History Magazine

Chairing the Division After the War: Progress Toward Pauling’s Post-War Plan

By Scarc
Chairing the Division After the War: Progress Toward Pauling’s Post-War PlanLinus Pauling, 1947

[Pauling as Administrator]

In January 1946, Linus Pauling presented his plan for a joint research program to be shared between the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. Delivered for the third time to the Institute’s Board of Trustees, Pauling’s vision called for

an expansion of the work of these Divisions during the next fifteen or twenty years, in order that a very promising field of investigation intermediate between chemistry and biology may be cultivated; this field of investigation is also very closely related to medicine.

In putting forth these ideas, Pauling sought to build and expand upon previous research successes that had emerged from support provided by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In his talk, Pauling noted that the past two decades had brought about the development of immunochemistry, chemical genetics, and the use of radioactive tracers. These breakthroughs had made more feasible the potential determination of the “structure and nature” of substances smaller than the cell­­ – enzymes, proteins, genes, and viruses – that are not visible under a microscope. But determining these structures, Pauling told the board, would require

a considerable expansion in chemistry and biology, with the addition to the staff of specialists in fields such as enzyme chemistry, nucleic acid chemistry, microbiology, general physiology, and virology.

In making his argument, Pauling brought Rockefeller administrator Warren Weaver into the mix by sharing “that in his opinion there is no place in the world so well suited for this work as the California Institute of Technology.” If the trustees agreed to go along, Pauling believed that the program could potentially bring in as much as $6 million worth of Rockefeller support to split between divisions and enable the construction of two new buildings.

While he had faith that the Rockefeller Foundation would provide significant external funding for his plan, Pauling also had his eye on other sources. One noteworthy resource in this regard was E. K. Wickman of the Commonwealth Fund, whom Pauling queried about granting capacity at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Wickman reviewed the foundation’s assets and earnings, and reported back that they likely had $10 million in their national reserves at the start of the year, and had since established a goal of raising another $25 million through their annual March of Dimes. Wickman added that this was a conservative estimate, and urged that

Considering that the National is now pricked by criticism for large accumulations, that it has just had fresh increases, and that as a relative newcomer in the philanthropic field it may want to establish a reputation in competition with the old foundations, you may well be coming to them at the right moment for a substantial grant.


Thus encouraged, Pauling, along with colleagues George Beadle and Alfred Sturtevant, drew up “A Proposed Program of Research on the Fundamental Problems of Biology and Medicine.” The proposal asked for $6 million over the next fifteen to twenty years and was submitted to the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The overarching goal of the proposed program was to “uncover basic principles” in the biochemistry of medicine including the structure and mechanism of genes, a general understanding of viruses and antibodies, and the physiological basis of drugs. The authors also expected that plenty of practical discoveries would be made along the way.

The proposal placed special emphasis on the need to attract people trained in biology and medicine as graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. It pointed out that the number of graduate students working in the divisions authoring the proposal had dropped by more than twenty since the end of the war, a trend that would need to be stanched were the Institute to achieve new heights. Fortunately, at least in the authors’ views, Caltech was particularly well-positioned to support a new and ambitious program, one that would usher in “a period of great and fundamental progress, similar to that through which physics and chemistry have passed during the last thirty-five years.”


Once they had evaluated the proposal, the Rockefeller Foundation, as was their custom, asked for assurance that Caltech would continue to support biochemistry and biophysics with its own institutional resources. The foundation was also not prepared to support the construction of new buildings. (With this information in hand, Pauling and Beadle pressed Caltech President Lee DuBridge to earmark other Institute funds for constructing the new buildings.)

Ultimately the Rockefeller trustees agreed to provide a measure of support, but it fell far short of the proposal’s ambitious ask. A semiannual grant of $50,000 was allocated, to be paid out over seven years for a grand total of $700,000 in funding. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis also agreed to a partial measure: a five-year grant totaling $300,000.

Pauling, Beadle and Sturtevant were glad to have these pledges of support in hand and saw other routes to arriving at the $6 million original ask; among them a $2.3 million private bequest recently made to the Institute. With funding momentum gathering, Pauling decided that he would shorten his forthcoming Eastman residency at Oxford University so that he could devote more time to creating action items and managing budgets.


Once implemented, it did not take long for the new plan to show fruit. By 1947, Institute researchers had set upon an ambitious research agenda that included studies of the structure, composition and molecular weight of amino acids, peptides, proteins, and viruses; the chemistry of enzymes and nucleic acids; immunochemistry; serological genetics and embryology; chemical genetics; virology; and intermediary metabolism in plants and animals. Nascent and proposed research ideas also included electron microscopy studies of viruses and proteins; the chemistry of nucleic acids; and other topics in microbiology, physiology and biophysics.

And yet, despite the new money, adequate funding emerged as an uncertainty once news of a $240,000 budgeted shortfall began to circulate. As a corrective, the division started to look at other pots of money to cover the gap, including another large grant that had been promised by the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as smaller sources, like a $3,300 award that George Beadle had received from the Eli Lilly Company to work on the biosynthesis of vitamins. Certain funding lines however, including a five-year $75,000 grant that Pauling had secured in 1945 from Union Carbide to support fundamental research on the structure of metals and alloys, remained out of bounds.


The fresh funding coming in for biochemical work aligned nicely with President DuBridge’s emphasis on returning Caltech to its pre-war focus on fundamental research. A return of this sort was needed because the war years had pushed the Institute towards contract work that was funded by the government and private entities. These contracts were particularly attractive to faculty, as the deals often served as a source of extra income on top of their Caltech salaries.

Indeed, more money for individual use was becoming a necessity. Notably, a 1947 report commissioned by DuBridge showed that the cost of living in Pasadena had increased “well over 40 per cent” since the start of the decade. To keep pace with Harvard, Berkeley and MIT, Caltech would need to raise its salaries by 50% above 1940 levels, followed by an additional 75% increase over the next three years. At the time that the report was issued, Caltech had only boosted its salaries by 20% since the start of the war.

One solution that DuBridge found to address this problem that allowed him to also enforce Caltech’s existing restrictions on doing contract work, was to change the salary structure for faculty such that they were paid a twelve month salary at the same monthly rate as their nine month salary. In instituting this change, DuBridge effectively gave his faculty a raise that was equal to three months of pay.


In the meantime, Pauling continued to recruit new faculty into the Institute. He assisted E. C. Watson, Caltech’s Dean of Faculty, in looking for a mathematician and solid state physicist while he was in residency at Oxford. One name that Pauling put forth was Mary Cartwright of Cambridge, who had recently been named the first female fellow of the Royal Society and who came recommended as the “most outstanding younger mathematician in England.”

Pauling had less luck finding good physicists in England, but did recommend Clarence Zener of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Metals. The following month, Pauling suggested that Paul Dirac – then of the Institute for Advanced Study – be invited to Caltech, which Pauling felt he might consider for a professorship. Ultimately none of these suggestions worked out, but Pauling’s grander vision for post-war science at Caltech was unarguably moving forward.


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