|"Three insidious temptations assail a biographer: to
suppress, to invent, and to sit in judgement," the English writer
and historian Iris Origo tells us in one of her essays. An
additional peril, in her opinion, confronts a biographer who is a
historian. As biographers, our job is to describe a person's life
in such a way as to allow the reader "to see history in the
course of being lived." In the process, the biographer runs the
risk of drowning "his subject's voice with his own." Is a
biographer required to have a point of view? Without one, answers
Origo, "no history can be written." The danger arises, when that
point of view is used, in her words, "not only [to] shape but
distort the facts." Her advice to the young biographer is direct:
start with a dash of humility. What Origo says in her essay on
writing about other people applies to historians writing about
contemporary scientific subjects, to us.
The Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi moved with ease in both worlds. "There are people who wring their hands and call it [the separation between the scientific and literary cultures] an abyss," he wrote in 1985, "but do nothing to fill it; there are also those who work to widen it, as if the scientist and literary man belong to two different human subspecies, reciprocally incomprehensible, fated to ignore each other and not apt to engage in cross-fertilization." For Levi, this was an unnatural state of affairs, unnecessary and dangerous, the unfortunate result of a chain of events stretching back to the Counter-Reformation, and before then. He wrote about the inhabitants of both cultures, he told his readers, because the world we live in is full of "problems and perils, but it is not boring." Indeed, the work of chronicling the life and times of present-day scientists is anything but.
Which brings me to the subject of my own talk. As a historian of science and Caltech's official chronicler, I spent the better part of a decade writing a school's history. Millikan's School is an insider-written, institutional history, whose publication, in 1991, coincided with Caltech's celebration of its hundredth birthday.
In dealing with contemporary subjects, historians of necessity often walk a fine line deciding what to put in and what to leave out of their story. I would like, now, to tell you about some of my own experiences in writing my account of the Institute's history.
When I came to Pasadena, in 1968, to head up the school's archives, I didn't know anything about Caltech. It took a while to develop a sense of history about the place. When people used to call me "school historian," I felt embarrassed by the title I felt it was a bit inappropriate. After all, many faculty members, from Earnest Watson and Carl Anderson in physics, to Alfred Sturtevant in biology, to Charles Richter in seismology, had spent their entire careers at Caltech. They had all known Millikan, Noyes, and Hale, Caltech's troika, personally. If I am the "school's memory," it's because the original faculty ranks have thinned, and I have taken their place on the firing line. In any event, I feel less embarrassed these days.
I am often asked: "Why did you end your story in 1969?" The answer goes something like this: "I was writing a history and it was no longer history when I became part of it." As a graduate student, I researched and wrote a biography of Sir Humphry Davy, a chemist who came to prominence at the beginning of the last century. There is a lot to be said for writing about historical figures: they do not talk back. It was difficult enough, on occasion, to decide where to draw the line on what to tell and what not to tell about the faculty who do figure in Millikan's School. Imagine writing about your own circle of friends (let alone members of your own family). It can be done, it can be done very well people who write personal memoirs do it every day but it is not history.
I wrestled for a long time with the problem of where to start the history. In the end, four of the book's fourteen chapters were devoted to Throop's history. At one point, my editor at Norton, Ed Barber, asked me ever so nicely if eighty-seven pages on the first thirty years of the school's history was not perhaps overdoing a good thing. "No," I told Barber, just as nicely. "If I don't tell the story of how Hale, Noyes, and Millikan put all the pieces together, the schemes they hatched, the money they raised, the people they charmed, in short, how they created Caltech, it will never get told." Besides, it is a very complex story. The men who created this place were very focused, very relentless, not above a bit of deception here and there. Caltech's founding fathers played the game to win. There was nothing obvious or inevitable about Caltech becoming what it is today an exquisite gem of American higher education. But to do justice to that aspect of the Institute's history and it is covered thoroughly in the book's first four chapters I had to leave a number of equally intriguing stories out.
One of those stories began before the turn of the twentieth century, in Sicily, where the family of a shepherd had its seventh and last child, a son. Years later he would write, "I hated being poor. Hated being a peasant. My family couldn't read or write. I wanted out."
Like so many others, the family set sail for America, and they settled where else? in Los Angeles. The young man entered Throop Polytechnic Institute, later to become Caltech, where he studied chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering. Naturally, he had to pay his own way, washing dishes, waiting on tables, managing the student laundry, and even polishing machinery at the Pasadena power plant for twenty-five cents an hour.
But he also found time, somehow, to edit the student newspaper, sing in the glee club, join a fraternity, and serve as captain in the ROTC.
Then he won a scholarship prize that included a trip around America. He criss-crossed the country, stopping in towns and cities along the way, soaking up impressions. In Chicago, he got his first view of slums and an elevated train. In New York, he stood on the steps of City Hall and marvelled as vast hordes of people streamed out of subways on their way to work. He said: "One gets mighty solemn and thoughts assail [me] of this seething tide of human beings, each supposed to be the final masterpiece of our Lord's creation."
In Washington, he visited Capitol Hill and reported: "The Senate was in session when I was there but I must confess that I was almost disgusted with the lack of respect and dignity shown by the members." He added: "Nearly all seemed to be sleek and fat politicians." By the time the trip had ended, he had discovered he was not cut out to be, in his words, "a strictly technical man." He preferred spending his time "among different people," rather that visiting shops and factories.
And that is how a Caltech graduate came to be the maker of unforgettable movies like It's a Wonderful Life, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His name, of course, was Frank Capra.
Another story that did not make it into the book concerns chemist Linus Pauling and Arthur Amos Noyes, who was Pauling's mentor, and also the chairman of the school's chemistry department. I had read in the Rockefeller Foundation Archives a diary account of the arrangements for Noyes' funeral in 1936. The author of the diary was the foundation's astute science scout, Warren Weaver, who regularly rode the academic circuit, searching out promising researchers and pithy gossip. According to Weaver, the list of honorary pallbearers included every member of the chemistry department, except Pauling. The reason Pauling had been excluded, according to Weaver's sources, had to do with Pauling's ambitions for the chemistry department at Caltech. Pauling was not campaigning for Noyes' job, but rather for Noyes to be more aggressive in dealing with Millikan. Weaver wrote: "P has always felt that N was too institutional-minded; that he was always ready to sacrifice the interests of the Chemistry Dept. for the interest of the institution as a whole.... P also thinks very emphatically that each special branch of science must have a person fighting for and primarily interested in its development." Pauling's co-workers, on the other hand, deeply resented his constant badgering of Noyes, especially since Noyes had cancer and was fighting a losing battle. The chemistry department punished Pauling for his behavior by not making him a pallbearer. The Institute, for its part, delayed appointing him Noyes' successor for a whole year.
We interviewed Linus Pauling himself in 1984. "Is there anything there?" we asked him, referring to the events surrounding Noyes' funeral. Pauling answered: "Well, I know people thought it was odd that I wasn't a pallbearer. The feeling was that there was a bit of jealousy about it.... It wasn't something that bothered me. I am an achiever in the sense that I like to do things, to get things done, but advancing my own interests isn't something that concerned me.... Of course, there was about a year before I was made the chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and director of the Gates and Crellin chemical laboratories."
I did not make use of this story in the book. Even after I satisfied myself that the main outlines of the story were true, I decided that it was not relevant to my own story. In the case of Pauling, what interested me mainly were his scientific qualities, and from the beginning, Pauling's scientific qualities set him apart. In the early thirties, Noyes is reported to have said of his successor at Caltech, "Were all the rest of the Chemistry Dept. wiped away except [Pauling], it would still be one of the most important departments of chemistry in the world."
The Noyes-Pauling story has a postscript. In 1985, I had lunch with Joe Koepfli, a chemist who worked at Caltech, in Gates Laboratory, off and on in the 1920s and 1930s. Koepfli insisted that he was the source for Weaver's account of the pallbearer incident, but that Weaver had gotten one small part of the story wrong. Fine. I sent Koepfli, who lives in Santa Barbara, a photocopy of the Rockefeller Archive document. To Koepfli's amazement, he discovered that Weaver had also gossiped about him.
I learned things in the course of doing oral histories that were not easily documented from official school records or personal and scientific letters. For example, in the course of interviewing a senior member of the biology department, the policies and procedures of the Undergraduate Admissions Committee between World Wars I and II came up in the discussion. The biologist had joined the committee in the late 1940s, as a young assistant professor. Much to his surprise, he realized after a bit that the older committee members kept careful track of Jewish students applying to Caltech. While this practice was widespread at Ivy League schools before World War II, I had never read or heard of such a quota system in use at Caltech. I got hold of a list of the members of the admissions committee during Millikan's era, and then picked up the phone and called a member of the committee.
It was a very short conversation. He flatly denied that ethnic background played any role in the selection of undergraduates. Students were chosen on merit, period. Then I remembered that Leverett Davis, a member of the physics faculty, had also served on the committee after the war. We had recently completed an oral history with him. He had not volunteered anything about his service on this particular committee; on the other hand, the interviewer had not asked him any questions concerning it, either. I did not call him. I sent him a note instead.
About a week later, Davis agreed to a supplemental interview. He confirmed the biologist's story. Reading from a prepared statement, Davis said, "the senior members of the committee felt that our policy should be to admit some Jewish students but not to admit enough of them so that it made a substantial contribution to the student population." As Davis recalled, "They just did not want the place to get a reputation as having significantly more Jewish students than other corresponding universities," adding: "In the general climate of things at that time, that would discourage some substantial fraction of non-Jewish parents from sending their children here." In practice, if the committee had two applicants who were more or less equal, the older members of the committee chose the non-Jewish applicant. A clearly superior candidate, Jewish or not, was admitted. By 1950, the informal quota system had fallen by the wayside, one sign of a new era at Caltech. I do not tell this story in the book. For one thing, the book is not really about students. More importantly, the senior biologist has not yet released his oral history for use by researchers.
I agonized for a long time about how to handle the question of anti-Semitism and Thomas Hunt Morgan. Morgan's task was to establish from scratch a Department of Biology at Caltech. Morgan organized work in biology in stages. Starting in 1928, he moved his genetics laboratory, Drosophila stocks, and research group to Pasadena from Columbia University. Then he hired a promising young biochemist, Henry Borsook. In 1934, Morgan went abroad, partly to pick up his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, partly to recruit new staff members. While in London, Morgan attended an elegant reception hosted by the Royal Society. An eyewitness later reported that Morgan made it his business to tell everyone that he wanted to find a physiologist "who is not Jewish, if possible."
I quoted Morgan's words in my chapter on the history of the Caltech Biology Division, balancing it with the recollections of the Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who worked side by side with Morgan for many years. Dobzhansky described Morgan as "a very contradictory person." In fact, Morgan had a number of Jewish co-workers at Columbia, and he brought many others to Caltech, including Henry Borsook, Albert Tyler, and Norman Horowitz, now Professor Emeritus at Caltech. Before sending the biology chapter to my editor, I asked Horowitz to read it from the point of view of scientific accuracy. His reaction stunned me.
"The question of Morgan's alleged anti-Semitism bothers me," he wrote. "Show me your evidence," he bristled. I gave him copies of the diary and log entries I had read in the reading room of the Rockefeller Archive Center. It did not satisfy Norm Horowitz, who has very fond memories of working with Morgan. He tried his best to dissuade me from writing about this subject. Finally, Norm wrote me a long letter, explaining why he disagreed with me. What's a historian to do? (Norm, I must add, is a good friend.) I will tell you what I did: I quoted all the relevant portions of Horowitz's letter to me about Morgan in the chapter on the Biology Division. That chapter also contains the story about Morgan's remark at the Royal Society.
The Morgan-Horowitz story has a postscript. After Millikan's School appeared, I received numerous letters from biologists who had studied at Caltech during the Morgan era. None disputed what I had written. Consider the following two letters. The first one, from Philip Ives, who took his Ph.D. under Alfred Sturtevant in 1938, is short and to the point: "T.H. Morgan's goal was to put together a good diversified staff for the Caltech Biology Dept. Good Jewish biologists were plentiful, but good Gentiles were in short supply." The second letter, written by Horace Davenport, who went on to become chairman of physiology at the University of Michigan, recounted a number of Morgan stories, including one about Albert Tyler that goes as follows:
Morgan's assistant was Albert Tyler who was also my teacher in a couple of courses. Once when Morgan and I were alone he made an entirely gratuitous rather snide remark to the effect that you could always tell a Jew by the way he walked. That was stimulated by hearing Albert Tyler approach down the hall.
When I told Norm Horowitz about Davenport's letter and repeated the story about Tyler, Norm said: "If Horace Davenport says it's true, then it's true."
People often ask me why I called my book Millikan's School. Lee DuBridge, for example, who led the school for twenty-three years, from 1946 to 1969, may have secretly wanted to know why I did not call it, "DuBridge's School." George Ellery Hale III once asked me, only half in jest, "Why not Hale's School?'"
Hale, astronomer and first director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, supplied the philosophical framework for Caltech, and managed to entice Arthur Amos Noyes, former president of MIT and the nation's leading physical chemist, and the renowned Millikan to join him in Pasadena. The three of them spent the World War I years in Washington, serving the nation but also building a superb network of contacts that would later serve the school well.
Still, for people who lived through the Great Depression, Robert Millikan was Caltech's all-around patron saint. The son of a preacher and a pious Protestant himself, Millikan disapproved of smoking, drinking, and women joining the professorial ranks as scientists. A life-long Republican, he admired Herbert Hoover and detested Franklin Roosevelt. In private, he wrote unflattering limericks about Blacks and Jews.
Millikan, who functioned as the school's president between the wars, was fiercely opposed to government funding of research. He managed to get the support he needed from the major private foundations of the day, Rockefeller and Carnegie and Guggenheim, and tapped the pockets of millionaires wherever he found them. He nursed the Institute through the depression, using among other things the interest on monies that had been donated for buildings that could be deferred. But he never let his enthusiasm for research and teaching flag. He could even show a certain generosity for his faculty: young Assistant Professor Carl Anderson was actually promoted to Associate Professor not long after winning the Nobel Prize for discovering antimatter, in 1932.
I am indebted to Anderson, the first member of Millikan's physics staff other than Millikan to become a Nobel Prize winner. Anderson, who discovered the positron in the course of his cosmic-ray researches, spent four years as a Caltech physics undergraduate, stayed on as a graduate student of Millikan's, and subsequently earned his Ph.D. at the Institute. Anderson was on a train going to a physics meeting when he fell into a conversation with another passenger in the club car. The fellow asked what he did. Anderson said he was a professor. He asked, "Where?" and Anderson said, "at Caltech." "Oh, is that part of UCLA or is it part of USC or what is Caltech?" "No, it's an independent college; it has nothing to do with SC or UCLA," replied Anderson. Then Millikan's name was mentioned and the fellow exclaimed, "Oh, you mean Millikan's School." That story is in the book and it explains the reason for the book's title.
Trying to decide which stories to include about Robert A. Millikan was particularly challenging. Stories about Caltech's "chief," are legion; about half of them are true. Here are a couple that are not part of Millikan's School.
Earnest Watson, who followed Millikan from Chicago to Pasadena, liked to tell about the time Millikan gave an oral makeup examination to a student who had missed taking the regular test in class on account of illness. In the classroom, Millikan lectured nonstop, sometimes veering off on a tangent. To counteract this tendency, he always wrote on the blackboard an outline of the key points in physics he intended to cover. The students quickly learned that by memorizing the blackboard notes they could pass Millikan's tests with very high grades. Makeup exams were a different matter. These were conducted by Millikan himself, and the material often bore no relation to that covered in class. On this particular occasion, Millikan realized that the student he was grilling about thermodynamics did not understand anything about the subject, and confronted him. The boy blushed and said: "You are not being fair to me." Millikan countered: "Why am I not being fair?" The boy answered: "You did not ask the rest of the class whether they understood the course or not."
When Millikan first came to Caltech in 1921, the faculty was still so small everyone could have dinner together at one table. On one of these occasions, according to Watson, Millikan said his wife, Greta, had told him this conundrum, and he wanted to pass it on: "Why is a novel by Sir Walter Scott like an old-fashioned bustle?"
While the guests pondered the riddle, he stood with his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, his eyes twinkling, as he rocked gently back and forth on his heels and toes. When no one could guess, he finally said; "Why, because each is a fictitious tale based upon a stern reality." Greta Millikan, who was seated beside him, was horrified and jumped up with so much commotion that the little cherries that decorated the top of her hat trembled and shook. "Ladies and Gentleman," she said, "I never heard that disreputable story before in my life!"
That story I would have put in my book if I had remembered it in time.
Whole subjects are missing from my book. The rise and fall of meteorology at Caltech, for example, is not covered in Millikan's School. I first stumbled upon the fact that meteorology was taught at Caltech, starting in 1933, in the course of doing research on Theodore von K rm n and the development of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. The meteorology department, in fact, was housed in Guggenheim, and offered many practical courses in map-making, weather forecasting techniques, and one or two courses on the theoretical, scientific side. By the end of World War II, the department had trained a large number of forecasters for the armed services.
The head of the department, Irving Krick, wanted to expand the applied side of meteorology at Caltech. A real entrepreneur, Krick was also the president of Krick Weather Service, a very successful private forecasting consulting business. He had two kinds of clients each of whom paid him handsomely, according to one of his former instructors, to "bias his forecasts heavily in one direction with respect to rainfall." Take the Hollywood movie-makers. If a movie script called for an outdoor shooting scene with ten thousand extras and it rained on that day, it was bad news. As one of Krick's associates recalls: Hollywood paid Krick "through the nose. They had a strong bias that if they did not schedule it and it did not rain, there wasn't very much loss because there are lots of days when it doesn't rain. The only time [the movie makers] lost heavily was when they'd schedule [a shoot] and it did rain." So, Krick predicted rain for them whenever he possibly could.
Edison Electric, another of Krick's clients, had the opposite bias when it came to forecasting rainfall. "If they used their water power faster than the stream flow coming in, the level of the water in the dam went down and the energy you could get out of each drop of water went down. That was a loss you couldn't make up." On the other hand, if Edison scheduled a certain rate of use for the water, and the water level was higher than anticipated, that was fine "because you were getting more out of the water than you had planned on." If Edison thought it was going to rain and it did not that was very bad. If they were not expecting it to rain and it did rain, no harm was done. Needless to say, Krick predicted clear skies for Edison whenever he could. Krick understood the special forecasting needs of his clients and he and they got on very well.
Lee A. DuBridge, who succeeded Robert Millikan as head of Caltech in 1946, took a dim view of Krick's consulting business and its connection, in the public's mind especially, with Caltech. Moreover, DuBridge wanted Krick's department to emphasize, in DuBridge's words, "a real study of the physics of the atmosphere." Krick and DuBridge did not see eye to eye on the development of meteorology and in 1948 DuBridge made an executive decision: he shut it down. Krick resigned, left the Institute, and continued with his private weather-forecasting business.
In 1982, I interviewed Lee DuBridge and in the course of the interview, I asked him if he and Robert Millikan had ever had any disagreements. After Millikan had stepped down, he was given a very nice office in East Bridge, which he used on a regular basis. Their paths crossed often on the campus. DuBridge thought for a moment and then he said to me: "There were only three issues that I can remember on which we had some disagreement, in private. One was the case of Dr. Irving Krick.... Millikan thought Krick was the greatest guy in the world. He had brought him here. But everybody around the campus, and other meteorologists and other scientists around the country, said that Krick was a fake." There and then I decided to let someone else write the history of meteorology at Caltech. I did not think about it again, until I got a call from Dr. Krick, shortly before Millikan's School was published, basically asking for equal time for his story. Dr. Krick, who came to Caltech in 1933 as a graduate student, is still ticking along. Maybe he is even still predicting the weather.
I shamelessly disregarded the development of Caltech's graduate program in mathematics as well. In this case, it was not for lack of interest or respect for the subject. After many months of plowing through Millikan's correspondence, I came to the conclusion that he was not really interested in promoting mathematical research on the campus except when it was applied mathematics. Millikan's idea of a good mathematician was somebody, as he once put, "who understands what the other sciences are doing and knows something about them, too." Indeed, that was one of the reasons why Millikan and Theodore von K rm n hit it off so well. Von K rm n was a Hungarian-born engineer and applied mathematician and the first director of Caltech's school of aeronautics.
Also, he did the kind of mathematics that even Millikan could understand. Consider the case of "Galloping Gertie." That was what the commuters called the bridge over the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State, which collapsed in 1940. The man who solved the mystery of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was not a bridge engineer, but von K rm n. He was an applied scientist, educated in Europe, trained in physics and mathematics, and when he arrived in the United States in the 1920s he found American engineers quite unprepared for his unorthodox approach to the engineering sciences. Long before the Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell down, von K rm n had waged a long and vigorous campaign to persuade engineers to embrace the methods of the applied mathematicians.
In characteristic fashion, von K rm n transformed a statics problem in civil engineering into a dynamic instability problem. The solution rested on an appreciation of a complex hydrodynamic phenomenon known as vortex shedding first explained by von K rm n in 1911. In recalling the episode many years later, von K rm n noted that "the bridge engineers couldn't see how a science applied to a small unstable thing like an airplane wing could also be applied to a huge, solid, nonflying structure like a bridge." But in this instance, as in others, it was von K rm n, the applied mathematician, who was able to see the solution by cutting across the boundaries of the traditional engineering fields.
When von K rm n recommended testing a model of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Caltech's wind tunnel, one very eminent civil engineer said: "You don't mean to say that we shall build a bridge and put it in a wind tunnel?" He did indeed. Today, no major bridge is ever built anywhere in the world without first being tested in a wind tunnel. And that was how the sturdy bridge over the Tacoma Narrows today grew out of von K rm n's vision of a school of aeronautics in Southern California.
Linus Pauling read Millikan's School twice. The first time through he found a couple of minor errors; one I corrected while the manuscript was still in galleys (I had him returning from Europe one year later than was the case). He wrote me a wonderful letter. In 1992, he wrote again. By now, the book was in print. He had read it again, he said, because he had been ill and had spent much time in bed.
"I have found an error," he told me. I read on with much trepidation. "On page 179 you mention the year that I spent full time teaching quantitative analysis at Oregon Agricultural College. You say that I stayed out of school between my junior and senior years. In fact, it was between my sophomore and junior years." And then he added, "I thank you for having written this book." Writing about contemporary subjects does have its rewards.
Davis, Leverett. Interview by Carol Buge. Tape recording. Pasadena, Calif., 1987, California Institute of Technology Archives, Pasadena.
DuBridge, Lee A. Interview by Judith R. Goodstein. Tape recording. Pasadena, Calif., 1982. Caltech Archives, Pasadena.
Goodstein, Judith R. Millikan's School. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
Levi, Primo. Other People's Trades (1985). Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. Paperback reprint, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Origo, Iris. A Need to Testify. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.
Pauling, Linus. Interview by John L. Greenberg. Tape recording. Palo Alto, Calif., 1984. Caltech Archives.
Scherer, James A. B. Papers. Frank Capra file. Caltech Archives.
Stewart, Homer J. Interview by John L. Greenberg. Tape recording. Pasadena, Calif., 1986. Caltech Archives.
Watson, Earnest C. Papers. Talks. Caltech Archives.
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