The Deeply Personal War of Linus Pauling : Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist Still Battles for His Controversial Vitamin Theory
From a windswept point along California’s most spectacular shoreline, an old professor who holds the world’s most prestigious award for peace plans his next moves in a deeply personal war.
Many have said that for Linus Pauling, the war should have ended a long time ago when the medical profession refused to embrace his theory of Vitamin C as a panacea for all sorts of afflictions, including cancer.
But the only person in history to win two unshared Nobel prizes would have none of that. Pauling calls those who attack his work on Vitamin C ‘scoundrels.’ Instead, he has directed his energies toward proving the naysayers wrong. Now into the 85th year of his life, the old man hones his intellectual scalpel, ready to fight all who question his judgment on this, the most frustrating campaign in his long, sometimes stormy career.
If it turns out that Vitamin C does not help cure cancer, as the Mayo Clinic has concluded twice in recent studies, defeat in the last chapter of his life could overshadow the fact that for more than half a century Pauling was a major intellectual force in the world of science, producing a body of work that few in any field could match.
If it turns out that some of his other ideas about vitamins are correct, as recent evidence suggests, it will be another footnote in a long, illustrious career, forcing his critics to concede that Linus Pauling was at least partly right after all.
But no matter what the eventual result, those who know him well do not doubt that Pauling will fight to the very end.
“I thought it would have been ended several years ago,” Pauling said recently as he sat in his rustic home on the rugged California coastline south of Big Sur. “By 1980, I had thought, doctors everywhere would be giving Vitamin C in large doses as an adjunct to conventional therapy for cancer patients. But because of the opposition, which is mainly from ignorance, it has gone more slowly.”
A cherubic grin, his trademark for so many years, turns to a scowl.
“This delay,” he added, “will do harm to thousands, or tens of thousands, of persons.”
He gazes for a moment at the ocean at his doorstep, then turns back with his eyes flashing. Those who have attacked his work on Vitamin C, he says dramatically, are “scoundrels.”
Linus Pauling today is known to millions of younger Americans as someone with vague scientific credentials who became a huckster for vitamins. Yet if he is aware that many do not know of the extraordinary imprint he has already left on a wide range of scientific disciplines, he doesn’t show it.
Instead, there is his air of self-confidence that many people have perceived as arrogance.
This confidence that the path he has taken has been the correct one has been a factor throughout Pauling’s long career. Indeed, many who have followed him think it explains why he could never sit still--why even becoming the most decorated chemist in history was not enough.
There were signs, even in his early days at Caltech in Pasadena, that Pauling’s path would lead him to personal victories, but that he would pay a dear price in order to achieve them.
The son of an Oregon druggist, Pauling entered Caltech as a graduate student in 1922. By 1925, at the age of 24, he had earned his Ph.D in chemistry.
As a young chemist at the Pasadena institute, he soon began cutting his legendary swath across several fields of science. He was still in his early 30s when he published a series of papers that were to make up his masterpiece, “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” the work that would earn him the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954.
Along the way he had learned that a little humor and a lot of dramatics can turn a dry lecture into a work of art, and Pauling embraced both of those tactics with gusto. Friends say he was always somewhat of a ham, and his flamboyant style served him well in the classroom.
“He was one of the finest chemical teachers ever,” recalled Dr. Lee DuBridge, who was president of Caltech during Pauling’s final tumultuous days there. “He was a brilliant lecturer. He still is. I heard him give a lecture a few months ago. He talked too long, but it was a marvelous lecture.”
Pauling’s flair also paved the way out of the classroom and into the world at large for a young scientist who had found his oratorical skills in great demand.
But it wasn’t only the scientific issues he had to address. The end of World War II had seen the United States usher in the nuclear age with atomic bomb attacks on two Japanese cities. The devastation served as a dramatic warning that the world would never be the same again.
Pauling began to say as much.
“I could give talks about science that people could understand,” he said. “So I gave talks, essentially about nuclear physics. But gradually I began saying, as Einstein was saying, that the fact that we could lob over a single bomb and destroy an entire city meant that, finally, we were forced to give up war.”
But he was not very effective and one day his wife, Ava Helen, told him so.
“She said to me, ‘Those talks that you give aren’t very good. When you talk about science, it’s very good, but when you talk about world affairs, you don’t convince anybody because all you do is look at some clippings and quote some fellow back in Washington. You probably just better stop if you can’t do any better,’ ” Pauling recalled.
Her goading worked.
“I began spending half my time reading up on world affairs,” Pauling said. “When the (issue of) fallout of radioactivity came along, I was one of the few people who understood everything, because I had a background in biology, medicine, chemistry and nuclear physics. I knew the whole thing. Pretty soon, I got to the point where I could say to the critics, I know what I am talking about.”
Peace became an obsession with Pauling, demanding more and more of his time.
“His interests changed as he got more interested in political activities, and his scientific activities declined,” DuBridge said.
So did his attractiveness to graduate students, who make up the work force for research programs at major institutions.
“Word got around that if you’re going to work for Pauling, you’re never going to see him,” DuBridge said. “Before that, everybody who had a chance wanted to work with Pauling.”
Winning the Nobel Prize in 1954 did not seem to help improve his situation.
“There are two kinds of Nobel Prize winners: those who are unaffected by the acclaim and continue to do good scientific work, and others who are so much involved in the publicity that they almost give up their scientific work,” DuBridge said in a recent interview. “If you can’t take the publicity or the temptations, it’s a terrible thing to face. It’s a terrible shock, a hard thing to resist.
“Pauling was mixed,” DuBridge added. “For a while there he lost touch with science, and then he went back to it.”
But he was never far from the spotlight.
The political fervor of the day was dictated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Anyone who disagreed with McCarthy’s fanatical stand against communism was immediately suspected of being a subversive, and Pauling, who had emerged as the leading scientific spokesman for a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, had become one of McCarthy’s prime targets.
Meanwhile, Pauling, who was chairman of Caltech’s chemistry department and director of the department’s two main labs, had also concentrated the school’s research on an area that many faculty members, according to DuBridge, felt was inappropriate. He was using the labs to study what he believed to be a molecular cause for mental diseases.
It seems clear, these many years later, that it was Pauling’s political activities, not his scientific programs, that were causing the most serious problems at Caltech. The conservative board of trustees was disturbed over Pauling’s highly publicized role in the peace movement, and some wealthy businessmen had withdrawn their financial support from the private institution.
“They wanted to fire me,” Pauling said.
Undaunted, Pauling campaigned for a test ban treaty like a sidewalk evangelist, and that brought him into direct confrontation with McCarthy’s Senate investigations subcommittee, which threatened to put him in jail if he did not reveal the names of persons who had helped circulate a petition signed by many of the world’s leading scientists.
He was saved from prison when DuBridge came to his defense and released a letter Pauling had written him stating he was not a communist.
Undaunted, Pauling remained committed to the peace effort.
“Most other scientists had stopped,” Pauling said. “I could understand that. I could understand why some thought it was just too much of a sacrifice. They knew they could lose their jobs. They might not be able to continue their scientific work.
“I felt the same way, but I kept on in order to retain the respect of my wife. I couldn’t hide anything from her. If I had stopped talking about nuclear war, she would have known that I was being forced into it by McCarthy.”
The situation enraged the school’s trustees.
In a move that Pauling still sees as disciplinary, the chairmanship of the department and the directorship of the two labs were taken from him.
DuBridge says the change was necessary to return order to what had become a chaotic situation, and to free lab space for other scientific projects. The clash with McCarthy, DuBridge insists, had nothing to do with it. Pauling, however, remains convinced that the demotion was demanded by the trustees because of his political activities.
McCarthy died in 1957, but the fight for the test ban treaty raged on, and displeasure at Caltech over Pauling’s role did not diminish with the senator’s death.
The following year, Pauling published his best-selling book, “No More War!,” an impassioned plea for world peace. Meanwhile, a young senator, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was making a strong bid for the upcoming Democratic presidential nomination, supported partly by liberal young voters who were caught up in the peace effort.
The controversy reached new levels in front of the White House itself soon after the new President was inaugurated in 1961. Pauling was in Washington to attend a dinner with the Kennedys, but he spent the day of the dinner on the picket lines outside the White House, carrying a sign demanding a test ban treaty.
Pauling recalled the reception he received that evening from Jacqueline Kennedy and the President:
“Mrs. Kennedy said, ‘Dr. Pauling, do you think it is right to go marching outside the White House the way you do?’ Then she turned and introduced me to President Kennedy, and he said, ‘Dr. Pauling, I hope you will continue to express your opinions.’ ”
But it did little to help Pauling’s position with the Caltech trustees when a photo spread of Pauling picketing the White House appeared in Life magazine.
“He made a spectacle of himself,” DuBridge said.
Shortly after the incident, Kennedy announced his support of the test ban treaty.
And Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pauling was at his home near Big Sur when word arrived. The family drove to Los Angeles, and when he read a newspaper account of the announcement of the award, he was stunned.
He said the story quoted DuBridge as saying that “it’s a remarkable thing for some person to get a second Nobel Prize, but there is much difference of opinion about the value of the work that Professor Pauling has been doing.”
Pauling says he knew then, that after 42 years with an institution he loved, the end had come.
“I called a press conference and said now that I’ve received the Nobel Peace Prize I should devote more time to that effort,” he said. “I didn’t say that I finally got fed up.”
He resigned, he said, because he felt he had no other choice.
“I can understand DuBridge,” he says now. “His job was to get along with the trustees, and the trustees are businessmen. I should have liked to have stayed on.”
He received his Nobel Prize in 1962, on the same day that the nuclear test ban treaty was signed.
There can be no doubt that Pauling paid a high price for his political activities, and some have suggested that the dilution of his energies, and the diversion of his interests, robbed him of what could have been an even greater scientific achievement.
Soon after earning his doctorate at Caltech, Pauling was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing him to study in Europe under several physicists, including Niels Bohr, the founder of the modern theory of atomic and molecular structure. The young chemist developed a solid background in physics, permitting him to see chemistry in a different light. That interdisciplinary approach was to become the hallmark of his style.
Already years ahead of his contemporaries, Pauling experimented in the young field of X-ray crystallography, a process by which X-rays are deflected by atoms, producing photographs of molecular structures. Unlike other chemists, Pauling also understood the infant theory of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that held that atoms and other basic particles absorb and emit energy in specific amounts called “quanta.”
In X-ray crystallography, he had a valuable new tool for research, and in quantum mechanics he had the basis for a theoretical framework. The X-rays told him how atoms behave within molecules, the angles between the atoms, and most important, the role of atoms in the chemical bond. Pauling soon discovered that atoms behave differently when bonded together than when they are free.
In a free state, the electrons circle around the nucleus like the planets around the sun. But in atoms that have been bonded together, the electrons tend to oscillate back and forth between the bonded atoms. It is at the point of oscillation, and only at that point, that bonding can take place.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pauling and a handful of other scientists around the world were trying to determine the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the premier trophy in the world of biology. Nature had seen fit to encode DNA with the information of heredity, and whoever unscrambled that code would provide great insights into the secret of life. No one doubted that a Nobel Prize awaited the victor.
Among the leaders in the search were two young biologists--James D. Watson of the United States and Francis Crick of Great Britain--who were working on their doctorates at Cambridge University. Aided by great progress in London in X-ray crystallography, the two men appeared to be making considerable progress. But they constantly fretted about a man who even then had become a legend, Linus Pauling.
In his book, “The Double Helix,” a highly personalized account of their efforts, Watson tells of his fear of being upstaged by the California scientist.
The thought of Pauling, 6,000 miles away but “breathing down his neck,” often “made it very difficult to sleep,” Watson wrote. The fact that they used Pauling’s textbook, “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” as their most important reference book served to remind both Watson and Crick that “One could never be sure where he (Pauling) would strike next.”
The two young scientists had an edge, however, in that they had access in England to what was then probably the best crystallography lab in the world.
It was thus more than disconcerting to them to learn that Pauling had been invited to London for a conference and would quite possibly view the same X-ray photographs that they had been using in their research.
But that was not to be.
Like so many others who ran afoul of the anti-communist crusaders of that era, Pauling had been branded a national security risk. When the scientist tried to renew his passport for the trip to London, he was turned down, a common tactic employed by the State Department in those days to keep troublemakers at home.
“The reaction (in England) was one of almost complete disbelief,” Watson wrote later. “The failure to let one of the world’s leading scientists attend a completely nonpolitical meeting would have been expected from the Russians,” not the Americans.
A few weeks after Pauling was denied his passport, while Watson and Crick were trying desperately to unravel the secrets of DNA, Pauling stunned his young competitors with the announcement that he had solved the mystery. It appeared that the “world’s most astute chemist,” as Watson called Pauling, would once again snatch the silk purse from his lessers.
But the announcement was not nearly as stunning as the professional paper that arrived in London a short time later. Watson and Crick, still licking their wounds, understood enough about DNA to sense something that others had not seen.
Pauling was wrong.
His error, Watson wrote, was so elementary that “If a student had made a similar mistake, he would be thought unfit to benefit from Caltech’s chemistry faculty.”
Watson and Crick went on to share the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962, along with crystallographer Maurice Wilson, for the discovery of the correct structure of DNA.
Many years later, sitting in his Big Sur home, Pauling would say that his defeat in the search for DNA was the biggest disappointment in his life.
“Not a great disappointment,” he added quickly, “but probably the biggest. I don’t fret about it. I’ve done enough things. I’ve made enough discoveries.”
At 85, Pauling is still relatively robust, and there is no evidence his mind has lost any of its sharpness. He can recall names and dates from a lifetime of scientific adventures, and anyone who challenges him is likely to find an alert opponent, still eager for a good fight.
If there is one trait remembered by both friend and foe, it is his supreme self-confidence.
“It is a characteristic of him that he is very sure of himself,” recalled DuBridge. “When he gets a new idea, he’s always sure he is right, and usually he has been. Not always, but usually.”
Pauling, never known for false modesty, would be the first to agree.
“I know chemistry. I know biology. I know medicine,” Pauling said matter-of-factly during an interview at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto. “I can draw on all that knowledge.”
That self-confidence is one of the reasons Pauling could not understand why more people were not eager to embrace his passion of the past 20 years, a belief that large doses of vitamins could provide a key to a better life. On many occasions he has said that people should have considered the source rather than dismiss his conclusions as the rattle of an old man.
Pauling has argued for years that vitamins could help fight and cure illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer.
Throughout his career, Pauling had been fascinated with the molecular structure of substances, leading at one point to his discovery of the genetic nature of sickle cell anemia, for which some believe he should have won a third Nobel prize. He had already left Caltech when he became intrigued with whether vitamins could play a greater role in mental and physical health than was believed at the time.
What happened next is perhaps best told in Pauling’s own words:
“We came up to Carmel for some reason, I may have been giving a talk, and we stayed overnight with some friends. She was a psychiatrist. In the guest room there were some books, and we had a couple of hours before dinner. The only things I could find to read were some papers from Canada about schizophrenia and so I looked at these papers and learned that they had carried out some tests on schizophrenic patients in which they had given some vitamins and got some results.
“It took some time, perhaps some weeks, but I realized there was something about this that bothered me. I knew that if you take an overdose of aspirin, you will die. Any drug is apt to kill you. And here these fellows were giving as much as 1,000 or 10,000 times the usually prescribed dose. This was extraordinary. Five milligrams of Vitamin C is enough to keep you from dying of scurvy, but you can take 10,000 times that and if you are sick nothing happens except you get well. Here you have these extraordinary substances, a whole range of concentrations over which they are physiologically active, with no serious side effects.
“So there is another question. Somewhere within this range surely there is an intake that puts you in the best of health. What is that intake? So I thought I will look up some substances, read the literature, and find what substances are required for the function of the brain and what their toxicities are when normally present in the human body.
“I wrote two papers in which I announced that there were these substances that have astonishingly low toxicity about which we can ask the question, what are the amounts needed to put you in the best of health?
“That was about 20 years ago, and I thought I had done my job.”
He said he and his wife began taking three grams of Vitamin C a day, and they not only felt better, but they found they no longer caught colds.
A short time later, Pauling was scheduled to speak at the dedication of a new medical school in New York.
“I only had about 10 minutes to speak, and in order to say something medical, I mentioned that Vitamin C would help stop you from getting the common cold.”
Sitting in the audience was a doctor who was then a professor of pathology and medicine at Columbia University. Soon after returning to the West Coast, Pauling said, he received a letter from the doctor, Victor Herbert, asking if he had even one study that supported his idea.
“I wrote back saying that I hadn’t really checked the literature, but after a few months I checked and I found four papers. I made copies and sent them to him and he just tried to find fault with them.”
Pauling said the incident made him so mad he sat down and wrote his best-selling book, “Vitamin C and the Common Cold.” Thus with no personal research other than what he could find in the medical literature, the battle was on.
Later, Pauling joined with a Canadian doctor, Ewan Cameron, in studies that purported to show that Vitamin C also helped prevent and cure cancer.
It was to become a bitter, bitter fight.
Although he remains as convinced as ever about the value of vitamins, he conceded in an interview that even if he is eventually proved right, his strategy was wrong.
“I perhaps would do it differently,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, I would have been more vigorous in my efforts to get them (researchers) to carry out a clinical trial.”
In the stormy years since Pauling first presented his ideas on Vitamin C, there have been many studies, and many contradictions.
At this stage, it appears that Pauling will turn out to have been at least partly right.
“There is some scientific basis for what he has been saying” about the ability of Vitamin C to prevent cancer, Dr. William Dewys, a leading expert on nutrition and cancer with the National Cancer Institute, said.
“Most available information suggests it may have a protective effect in preventing cancer,” Dewys said, adding that studies by committees of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Cancer Society suggest that an adequate supply of fruits and vegetables probably provide a better source than vitamin pills. Apparently, vitamins help the body protect itself.
Other studies have suggested that Vitamin C may also reduce the duration and severity of colds, but there is some disagreement on that point.
In the area of treatment--rather than prevention--of cancer, “we have much less information,” Dewys said. “There are fewer studies, and the ones that are available are conflicting.”
Dewys believes, however, that the recent studies by the Mayo Clinic, which found Vitamin C useless as a treatment for cancer, are hard to discredit. The studies, carried out under carefully controlled clinical conditions, are “unlikely to have reached the wrong conclusion.”
Pauling, on the other hand, has found great fault with the studies, but he says the doctors who carried them out will no longer return his phone calls.
He spends his days now writing letters, still fighting a battle that most likely has a long way to go, and meeting occasionally with the families of his four children.
But these are lonely days.
Throughout his long career, one person stood at Pauling’s side. He married Ava Helen in Oregon because, he has said so many times, she was simply the most beautiful and most intelligent woman he had ever met. His marriage, he told a group of graduate students at Stanford University recently, was the most rewarding thing that had ever happened to him.
But during the years that Pauling was most actively pursuing a cure for cancer, Ava Pauling was fighting a battle of her own. Four years before Pauling and Cameron published their book on Vitamin C and cancer, doctors found that Mrs. Pauling was inflicted with the disease.
Pauling says they began taking Vitamin C too late to save her life.
She died in 1981.