History Magazine

A Small Variation From Conventional Procedure: The Case of Melvin Newman

By Scarc
A Small Variation From Conventional Procedure: The Case of Melvin NewmanMelvin Newman

[Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation]

As the Second World War receded into the past, scientists in the United States increasingly turned away from national defense research and back toward the fundamentals of science. This shift was reflected in the Fellowship applications received by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and also required the Foundation to rethink pieces of how it had operated up to that point.

One applicant who helped usher in change, if unwittingly, was Ohio State University chemist Melvin S. Newman. Newman’s ask was for two six-month periods devoted to discussing methods of laboratory training for graduate students in organic chemistry, culminating in his authorship of a book on the subject. Newman thought this area of teaching to generally be the weakest component of the graduate chemistry curriculum, a belief that had been confirmed during recent visits to different universities. By sharing what he had done with his own laboratories, Newman hoped to raise awareness of the need to improve training. The Foundation agreed and he was awarded $3,000 to pursue his proposal.

It was the Guggenheim Foundation’s policy that Fellows dedicate their whole tenure to their proposed work, meaning that they could not hold other jobs at the same time. Nor could they split up their Fellowship into shorter non-consecutive periods of time. Henry Allen Moe, the Secretary General of the Foundation, informed Newman of these points in his notification letter, sent at the end of March 1949. In his application, Newman had indicated the University of Southern California had offered him a guest lecturer opportunity that was pending, so the Committee of Selection decided to award him $1,000 on top of the $2,000 that he had requested. Doing so, the committee felt, would allow Newman to forgo the planned teaching and dedicate himself fully to his Fellowship work.

While waiting to hear if he had obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship, Newman continued to explore other opportunities, and just before receiving Moe’s notification letter, Newman finalized an agreement to teach for the summer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thinking it possible to accept the Fellowship and still teach, Newman sent Moe a letter in April, requesting a split of his funding into a four-month period for 1949 followed by six months for 1951. On his way to teaching at UCLA, Newman planned to make Guggenheim-funded visits to universities in Kansas and Colorado, and then to Stanford, Berkeley, Oregon, and Washington while on the West Coast. The teaching duties that had been assigned to him were light, and he anticipated making good progress on his organic chemistry book while in L.A. Moe appeared to be flexible to these requests and asked for the dates that Newman planned to make his visits. Newman replied with the requested information and assumed that everything was in order.

At the beginning of July, Moe wrote to Newman that he had not heard anything from him and wanted to find out what was going on. Having assumed that his last letter had reached Moe, Newman was surprised by the request. He had already begun visiting laboratories and took April 1 as the start date of his fellowship, thinking he only needed to clarify some details. Newman had been teaching at UCLA since June 20, at which point he considered himself to be off his Fellowship. He would pick up his Fellowship again at the end of his teaching stint on August 13, and would continue in that vein until returning to Ohio State on September 30.

In his response, Moe reminded Newman that he could not teach during his Fellowship nor interrupt the six-month period that had been previously defined in his notification letter. As a result, Moe considered the time that Newman had described as not counting toward his Fellowship. Instead, Newman could take one of his six month periods during each of the following two years, 1950 and 1951, or even use a chunk of time in 1952 if needed.

Newman was very confused by Moe’s letter. As Moe had not directly responded to Newman’s correspondence in April, he had assumed that Moe understood why he could not cancel his teaching appointment at UCLA and had tacitly agreed to his plans for how he would spend his time as a Fellow. At his own expense, Newman had already visited several universities where he was introduced as a Guggenheim Fellow, and he was expecting to be reimbursed for these visits. It came as a disappointment then to learn that he had not, in fact, been a Fellow during that time and that the reimbursement would not be forthcoming. More fundamentally, Newman did not understand why splitting his fellowship up to allow him to teach for eight weeks was a problem, as it did not interfere with his Fellowship work plan. Since Linus Pauling was nearby, Newman asked to speak with him in person to try and gain clarity on the Foundation’s point of view.

A Small Variation From Conventional Procedure: The Case of Melvin NewmanNewman later in life.

Pauling was more than happy to talk with Newman to get the whole matter straightened out, and in advance of their meeting, Moe forwarded copies of the letters that he and Newman had exchanged. Prior to the meeting, Pauling decided that it was best to stick to the original stipulations of the Fellowship that had been communicated to Newman, and that said that he could not split up his six month term to teach.

After speaking with Newman in person, Pauling’s point of view remained largely unchanged, though the meeting did uncover the likelihood that Newman’s April request letter was evidently lost in transit. Pauling also sympathized with Newman’s need to cover current expenses for his wife and four children, but none of this was enough to convince Pauling to revise the original conditions of the Fellowship. Rather than accommodate what had already happened, Pauling suggested that Newman instead rethink what he could do as a Fellow going forward.

Newman had recently been promoted at Ohio State and was eligible to receive six months of paid leave after teaching for a year and a half. With this leave and the Fellowship in hand, Pauling figured that instead of spending a year in the United States, Newman could spend nine months in Europe. In a letter to Moe, Pauling even broke down how Newman should allocate his time, telling him to divide it between stints in England and Switzerland. Pauling did allow that it would be up to Newman to decide in which country he would spend six months and in which he would spend three.

Moe conveyed Pauling’s suggestions to Newman in a letter and, after a month passed with no response, he reached out again. This time, Newman replied and included a copy of the crucial April letter that had been lost the first time he sent it.

Newman further explained that he had not responded to Moe earlier because he wanted time to think things over. In doing so, he came to realize that his intentions for his Fellowship may not have been clear in his original application, as he had come to understand himself as being more of a scientific missionary than someone seeking to improve himself. As such, he did not think that having an uninterrupted Fellowship tenure was especially important. Newman also did not find any of Pauling’s suggestions to be very convincing because he oversaw a large research group at Ohio State and could not easily get away from an extended period overseas.

What Newman did want was for the Committee of Selection to accept as Fellowship time the three months that he had spent in 1949 visiting organic chemistry instructors. He also asked that the Foundation approve an additional six month period for him to work in 1951. If they could not see to doing so, Newman asked that his name be dropped as a Fellow, writing that

I would not want the hollow distinction of having my name listed when I know that those responsible for the activities of the Foundation can not find sufficient enthusiasm for my plans to allow for a small variation from conventional procedure.

Clearly aware that Newman was irked, Moe agreed to bring his case before the Committee and to speak with him the next time he was in New York.

Unbeknownst to Newman, while all of this was going on the Foundation was preparing to begin awarding Fellowships that would accommodate his specific situation, as well as others who faced similar circumstances. In the end, the Committee ultimately agreed with Newman on the matter and he remained a Fellow until 1951.

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