By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RDN
If you were reading the medical news back in the late 1970’s, you may have seen this headline : Linus Pauling – Nobel Prize Chemistry 1954, Nobel Prize Peace 1963, Nobel Prize Vitamin C 19??. If ever there was a puzzling story about a man and his accomplishments in the nutrition field, the history of Linus Pauling takes the cake. Here we have a man who had won two unshared Nobel prizes, one for chemistry in 1954 and the other for peace in 1963. Yet, in his later years he was maligned by his peers and branded as a quack for claiming he could cure the common cold and cancer that neither was ever strongly supported by research. Oh, by the way – The third Nobel Prize never happened.
THE EARLY YEARS
Linus Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a successful drug store and Linus was exposed at an early age to the “magic” of chemistry in the backroom of the store. By fourteen he had already set up some semblance of a chemistry laboratory in his basement. He enrolled at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University and sought a degree in chemical engineering. While teaching undergraduate courses, he met and later married Ava Helen Miller, one of his students. He went on to graduate in 1922 and then continued as a graduate student in the then fledgling California Institute of Technology, or Caltech where he earned his Ph.D. in 1925. After some time in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he returned to Caltech in 1927 as a faculty member and by the age of 38, he was a full professor and head of the chemistry division. He was the youngest member ever elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry primarily for his 1939 work, The Nature of the Chemical Bond that quickly became the standard work in the field. He later became very outspoken on world peace and politics and voiced his negative views on nuclear testing and the Viet Nam War. Although he eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his views; he was criticized by the press and was forced to resign his position at Caltech after 40 years of service.
THE VITAMIN YEARS
His interests expanded when in 1965 he inadvertently came upon a book at a psychiatrist friend’s house entitled Niacin Therapy in Psychiatry that discussed vitamins as a treatment for mental illness. The author, Abram Hoffer summarized years of research of Humphrey Osmond that showed that very high doses of B vitamins, in this case, niacin could have a beneficial effect on schizophrenics. The doses were extremely high and more than a thousand fold higher than the recommended daily allowance. Hoffer termed this treatment as “megavitamin therapy.
“Megavitamin therapy had considerable respectable backing at the time. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, wrote about a female whose schizophrenia caused by a pellagra, a niacin deficiency, had been cured by massive doses of niacin. Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote a testimonial for Dr. Max Gerson, who claimed he could cure cancer with twelve glasses of orange, “green”, carrot and liver juice a day along with injections of vitamin B12 and coffee enemas.
Pauling later met Irwin Stone, an American biochemist, who told him about his work in 1935 with vitamin C as a preservative and had some papers on the possibility of its use as a treatment for heart disease, some viral diseases, and cancer due to its antioxidant properties. Stone and his wife began taking doses of about 3 grams of the vitamin a day, way over the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of 45 milligrams that was enough to prevent scurvy. Stone said he felt better, but vitamin C is notorious for its placebo effects. Pauling wrote and submitted papers on this thesis but all were rejected. Pauling decided to also begin taking 3 grams of the vitamin a day. He reported that he had greater energy and no more colds and Pauling became a believer in the power of vitamin C.
In 1970, he wrote Vitamin C and the Common Cold that instantly became a bestseller and demand for the vitamin could not be met by drugstores around the country. In 1976, he expanded his views by writing another book, Vitamin C, and the Common Cold and Flu. His recommendations were to take at least 1000 mg of vitamin C daily to prevent colds. and that higher doses may be needed by some people to get the same effect. Some physicians and organizations began to label him a “quack” after study after study, even well designed, failed to support these claims.
Pauling increased his intake of vitamin C to 12,000 mg daily and increased that amount if he noticed the symptoms of a cold appearing. The current RDA for vitamin C is 75 mg. for people over 19 years of age.
But Pauling didn’t stop with just the common cold. He claimed that vitamin C also cured cancer. In 1976, Pauling and a Scottish physician, Dr. Ewan Cameron reported that of one hundred “terminal” cancer patients treated with 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily survived three to four times longer than similar patients who did not receive the supplement. When trying to publish these findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was rejected. Instead, Pauling turned to the journal Oncology. This time peer-review turned up some design flaws, which raised some serious doubts about the claims. He and Cameron wrote the book called Cancer and Vitamin C in 1993. Despite bad reviews due to the possibility that it “ may raise hopes which are unsupported by proper scientific evidence,” Pauling boosted sales by buying sixteen thousand copies that he sent to physicians and members of Congress.
To further test this observation, the Mayo Clinic conducted three double-blind studies involving a total of 367 patients with advanced cancer. The studies, reported in 1979, 1983, and 1985 found that patients given 10,000 mg of vitamin C daily did no better than those given a placebo. Two of the studies were published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. An angry Pauling criticized the results of each of the studies and said that each had major design flaws.
In 1986, after repeated rejections by the scientific community, Pauling went to the people and wrote How to Live Longer and Feel Better. On the cover is his picture with his trademark appearance: a black beret over a shock of white hair, which displayed his vibrant, good health and vitality in his eighties. His advice was pretty standard – eating in moderation including eggs and meat, fruits and vegetables and even having a drink or two daily. Cutting down on sugar was recommended and of course taking large doses of vitamins. For example, he was now taking 6 – 18 grams of vitamin C per day. Now he included mega doses of vitamin E, vitamin A and “super B’ tablets as well as a multi-mineral supplement.
THE LATER YEARS
The Linus Pauling Institute that bears his name exists to this day and has evolved into a respectable organization. However, his irrational advice about supplements continues to lead people astray. There is almost a cult-like group of followers who still try to find ways to promote his theories in spite of the evidence against them. They still think he was right. Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.
He died from prostate cancer and rectal cancer in 1994 and his wife, died from stomach cancer in 1980. “Earlier in 1994, he was honored at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement in Science. He arrived in his wheelchair but insisted in walking in on his own. He wore his signature black beret. When he arrived, the audience gave a standing ovation and cheered loudly. According to one biographer, Thomas Hager, he wrote: “Pauling stopped and waved. Then he gave the crowd one of his trademark ear-to-ear grins.”
Pauling was certainly a genius but fell prey to the hype of mega-dose vitamin therapy. He was probably instrumental in promoting the mega-dose vitamin craze that followed and exists to this day. Some headlines still tout its possibilities and one wonders if ever, this theory will finally be put to rest, one way or another. So in a sense, Linus Pauling lives on and on.
Yager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 2011, Monroe Press
Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, 2003, U. of California Press
Barrett, Stephen, M.D. The Dark Side of Linus Pauling’s Legacy, Quackwatch