Institution-based discovery: Immunochemistry, serological genetics and embryology at the California Institute of Technology

by Rebecca Mertens

Jan 1, 2013
The relationship between the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in the mid-20th century is a famous example for the interplay between different kinds of science administration and their influence on the development of scientific programs. It has been illustrated several times that the RF had a huge impact on CalTech's scientific profile by means of general grant policies and the interactions between administrators and scientists.i Especially the collaboration between Linus Pauling, a trained structural chemist, and Warren Weaver, the director of the RF's Natural Science Division from 1932 to 1951, played a central role in this success story from the 1930s to the 1950s.ii In what follows, I will concentrate on the protein program that Weaver and Pauling started to develop in 1937 and that reached its peak in the 1940s and 50s. As many RF funded projects, this program was shaped by an ideal picture of basic science as cooperative and socially relevant enterprise, entertained and preserved through funding proposals and reports as well as through inner-institutional public-relation campaigns and journals.iii Conceptualized as a joint program between the Biology and Chemistry Division, the protein 2 program had a strong impact on other biochemical projects at the institute. This becomes visible most strikingly in the development of projects on immunology, embryology and serological genetics which, according to Lilly Kay, completely changed directions on the proposal level after their encounter with Pauling and his program on macromolecules. iv When I came to the Rockefeller Archive Center, I was mostly interested in the question of how this influence affected the transfer of ideas, hypotheses and heuristic strategies of embryologists and serological geneticists at CalTech.
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