The Palmer Committee

Vannevar Bush, 1940s.

Linus Pauling’s experimental work for the government came to an end with the closure of the oxypolygelatin program. Despite that, his association with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) continued. In late 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted Vannevar Bush, director of the OSRD, and requested a report on the future of science in the United States. In response, Bush organized his colleagues into committees and requested that they consider the problem of funding American science and, eventually, offer recommendations.

Pauling, along with dozens of others, was selected to serve as an adviser. A result of his experience with the Committee on Medical Research, oxypolygelatin, and the oxygen meter, Pauling was assigned to a medical advisory committee chaired by Walter W. Palmer, a professor of medicine at Columbia University.

Once the committees had been organized, Bush plied them with discussion topics, asking them to consider the implications of government support for the sciences. Pauling himself was an enthusiastic advocate of government-funded research. He believed that public dollars were the best way to promote scientific growth and allow scientists to make progress in fields that didn’t promise an immediate financial return.

Science leading up to World War II had been funded almost exclusively by universities and corporations, both vying for the prestige and monetary profit that would result from marketable discoveries. Because pure science couldn’t promise the same economic returns that commercial science could, funding for university labs was significantly lower, frequently leading researchers to abandon their professorships in favor of positions in the private sector. Pauling believed that the most efficient way to address this problem was through a governing body empowered with the ability to provide support according to a proposed project’s scientific merit. Funding would be provided with an eye toward the value of the research in relation to the general body of scientific knowledge rather than its potential commercial worth.

Ultimately, the Palmer Committee concluded that no existing federal agency would be able to assign grants without some degree of specialization bias creeping into its process. As a result, Palmer’s group advocated, for one, the creation of a new agency with specific focus on supporting scientists from different fields of medicine and governed by medical experts spanning multiple fields.

Bush was troubled by the committee’s assumption that a separate organization should be created to oversee and fund medical research. Bush’s career had been severely complicated by the lack of cooperation between Washington’s many bureaucracies, and he was loathe to support what he saw as a further bloating of the system. As a result, he took the best of the Palmer Committee’s ideas – the governing body of experienced researchers – and combined them with his own ideas and those of his other colleagues. In the summer of 1945, Bush delivered his treatise on post-war science, “Science: The Endless Frontier,” to Harry S. Truman, President Roosevelt’s successor. In it, Bush recommended the creation of a National Research Foundation (NRF) charged with providing monies to researchers, including medical researchers, according to scientific merit.

Presidential Medal for Merit. Awarded to Linus Pauling by President Harry S. Truman, February 2, 1948.

For nearly five years, politicians and lobbyists battled over the details of this so-called “National Research Foundation.” Funding, focus, and structure were all issues that kept the organization from taking shape. To further complicate matters, while Bush’s proposal was stymied by politicians, other national science organizations like the Atomic Energy Commission and National Institutes of Health became major contributors to the “big science” movement, thus reducing potential NRF jurisdiction.

After years of debate, a consensus was finally reached and on May 10, 1950 President Truman signed the National Science Foundation Act. This legislation created the National Science Foundation (NSF) which was directed by a 25-person National Science Board that included 24 part-time members and an executive officer as appointed by the President. For the first several years of its existence under the direction of the physicist Alan T. Waterman, the NSF was virtually destitute thanks to the expense of the Korean War. Nevertheless, the organization persevered and by the mid-1950s was equipped with a $100 million budget.

After his work with the Palmer committee, Pauling quietly left the OSRD and returned to his personal research agenda at Caltech. His contributions and departure did not go unnoticed by OSRD officials, however, and he was officially recognized by the War Manpower Commission, the NDRC and OSRD, the War Department, and the United States Navy Bureau of Ordnance. In 1948 he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit for his wartime contributions. The war chapter of his career concluded, Pauling continued on with his biochemical research and began a campaign against nuclear weapons, ultimately earning two Nobel prizes and becoming one of the most influential chemists and peace activists of the 20th century.


Rocket Propellants

Both the Army and the Navy are developing hypervelocity guns. Of the two, the Army has the greater interest, because of antitank application…. Present work involves taper bore guns, muzzle adapters, light-weight projectiles.

-Linus Pauling, notes taken at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Internal Ballistics, August 28, 1942.

In the summer of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into existence the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), an organization responsible for supplying the U.S. military with scientific solutions to battlefield problems. In September 1940 Pauling joined the NDRC and was assigned to Division B, which was responsible for the creation of bombs and explosives. There, he provided technical knowledge and guidance for researchers developing new explosive materials.

On August 11, 1942, he was asked by Vannevar Bush, the director of the NDRC and its predecessor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), to serve as the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Internal Ballistics as related to Hyper-Velocity Guns. Despite the additional work required by the position, Pauling accepted.

The committee’s goal was to oversee the creation of a high-performance propellant for use in hyper-velocity guns. Conventional powders were recognized among military personnel as being both impractical and ineffective. The composition of traditional propellants led to a number of problems including excessive erosion of barrel interiors, blinding muzzle flash, and low shell velocity. For a tactical advantage the new powder needed to be non-erosive, flash-less, and capable of launching a shell at speeds reaching 3,000 feet per second.

Pauling and his committee organized the project agenda and formed research contracts with private industrial laboratories and technical institutes around the country. From there they began developing experimental methods for studying powder combustion. Once they had established effective testing procedures, they designed a set of experiments to evaluate new, hybrid powders that allowed for lower combustion temperatures and greater force. These trials provided the group with data sufficient to move ahead with a large program of creating and test firing projectiles using a number of different propellants, including cordite-n and nitroguanidine.

Pauling’s role in the project was largely administrative. While he preferred to work in the lab, his position as chairman of the ad hoc group required that he make frequent trips to Washington, D.C., create progress reports, and tend to a host of mundane operational details. However, with his colleagues’ help, Pauling did find some time to work in the lab.

In 1943 he began an investigation of a powder that resisted the destabilization that contemporary powders were prone to experiencing. After experimentation, he discovered that dinitrodiphenylamine, a derivative of an existing stabilizer, was much more effective than any other product used at the time. It was not until 1983 that Pauling learned that this discovery had led to an industry-wide change in explosives manufacturing, potentially saving thousands of lives in the process.

Ultimately Pauling’s research team, in conjunction with the various other personnel associated with the ballistics committee, successfully engineered several new powders which proved to be both more stable and more powerful than their predecessors. In 1945 Pauling received a certificate from the War Department, signed by the Secretary of War, the Chief of Ordnance, and the Commanding General of the Army Service Forces. The award was presented “For outstanding services rendered in time of war to the Rocket Development Program of the Ordnance Department.” Pauling received a similar award, a week later, from the United States Navy Bureau of Ordnance.

Big News

We are very excited to announce the release of our latest website, The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling:  A Documentary History.  The fifth in our documentary history series, the project took us nearly thirteen months to complete.

As with the previous four documentary histories, the war site is comprised of a Narrative, a Documents and Media repository (nearly 300 documents and audio clips were used), and a link to Linus Pauling Day-by-Day.  One crucial difference between this project and its predecessors, however, is that our staff researched and wrote the Narrative in-house. (Past Narratives were written either by biographer Tom Hager or historian of science Dr. Melinda Gormley.)  This was largely necessitated by the fact that no author had, to this point, rigorously delved into Pauling’s vast program of scientific war research, as conducted for the United States government during World War II.

The primary thrust of the war site narrative is a detailed review of the many specific projects that Pauling either directly investigated or oversaw as an administrator during the war years.  Our research indicates that these were the main projects with which Pauling was involved:

Amidst the project descriptions, the narrative also features an interlude that recounts the Pauling family’s experience of life during wartime, including Linus Pauling, Jr.’s stint in the United States Army.   The project likewise details the elder Pauling’s early interactions with a host of the era’s pivotal figures, including Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Committee, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and W.W. Palmer’s committee, which was charged with charting the course of post-war scientific research funding in the United States.

Group photograph of the National Defense Research Committee membership. approx. 1940.

One of the real pleasures of working on this project has been the discovery of several small details that have added flavor to the overall story of Pauling’s war experience.  Users of the site will learn, for instance, of the following anecdote, as recorded in a 1967 letter written by Arne Haagen-Smit.

During the year 1944 Mrs. Ava Helen Pauling worked for several months in my laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Her task consisted in the separation by chromatography of various colored derivatives of plant products and the determination of their physical constants. I remember with a great deal of pleasure her participation in our research which she carried out to my full satisfaction. I have no hesitation in recommending her for an appointment which would enable her to return to the laboratory.

In a later interview, Linus Pauling would further reveal that his wife had “worked for a couple of years as a chemist on a war job making rubber out of plants that would grow in the Mojave.”

The website incorporates twenty-five audio clips extracted from interviews conducted by Tom Hager in the early 1990s for use in his standard-bearing biography of Linus Pauling, Force of Nature. Here too we find many amusing anecdotes, including this great bit from Nobel laureate William Lipscomb.

In a similar vein, included among the nearly three-hundred documents used to provide deeper context for the narrative are a series of drawings created by David Shoemaker, who was at that time a Caltech Ph. D. candidate working under Pauling’s direction.   One of Shoemaker’s primary charges seems to have been the visual conceptualization of specific German instruments of war, as described in various internal documents.  Our favorite of these conceptualizations has to be the incredible “Die Walze” rocket, which apparently was designed to operate not unlike a stone skipped across a pond.

At this point in time, most of Linus Pauling’s biography has been combed over pretty thoroughly and analyzed by any number of authors.  It is a rare opportunity, then, to be able to present a large volume of new information on Pauling’s life and work.  This is a project that should prove to be of interest to many different types of users.