The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling Narrative  
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Laboratory Accidents
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Soldiers on the front lines were not the only ones to take casualties during the war - experimental lab work was an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous business. The workers were often surrounded by corrosive acids, explosive powders, poisons, and toxic gases. In the crowded and busy labs of World War II-era technical institutes like Caltech and MIT, accidents were inevitable.

The mass production of chemicals for experimental use began in the early 20th century. Companies like Eastman Kodak, DuPont, and Hercules found a market in the burgeoning U.S. scientific community and by the early 1940s, business was booming. Indeed, to meet the demands of the military and private institutions, America's major chemical companies were producing on a scale much larger than they were accustomed to. As a result, quality control was stretched thin and mistakes occurred.

On September 23, 1943, a bottle of ethyl chlorocarbonate exploded in the hands of Elizabeth Swingle, the Stockroom Keeper at Caltech's Crellin Laboratories and the wife of researcher Stanley Swingle. She suffered major tissue damage and passed away at the Huntington Memorial Hospital approximately eight hours after the accident.

The Caltech staff was deeply affected by their colleague's death. Pauling delivered a speech at her memorial in which he praised her kindness and "strong love of humanity." Pauling then contacted Eastman Kodak, the company that had supplied Caltech with the ethyl chlorocarbonate, and demanded that they investigate the accident, their manufacturing and shipping techniques, and provide written warnings to other customers. He received updates from representatives of Eastman Kodak on their internal investigation through the spring of 1944. Ultimately, the accident helped force both Caltech and Eastman Kodak to seriously examine safety precautions and to make changes accordingly.

Swingle's accident was far from the only one. Sam Ruben, an Official Investigator at the University of California, died only five days after Elizabeth Swingle. He had been commissioned by the OSRD to study phosgene as a potential chemical weapon and, on September 27, was exposed to toxic quantities of the substance and passed away the following day. Nationally, the number of industrial accidents during the war was astronomical. In a 1944 report, the War Production Board estimated that more than 35,000 industrial workers were killed and a minimum of 200,000 permanently injured between December 1941 and January 1944. The majority of these accidents occurred in connection with the collection of raw materials or the manufacture of goods for military use.

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Audio Clip  Audio: Elizabeth Swingle's Laboratory Accident. November 3, 1991. (1:33) Transcript and More Information

See Also: Letter from Linus Pauling to the Eastman Kodak Company Research Laboratories. October 1, 1943. 

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Stanley Swingle. 1950.

Page 1
"Talk at Memorial Services for Elizabeth Swingle." September 27, 1943.

"Our faith in the future rests up on our faith in these laws of nature. And so we can understand that these laws cannot be broken, but must pursue their inexorable course even when, because of an accidental, unavoidable concatenation of circumstances, this course is such as to take from us our friend Elizabeth early in her life..."

Linus Pauling
September 27, 1943
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