least five years prior to his appointment as chair. In July 1932, he secured Rockefeller funding under what he later described as a “small grant” for $10,000 per year (nearly $170,000 in contemporary valuation) for crystal structure research. This grant was renewed twice and proved a crucial means of support during difficult economic times. After those three years had passed, Weaver told Pauling that the Foundation would no longer fund his current line of research, but that they would be interested in its biological applications.


Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

As a result of these discussions, Pauling began redirecting his interests towards biological topics. In doing so, he requested $5,000 per year from Caltech’s Executive Council to supplement a potential $10,000 annual award from the Rockefeller Foundation, an amount that he ultimately received for three years beginning in 1935. Following the Foundation’s approval of his grant, Pauling wrote a thank you letter to Weaver in which he confided that he had already begun preliminary investigations on the structure of hemoglobin. Pauling added, “As I have read about the problems of biochemistry, I have become more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities of the application of our methods.” In short, he was smitten.

For Weaver, Pauling was part of the Foundation’s larger project of promoting biochemical research across the United States and also a valuable resource in deciding how to carry it out. In particular, Weaver solicited the perspective of researchers like Pauling on how best to coordinate training across institutions. One particular case involved an Antioch College researcher named O.L. Inman. Inman had requested Rockefeller support for studies of chlorophyll that were similar to what Pauling had done with hemoglobin, with the proviso that he would only do so if he could bring in someone who had worked on hemoglobin in Pauling’s lab. When asked for his input, Pauling told Weaver that Inman’s idea was doomed to failure, since chlorophyll lacked paramagnetic atoms. Weaver promptly heeded this advice, thus halting one potential instance of cross-institutional training.

In an undated note likely written in the mid-1940s, Pauling reflected on his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation and the role that it played in influencing his research trajectory. “Perhaps,” Pauling wrote, “the remark from Weaver that my grant for molecular structure was all right, but that the main support was going in another direction, and the hint that application of m. s. [molecular structure] to biological problems might interest the Foundation greatly” had indeed made an impact on his decision-making.

However, Pauling did not agree with the notion that Weaver’s encouragement had diverted him away from more focused attention on chemical subjects. Rather, Weaver’s suggestion had opened up vital new territory of which Pauling had been unaware and that he subsequently became eager to explore. Pauling further described his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation by likening it to a joke he had read in the Saturday Evening Post.

A young man and young woman were saying goodnight at her door. She said ‘I’ll give you a kiss – I owe it to you for bringing me all the way out to 155th Street, and next week I’m going to move out to 242nd.

Regardless of its impact on his research agenda, Pauling’s willingness to follow Weaver’s suggestions and the research funding strategies put forth by the Rockefeller Foundation would prove to be the tipping point in Pauling’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.