Building the Crellin Lab (and keeping it standing)

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

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

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 2 of 3]

During the 1930s, the Biology and Chemistry departments of the California Institute of Technology grew substantially, in part because of major support received from the Rockefeller Foundation. One of the most visible and dramatic examples of this growth spurt was the new Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry, an addition to the older Gates Laboratory of Chemistry. The new Crellin lab was under construction by 1937, set to be finished in 1938.

Indeed, 1938 was a big year for Caltech. Largely because of the efforts of Linus Pauling, the Rockefeller Foundation donated the huge sum of $800,000 to support research. Of that substantial amount, $250,000 was set aside to fund work in the new Crellin and Gates labs for the following five to seven years. The entire effort was in support of the Foundation’s “Science of Man” agenda, a cultural and scientific enterprise which has since proven to be somewhat controversial, due to the fact that a guiding principle of the project was eugenics.

Support for the study of eugenics largely lost credibility in the United States (and globally), after World War II and the widespread practice of eugenics by the Nazis. Specific to the U.S. concern, Nazi leadership testifying at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials cited American eugenics programs as being an inspiration and justification for their own programs, a declaration that horrified many Americans. Despite this sudden and dramatic distaste for eugenics – as historian Lily Kay and others have pointed out – the Science of Man agenda remained intact well after World War II had ended.

But in the Depression years of the late 1930s, funding from the Rockefeller Foundation continued to be instrumental and Caltech continued to hold a privileged position. From 1930-1955, Caltech was one of six schools that received the lion’s share of the Foundation’s research money allocations. In that time, Caltech and the University of Chicago received $5 million, Stanford and Columbia University received $1 million, and Harvard and the University of Wisconsin received $500,000.

By early 1938, construction of the Crellin laboratory was complete. The new building was three stories tall with two basements and contained over fifty rooms. The second and third floors were entirely dedicated to organic chemistry, a major passion of A. A. Noyes’, while the first floor and basements were set aside for physical chemistry. The lab was dedicated on May 16, 1938, and immediately began working productively. The years 1938 and 1939 both proved to be very fruitful, with substantial amounts of useful research conducted. But this otherwise excellent record was marred in the summer of 1939 by a very scary incident.

Pauling's notes on the 1939 explosion.

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

On August 10, 1939, two Caltech researchers, Leo Brewer and Thurston Skei, were conducting an experiment in room 351 of the Crellin Laboratory. In the midst of their work the bottom of a container fell off, spilling six liters of liquid ether all over the floor. Brewer and Skei quickly cleaned the spill up, and checked to make sure the room was safe, which it appeared to be.

At that point, Skei left the room to attend to matters elsewhere, leaving Brewer alone. Five minutes later, a spark from a motor running in the building’s ventilation ducts ignited ether fumes, which had been sucked into the ventilation system. The air in room 351 quickly ignited, severely burning Brewer, who immediately, and fortunately, ran from the room. Three seconds later, the lockers, desks, and storage containers in room 351, filled with flammable gasses and liquids, exploded, destroying all the windows on that half of the floor and blowing apart the room’s main entry door as well as part of a wall. Additionally, five other rooms sustained damage from the explosion.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

Leo Brewer, 1950.

As if that weren’t enough, the ventilation fans in the fume hoods in Crellin 351 sucked the flames upward into the hoods, which ignited another set of drums containing ten gallons of liquid ether, in turn starting a massive fire which spread to two adjacent rooms. The force of the explosion had also shattered almost every piece of glass on the entire floor and knocked over numerous storage shelves. As a result, various chemicals began to mix, and the entire third floor began to flood with poisonous gasses.

In quick response, graduate students and staff alike grabbed gas masks and fire extinguishers, and charged up to the third floor. Amazingly, they succeeded in containing the fire and prevented it from spreading into even more adjacent rooms, including the building’s library. They also managed to extinguish the burning walls in the main hallway. Not long after, the Pasadena Fire Department arrived, and firemen ran into room 351, which was furiously ablaze due to the drums containing the ten gallons of ether. The firefighters ripped 351’s fume hoods out of the wall with axes and eventually extinguished the last of the fire.

In the aftermath, Pauling passed along word of the explosion to several of his colleagues, though did his best to downplay it when communicating the news, seven days after the fact, to his main contact at the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver.

Perhaps you read in the papers that we had a fire in the Crellin Laboratory. Fortunately no one was injured and the damage was restricted almost entirely to the undergraduate organic laboratory, with very little research lost. We had complete insurance coverage and shall have the laboratory in shape for the students when the Institute opens next month.

In reality, the explosion and ensuing fire had destroyed almost $3,300 worth of equipment, and by the time the rather extensive repairs were done, the accident had cost about $14,000. Fortunately nobody was killed – Brewer was the only injury, and he made a full recovery. It is worth noting that lab fires were common enough at the time that the emergency procedures for the lab only required personnel to call the fire department if the staff and graduate students on hand couldn’t contain the fire themselves.

Regardless, Caltech quickly regained its footing. After the repairs were done, the labs continued with their research, and made major contributions during World War II and after.


The Origins of the Crellin Laboratory

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

Architectural schematic for the third floor of the Crellin Laboratory.

[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Crellin Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  Part 1 of 3]

By the early 1920s, the California Institute of Technology had become, in the minds of some, “the hub of America’s scientific establishments.” This point of prestige was especially notable because Caltech was so new and very geographically distant from other major scientific research enterprises, which were predominantly located on the east coast or around the Great Lakes region. Part of this success was due to the construction of the Gates Chemistry Laboratories, built in 1917 and expanded in 1927.

The prestige and skill exhibited by Caltech caught the attention of the very influential and wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, which began supporting certain of the Institute’s operations in the early 1930s.  This support was crucial for many reasons, one of them being that, by 1930, the Gates Laboratory had reached capacity. A.A. Noyes, chair of the Chemistry department at the time, commented that there was “literally no space for another research man,” and that greatly expanded facilities were exactly what the department needed to fulfill its vast potential. Linus Pauling, working in the Gates Lab, opined that the Institute was home to “the most forward looking Department of Chemistry with respect to physical chemistry in the world.” This was in no small part due to the superior leadership of Noyes, who had dramatically expanded the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering departments during his legendary tenure.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling's desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling's hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

X-ray apparatus assembled on Linus Pauling’s desk in the basement of the Gates Laboratory, 1925. Pauling’s hat is seen in the rear of the photo.

The Rockefeller Foundation apparently agreed with Pauling’s assessment of Caltech’s capabilities, and in the early 1930s began to grant substantial funds to the Institute to further its leading positions in the fields of biology and chemistry. Specifically, the Institute held a key position in the development of a new field being pushed by the Foundation – a field described in 1938 as “molecular biology” by Rockefeller staffer Warren Weaver. Considering that the Great Depression was still in full swing, these additional funds were a godsend as research money was understandably difficult to come by.

In 1936, after some debate and controversy, Pauling was appointed the Chairman and Director of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and also the Director of the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, a position he held until 1958. Pauling was pleased with his increased responsibility and control, and decided that he wanted to revamp the department, and the labs in general, to better suit his vision for Caltech.

The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to provide Caltech with more money for purposes of expanding the Chemistry department and the Gates Lab. To this end, the Foundation also courted Edward W. Crellin, a retired steel magnate who lived in Pasadena. Fairly quickly, still in 1936, Crellin agreed to donate $350,000 – about $5.7 million in today’s dollars – in support of the construction of an expansion to the Gates lab, which was to be renamed the Gates and Crellin Chemical Laboratories. A year later, Crellin donated an additional $5,000 to provide floor coverings for the lab.

Edward W. Crellin.

Edward W. Crellin.

Pauling was so pleased by Crellin’s contributions that he named his son, born June 4, 1937, Edward Crellin Pauling. Even though Edward Crellin and Crellin Pauling never got to know each other – Edward Crellin died when Crellin Pauling was only 11 – he was still flattered by Linus Pauling’s gesture, and left $5,000 in his will for Crellin Pauling.

The architects for the building initiative were Francis Mayers, Oscar Murray, and Hardie Phillip, and the project was expensive. In March 1937, Pauling received a memo from the Chemistry department that suggested cuts to the building, in order to reduce costs. The memo listed 29 suggested reductions that would lower the total cost by $47,039. The list also included three suggested additions, which would add $965 to the bill. His eyes firmly set on a world-class facility, Pauling agreed to consider only a few minor possibilities: “omit some ceiling inserts” ($240), “simplify water proofing on vertical walls” ($450), “omit birch strips on exterior walls” ($158), and “use skim coat plaster” ($200).

In addition to the building itself, outfitting costs for the new space were also high. The equipment required for the lab to function ran to $36,000 – $51,000, depending on the contractor. In addition, basic chemicals were an extra $1,200. The Chemistry department rejected Pauling’s request for more specialized analytical machines, as they would tack on an extra $4,500.

The process of bartering for and ultimately purchasing the materials that the new lab would need was slowed down in July 1937 by over three weeks, when Carl Niemann, a colleague that Pauling had entrusted to do much of the purchasing, was hospitalized. Niemann wrote in a letter to Pauling that he had gone to see a doctor because he had a chunk of rust embedded in the cornea of his left eye, “and the first attempt to remove it was not particularly successful.” He was then hospitalized and had to “have the disturbing element removed and the seat of the injury cauterized.” Despite the potential severity of the injury, Niemann made a full recovery, and the quest to secure the necessary chemicals resumed.

Once the needed equipment and chemicals had been secured, more attention was paid to the new laboratory’s décor, and Caltech had a bronze tablet cast. The tablet, which was eventually installed at the entrance of the lab, read simply: “Crellin Laboratory of Chemistry. The Gift of Edward W. and Amy H. Crellin. 1937.”

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History


Today is Linus Pauling’s birthday – he would have been 112 years old.  Every year on February 28th we try to do something special and this time around we’re pleased to announce a project about which we’re all very excited: the sixth in our series of Pauling documentary history websites.

Launched today, Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins is the both latest in the documentary history series and our first since 2010’s The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling. (we’ve been a little busy these past few years)  Like Pauling’s program of proteins research, the new website is sprawling and multi-faceted.  It features well over 200 letters and manuscripts, as well as the usual array of photographs, papers, audio and video that users of our sites have come to expect.  A total of more than 400 primary source materials illustrate and provide depth to the site’s 45-page Narrative, which was written by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager.


Warren Weaver, 1967.

That narrative tells a remarkable story that was central to many of the twentieth century’s great breakthroughs in molecular biology.  Readers will, for example, learn much of Pauling’s many interactions with Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation, the organization whose interest in the “science of life” helped prompt Pauling away from his early successes on the structure of crystals in favor of investigations into biological topics.

So too will users learn about Pauling’s sometimes caustic confrontations with Dorothy Wrinch, whose cyclol theory of protein structure was a source of intense objection for Pauling and his colleague, Carl Niemann.  Speaking of colleagues, the website also delves into the fruitful collaboration enjoyed between Pauling and his Caltech co-worker, Robert Corey.  The controversy surrounding Pauling’s interactions with another associate, Herman Branson, are also explored on the proteins website.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Much is known about Pauling’s famously lost “race for DNA,” contested with Jim Watson, Francis Crick and a handful of others in the UK.  Less storied is the long running competition between Pauling’s laboratory and an array of British proteins researchers, waged several years before Watson and Crick’s breakthrough.  That triumph, the double helix, was inspired by Pauling’s alpha helix, discovered one day when Linus lay sick in bed, bored and restless as he fought off a cold. (This was before the vitamin C days, of course.)

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Many more discoveries lie in waiting for those interested in the history of molecular biology: the invention of the ultracentrifuge by The Svedberg; Pauling’s long dalliance with a theory of antibodies; his hugely important concept of biological specificity; and the contested notion of coiled-coils, an episode that once again pit Pauling versus Francis Crick.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins constitutes a major addition to the Pauling canon. It is an enormously rich resource that will suit the needs of many types of researchers, students and educators. It is, in short, a fitting birthday present for history’s only recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Happy birthday, Dr. Pauling!


Pauling and the Rockefeller Foundation


Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

Rockefeller Foundation administrator Warren Weaver.

We are … particularly gratified that the Institute has found it possible to make a substantial contribution which will enable you to direct a larger proportion of our aid to the study of the substances of fundamental biological importance.”
– Warren Weaver to Linus Pauling, December 27, 1934.

It is obvious from much of his scientific work that Linus Pauling possessed a brilliant and uncanny ability to think across and between disciplines. Pauling was also a pragmatic and often business-like researcher who understood the necessity of securing financial support for his projects. The long and fruitful relationship Pauling maintained with the Rockefeller Foundation – and, in particular, a Rockefeller administrator named Warren Weaver – made possible much of Pauling’s most groundbreaking work on hemoglobin and structural chemistry. The full force of this intellectually-fruitful relationship reveals both the importance of interdisciplinarity in scientific work as well as the essential nature of active and timely funding.

Pauling received his first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1932 for a program of research in structural chemistry. Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 1933, Pauling applied for and later received a three-year grant from the Foundation to support his experimental researches.  Pauling’s proposal was bolstered by his recent work in electron and X-ray diffraction, and held great promise of continued theoretical development in the study of the electronic structures of molecules.

In 1934 Pauling received more funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, this time in support of his hemoglobin research. He proposed to study hemoglobin in part because he understood that a great deal of general interest lay in the biomedical application of theoretical chemistry.

It is also clear that Pauling was, at least to a degree, shifting his research focus to match the lines of inquiry that the Foundation was interested in funding. In 1986, Pauling would note

…I’d had one elementary course in organic chemistry and no biochemistry. Didn’t know much about these things. I was getting support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Warren Weaver said to me, “Well it’s alright. We’ve been giving you some money to determine the structure of the sulfide minerals. But the Rockefeller Foundation isn’t really interested in the sulfide minerals. We’re interested in biological molecules and life.” So I said, “Well, I’d like to study the magnetic properties of hemoglobin and see whether the oxygen molecule loses its paramagnetism when it combines with the hemoglobin molecule.” So they said, “Alright, we’ll give you more money.”

And so it was, more or less, that Pauling’s hemoglobin work received Rockefeller support on the order of $70,000 per year circa 1940.

Listen: Pauling discusses the roots of his relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation

Pauling not only sought and gained special assistance from Rockefeller funds, but Rockefeller personnel also contributed to the development of his hemoglobin work throughout the 1930s. Alfred E. Mirsky, a professor in cell biology at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, was one of the first individuals with whom Pauling discussed potential hemoglobin research. Pauling quickly developed a personal friendship with Mirsky and clearly held his colleague in very high regard as a scientist. In a 1944 letter recommending Mirsky for a position at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pauling wrote

I do not know any one who is so keenly interested in the development of the field of science involving the applications of chemistry and physics to borderline problems of biology, and especially of genetics, and who has such a penetrating understanding of the work which has been done. I find that every conversation which I have with Dr. Mirsky gives me some valuable idea. He has a masterly ability to coordinate results into a significant whole.


Alfred E. Mirsky

Alfred E. Mirsky

Indeed, over the years Pauling gave a number of lectures at the Rockefeller Institute and continued to benefit from a wide array of academic and personal relationships that began with the Foundation. The Foundation also continued to fund Pauling’s work well into the 1950s, contributing mightily to the “big science” phenomenon that helped define academic research following World War II.

The Rockefeller Foundation was pioneering in its recognition of the importance of supporting interdisciplinary work; in particular, it actively sought to foster research between biology and chemistry. In many ways, Pauling with the prototype scientist that the Foundation was looking to support. Looking back, few can deny the impact that this partnership made on the history of twentieth century science.

For more information on Pauling’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation, see the website It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin, Sickle Cell Anemia. We also strongly recommend the book The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (1993), written by the late Dr. Lily Kay.