History & Milestones

In September 1891, Pasadena philanthropist Amos Throop rented the Wooster Block building in Pasadena for the purpose of establishing Throop University, the forerunner to Caltech. In November of that year, Throop University opened its doors with 31 students and a six-member faculty. Throop might have remained simply a good local school had it not been for the arrival in Pasadena of astronomer George Ellery Hale. The first director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Hale became a member of Throop's board of trustees in 1907, and began molding the school into a first-class institution for engineering and scientific research and education.

By 1921, Hale had been joined by chemist Arthur A. Noyes and physicist Robert A. Millikan. These three men set the school, which by then had been renamed the California Institute of Technology, firmly on its new course. Millikan and his successors—Lee DuBridge, Harold Brown, Marvin Goldberger, Thomas Everhart, David Baltimore, Jean-Lou Chameau, and now Thomas F. Rosenbaum—have led the Institute to its current academic and scientific preeminence.

Caltech Presidents

-On iPhone/iPad, click to view complete leaders content-


James A. B. Scherer

In 1908, James A. B. Scherer was appointed president of Throop Polytechnic Institute, the forerunner to Caltech. Pasadena philanthropist Amos Throop had established the school in November 1891, and astronomer George Ellery Hale, the first director of the Mount Wilson Laboratory and a member of Throop's board of trustees, appointed Scherer to lead the fledgling university. Prior to his arrival, Scherer had served as a Lutheran minister and teacher in Japan, cofounding the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tokyo in 1892. From 1904 to 1908—the year he arrived at Throop—he was president of Newberry College in South Carolina. In 1913, Throop Polytechnic Institute was renamed Throop College of Technology; just seven years later, in 1920—the year Scherer resigned to become director of the Southwest Museum—it became the California Institute of Technology. By then, and under Scherer's leadership, Caltech had 359 undergraduates and 9 graduate students, five buildings on a 22-acre campus, and a strong faculty that included Arthur Amos Noyes and Robert A. Millikan.

-return to timeline-

Robert A. Millikan

"The very close association of [engineering and science] . . . has in fact been one of the most distinctive objectives in the Institute's development. It is a familiar but a very true observation that the fundamental science of one generation is the applied science of the next."

The second person to head the newly named California Institute of Technology, Millikan earned his PhD in physics from Columbia University and then accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago. In 1921, he left that post to direct Caltech's newly created Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics; he was also appointed chairman of the executive council of the Institute, the equivalent of Caltech's president today. Millikan was Caltech's first Nobel Prize winner, awarded the physics prize in 1923 for measuring the charge of a single electron and for his work on the photoelectric effect. As chairman, he molded Caltech into a first-class institution for science and engineering research and education, recruiting faculty such as Thomas Hunt Morgan, who established the Division of Biology in 1928. Millikan remained at Caltech until his retirement in 1945. In his will, he left one-fifth of his estate—$100,000—as an endowment fund for one of his favorite campus organizations: the Caltech Y.

-return to timeline-

Lee A. DuBridge

"Among the colleges and universities of America there are a few which by reason of circumstance, of history and of experience must play especially key roles. These are the institutions which have already shown a capacity for scholarly leadership and which, through the accomplishments of their faculties and graduates, have rendered outstanding service to the nation."

DuBridge, who succeeded Millikan with the title of president after Millikan's retirement as chairman of the executive council, earned his PhD in physics at the University of Wisconsin, then spent two years at Caltech as a National Research Council fellow before leaving to teach physics at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Rochester. From 1940 to 1946, he organized and directed MIT's Radiation Laboratory, a wartime facility that developed microwave equipment for detecting the position of enemy aircraft—a technique later termed "radar" (for "radio direction and range"). DuBridge's extensive administrative experience—coupled with his understanding of the emerging opportunities for partnering with the government on initiatives relating to national security, foreign affairs, and the domestic economy—allowed him to position the Institute as a leader in science and engineering research. During his tenure, Caltech scientists helped usher in several new fields of research, including chemical biology, planetary science, nuclear astrophysics, and geochemistry. In addition, the campus grew physically from 30 acres to 80, and the number of faculty doubled from 260 to 550.

-return to timeline-

Harold Brown

"One of the things that surprised me about my own reaction to Caltech was how quickly I became extremely proud of the place. It's a very infectious spirit, and as you get to see what's going on, you see the quality of the research in science and technology, its variety, and the really outstanding nature of the people. You inevitably become very proud of the place, very protective of it, very loyal to it."

Harold Brown took over as president of the Institute in 1969 when Lee A. DuBridge retired to become President Richard Nixon's special assistant for science and technology. An accomplished physicist, Brown had earned his PhD at Columbia University by the time he was 21. Before arriving at Caltech, he served as director of defense research and engineering in the U.S. Department of Defense from 1961 to 1965, and then as Secretary of the Air Force from 1965 to 1969. During his presidency, Brown made significant changes to the undergraduate curriculum, establishing programs in independent studies and in applied physics, and turning the environmental engineering program into a degree option. He also developed a campus master plan, purchasing surrounding lots to make space for new buildings and creating an identifiable character for the Institute. Most significant, perhaps, were his efforts to open Caltech to female undergraduates. In 1970, the Caltech Board of Trustees voted to admit women. However, the board made the admission of women conditional upon the building of new student houses, which they knew would take at least two years. Not wanting to wait, Brown pressed for an arrangement that would set aside corridors for women in existing houses. Because of his persistence, Caltech began admitting women in the fall of that year.

-return to timeline-

Robert F. Christy, Acting President

"[My concerns with Caltech were] just to try to keep it as good as it was. Under Millikan and DuBridge, it had developed into a fantastic institution, and mostly I wanted to keep it at that level.

In 1977, Robert Christy was named Caltech's acting president when Harold Brown left to become secretary of defense under Jimmy Carter. Christy was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and entered the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1932 as a 16-year-old sophomore. He graduated from UBC in 1935, at the age of 19, with a bachelor's degree in physics, then stayed for two more years to earn a master's degree in physics and mathematics in 1937. Christy then moved to UC Berkeley, where he studied physics as one of J. Robert Oppenheimer's graduate students. Having received his PhD in 1941, he was invited to join the Manhattan Project, where he was credited with designing the explosive core of the first atomic bomb. In 1946, on Oppenheimer's recommendation, he was hired at Caltech as an associate professor of physics, doing work in theoretical and nuclear physics, including the study of cosmic rays and, later, Cepheid variable stars. Christy became professor of theoretical physics in 1950 and Institute Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1983. He held several administrative posts during his tenure at Caltech, including as faculty chair from 1969 to 1971 and as vice president and provost from 1970 to 1980. It was during his tenure as provost that he was appointed acting president, serving for approximately one year until Marvin Goldberger's arrival at the Institute.

-return to timeline-

Marvin L. Goldberger

"I think the continuing role of the Institute is to train excellent students and to produce excellent research. The fact that the preponderance of effort at Caltech has historically been in the physical and biological sciences doesn't in my mind preclude our having a selective and excellent humanities and social sciences activity."

Marvin L. Goldberger was appointed president of Caltech in 1978, succeeding Harold Brown, who had left the previous year to become secretary of defense in the Carter administration. Goldberger received his PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and taught at MIT, the University of Chicago, and Princeton before joining Caltech. During his tenure as president, Goldberger was especially focused on undergraduate education and student life. He strengthened the humanities program, not only increasing the course offerings in that area but also partnering with the Huntington Library to establish joint appointments for humanities faculty. Goldberger also established the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which provides undergraduates the opportunity to collaborate with faculty on research projects that students initiate. Today, 80 percent of Caltech undergraduates participate in the SURF program, with 25 percent of each year's participants coming from the freshman class.

-return to timeline-

Thomas Everhart

"We live in the most exciting age in the history of mankind, and we in research, we in academia, we at Caltech, are at the center of the action."

When Marvin L. Goldberger resigned from the presidency in 1987 to direct the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Caltech appointed Thomas Everhart as its next leader. Everhart received his PhD in physics from Cambridge University before joining the faculty of UC Berkeley in 1958, where he served in the department of electrical engineering and computer science for more than 20 years. His work focused on the physics of electron beams, and it was during that time that he codesigned the Everhart-Thornley detector that is used today in scanning electron microscopes. Prior to arriving at Caltech, he served as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1984 to 1987. As Caltech's president, Everhart authorized the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, a large-scale experiment that seeks to detect gravitational waves and use them for fundamental research in physics and astronomy. He also oversaw the construction of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Moore Laboratory of Engineering, Avery House, and the Fairchild Library, as well as the dedication of the Beckman Institute. During Everhart's decade in office, Caltech graduated nearly 5,000 students, which meant that, when he stepped down in 1996, he had been president during the education of 27 percent of all living alumni.

-return to timeline-

David Baltimore

"The depth of scholarship, the rigor of training, the commitment to the highest ideals of personal behavior make Caltech a very special place. It manages to cover an extraordinary range of scientific and technical areas with a minimal faculty. It has provided so many new excitements for one trained in biology that it has been a continual feast for me. . . ."

After Thomas Everhart's resignation in 1997, Caltech chose David Baltimore as Everhart's successor, recruiting Baltimore from MIT, where he was a professor of biology. Baltimore earned his PhD in biology from Rockefeller University and, in 1975, at age 37, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in virology. While president of the Institute, Baltimore maintained a lab focused on immunology that is still active and influential today. Baltimore was instrumental in the fund-raising initiative for biological science and engineering that yielded the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences; he also facilitated the largest academic gift in history, a $600 million matching fund from Gordon and Betty Moore and their foundation in 2001. Baltimore championed contemporary architecture on campus, choosing James Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for the Broad Center, Thom Mayne of Morphosis for the new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Rem Koolhaas for the new Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology.

-return to timeline-

Jean-Lou Chameau

"The discoveries, recognition, and impact of the Caltech faculty in a typical year are the envy of our peers. The opportunity to interact with such a special group, and to support their endeavors, is a reward in itself."

In 2006, when David Baltimore resigned from the presidency to remain at Caltech as the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, Jean-Lou Chameau was named his successor. Chameau was born in France and completed his secondary and undergraduate education there before receiving his PhD in civil engineering from Stanford University. For 11 years, Chameau was a professor of civil engineering and head of the geotechnical engineering program at Purdue University. In 1991, he joined the Georgia Institute of Technology as director of its School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He later served as dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering, and in 2001 he became Georgia Tech's provost and vice president for academic affairs. At Caltech, Chameau's promotion of a multidisciplinary approach to research and education was a hallmark of his presidency: he supported the development of programs in areas of societal impact, including energy, information technology, medical science, and the environment. He focused on sustainability issues on campus and beyond, reducing Caltech's ecological footprint by encouraging green building, water conservation, and emission reductions. Chameau also instituted a Caltech tradition, the Olive Harvest Festival, during which the community gathers olives from campus trees to make oil. The event has yielded as much as 6,000 pounds of olives and 127 gallons of oil.

-return to timeline-

Edward M. Stolper, Interim President

"Caltech is not a big place. But in my view our small size . . . is a real advantage in that it leads to a sense of community that is very special. . . . It is a great pleasure to walk across our small campus and recognize and talk with people across a wide swath of intellectual pursuits. As David Baltimore is fond of saying, it is probably the last academic village."

When Jean-Lou Chameau resigned in 2013 to become president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, the Institute chose Provost Edward M. Stolper to serve as interim president. A member of the Caltech community for 35 years, Stolper earned his PhD in geological sciences from Harvard University in 1979, arriving at Caltech that same year as an assistant professor of geology. His research focuses on understanding the origin and evolution of igneous rocks on the earth and other planets, and he was a member of the Mars Science Laboratory mission's science team. Appointed provost in 2007, Stolper retained those duties while serving as interim president. Stolper stepped back into the role of provost full time when the newly appointed president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, arrived at the Institute in July 2014.

-return to timeline-

Thomas F. Rosenbaum

"Caltech's combination of absolute excellence, traversable disciplinary barriers, and soaring ambition is simply remarkable. It does not seem possible that a university with only 300 faculty members and 2,250 undergraduates and graduate students combined could be setting the intellectual agendas and running world-preeminent facilities in so many different scientific and engineering arenas, yet we are. JPL is a huge and essential multiplier, but in my view it fundamentally comes down to Caltech's culture of fearlessness."

On July 1, 2014, Thomas F. Rosenbaum took office as Caltech's ninth president. Rosenbaum received his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University and his MA and PhD in physics from Princeton University. Before his appointment as president of the Institute, he was the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he served as the university's provost for seven years. As Chicago's provost, he had responsibility for a broad range of institutions and intellectual endeavors across the sciences, arts, and professional schools. Rosenbaum is an expert on the quantum mechanical nature of materials—the physics of electronic, magnetic, and optical materials at the atomic level—that are best observed at temperatures near absolute zero. He was inaugurated on October 24, 2014.

-return to timeline-