Over the century since the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry was built, Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering has grown exponentially. Here are some of the stories from that history.
Arthur Amos Noyes was a prominent physical chemist well before his friend and former student George Ellery Hale persuaded him to join the faculty of the Throop College of Technology. Noyes had directed MIT’s Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry for 16 years, served as acting president of MIT for two years, was the youngest president of the American Chemical Society, and founded the Review of American Chemical Research, which became Chemical Abstracts. Among the subjects of his research were techniques for the chemical analysis of rare elements and the properties of solutions of electrolytes.
Physical chemist Roscoe G. Dickinson earned Caltech’s first PhD in 1920 for research using X-ray crystallography. Caltech then hired Dickinson as a professor; his first students, each only a few years younger than he was, included two of the most prominent physical chemists of their generation.
One of Dickinson’s students was Arnold O. Beckman, who earned his PhD for photochemistry research in 1928, and also became a Caltech professor. In 1934, he invented a self-contained, compact electronic pH meter. Then, in 1939, Beckman resigned his professorship to manage his company, National Technical Laboratories, and develop a spectrophotometer and other scientific instruments. He later funded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, returned to Caltech as chairman of the Board of Trustees, and became a generous benefactor.
Another of Dickinson’s students was Linus Pauling, who earned his PhD for work in X-ray crystallography in 1925. Two years later, Pauling returned to a professorship at Caltech and began researching the quantum mechanics of the chemical bond. He won a Nobel Prize for this research in 1954. Pauling’s later research on the structure of proteins became foundational to the discipline of molecular biology.
Pauling’s collaborators in this research included his wife Ava Helen Pauling, who recorded research data in laboratory notebooks, drew diagrams, and constructed chemical models. Ava was a lifelong advocate for world peace, and persuaded Linus to join her in this work. The Paulings combined their interests in science and politics by championing a ban on nuclear weapons testing, for which Linus won a second Nobel, this time the Peace Prize, in 1962.
“I have this very clear remembrance of walking into Caltech for the first time in 1946 and going into the library in Gates.… There was Linus Pauling, at the very top of a ladder at the east end of this little library, reading the Journal of Physical Chemistry. He was perched on this ladder ten feet from the ground, and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, there’s the world’s greatest brain on some very fragile legs.’”
—Norman R. Davidson, Chandler Professor of Chemical Biology, Emeritus. Interview by the Caltech Archives Oral History Project, 1987
Harvey Itano was another of Pauling’s collaborators. During World War II, the federal government interned Itano and his family, along with other Japanese- Americans, at Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California. After six weeks, officials released Itano so he could attend medical school. After earning his MD from St. Louis University in 1945, Itano came to Caltech. As Pauling’s graduate student, Itano studied the molecular structures of hemoglobin in patients with sickle-cell anemia and developed a diagnostic test for the disease. He received his PhD in 1950 and joined the U.S. Public Health Service, where he continued to study hemoglobin disorders.
Pauling’s laboratory drew students from around the world. After British crystallographer Barbara Rogers-Low discovered the β-lactam configuration of penicillin with her graduate supervisor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1945—part of a research program for which Hodgkin later received a Nobel Prize—she visited Caltech for a year in 1947–48. Low later became a professor of biochemistry at Harvard and Columbia.