Reprinted from The AIM Report, October B, 1994
Dr. Linus Pauling died of cancer on August 19, 1994. at age 93.
In his own field of chemistry, Pauling was frequently criticized as grabbing credit for research done by colleagues. When he ventured into medicine, as a windy advocate of Vitamin C as a cure-all panacea for everything from the common cold to AIDS and drug addiction, Pauling defended such quacks as a California physician who treated cervical cancer with coffee and buttermilk enemas. He was tantamount to a food faddist poster boy during his last decades.
In political affairs, Pauling was the epitome of the useful idiot so skillfully exploited by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He lent his name---and prestige as a Nobel laureate---to a nuclear ban campaign orchestrated by the Kremlin. That the campaign put his own nation at risk did not concern Pauling, a chronic publicity hound. Wearing his trademark black beret, Pauling pranced on picket lines from Washington to San Francisco, a puppet of Soviet operatives working to weaken America's defense and internal security agencies.
Dr. Thomas Jukes, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a member of AIM's national advisory board, was a Pauling watcher for years. He questioned whether Pauling's celebrity was due to original work or a knack for self-promotion. Jukes wrote, "Was Pauling mentally superior to practically all other human beings? Did his mind work faster and better than any others? He alleged that his meditations produced insight that revealed the answer to scientific problems. Did he have unique mental powers in this regard? Was he a real scientific super-giant? Or was he unusually skilled at using the ideas of other people and publicizing them as his own?"
As an example of Pauling's glory-grabbing, Jukes cited his claim to the discovery of the alpha helix in protein structure, a landmark event. James Watson, in his book The Double Helix, described how Pauling had presented his claim during a lecture: "The words came out as if he had been in show business all his life. A curtain kept his model hidden until near the end of his lecture, when he proudly unveiled his latest creation. Then, with his eyes twinkling, Linus explained the specific characteristics that made his model--the alpha helix-uniquely beautiful."
But as Jukes noted, "The alpha helix was not his discovery. It was that of a black colleague, Dr. Herman Branson." Branson later became president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Branson gave his account of the discovery in a 1984 letter to persons writing a Pauling biography.
In 1948-49, while working under Pauling at the California Institute of Techology, Branson was asked to do research on how amino acids might be arranged in a protein molecule. To summarize a very technical scientific matter, Branson proposed a single helix. Pauling disagreed with Branson, telling him that it was "too tight" to fit a protein molecule. But Branson went ahead and constructed a model showing the alpha helix. A Pauling associate named Corey saw it and said, "Well, I'll be damned." Branson wrote up his findings in the summer of 1949 and went on to other work.
A year later Pauling wrote up the discovery listing Corey and Branson as co-authors. In 1988 he published a book in which he took all the credit for the discovery, saying that he found it by folding paper. Branson was not mentioned. Branson wrote that he "resented" how Pauling had handled the matter.
Pauling's biographers, Ted G. Goertzel and his parents Victor and Mildred, wrote, "In the case of DNA, Pauling rushed into print with a paper that incorporated errors so basic that they should have been caught by any student who has mastered Pauling's introductory chemistry text....Apparently Pauling was willing to risk making errors in the hope that he would be given credit for publishing the first, even if partly incorrect, model of DNA."
Jukes showed that Pauling took credit (along with colleagues) for findings concerning molecular disease that actually had been documented by a British scientist, Dr. A.E. Garrod, in 1908---when Pauling was seven years old.
Linus Pauling's most publicized legacy, his advocacy of mega-doses of Vitamin C to counter cancer and' the common cold, well could be a legacy of harm to human health. Pauling's zealotry persuaded millions of Americans to put their faith in Vitamin C. Unfortunately, few of these persons realized the dangers they incur by following Pauling's advice.
Pauling commenced his Vitamin C crusade in 1966, when (at age 65) he casually remarked at a banquet that he would like to live 15 or 20 years longer. A man named Irwin Stone suggested taking massive doses of Vitamin C. Rather than doing any scientific research on whether the substance actually helped human health, Pauling eagerly signed on as a Vitamin C advocate. His book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, published in 1970, was a national best-seller for weeks. He claimed that one gram daily would cut the incidence of common colds by 45 percent for most persons, and that others might need larger amounts. A second edition, issued in 1976 as Vitamin C, The Common Cold and the Flu, recommended even higher dosages.
No less than 16 clinical studies concluded that Pauling was preaching nonsense. One of the stronger dismissals came from the American Psychiatric Association, in contesting Pauling's claim that vitamin therapy might alleviate schizophrenia. The APA wrote, "The credibility of the megavitamin proponents is low. Their credibility is further diminished by a consistent refusal over the past decade to perform controlled experiments and to report their results in a scientifically acceptable fashion. Under these circumstances, [the APA] considers the massive publicity which they promulgate via radio, the lay press and popular books...to be deplorable."
The New York Times' Richard Severo's obituary did mention that researchers at the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere had challenged Pauling's claim about the efficacy of Vitamin C as a cancer preventative. But he gave surprisingly short shrift to a tumultous episode involving Dr. Arthur B. Robinson, a onetime Pauling student who later worked at the Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. In the 1970s Robinson did clinical tests on mice to evaluate the physical effects of high dosages of Vitamin C. To the dismay of his mentor, Robinson discovered that the quantities of Vitamin C recommended by Pauling doubled the incidence of skin cancer.
Pauling responded by firing Robinson and destroying his laboratory data and killing the experimental mice. He also accused Robinson of "amateurish" science. Robinson sued Pauling and his institute for libel and slander and collected an out-of-court settlement of $575,000--of which $425,000 was for damages, the remainder for legal fees. (An exhaustive account of the Robinson affair ran in Barron's on June 11, 1979.)
The Robinson case was important because it showed that Pauling wittingly suppressed the scientific record in order to protect his unproven Vitamin C theories. Why was he so vigorous in defending a medical theory that in fact could harm persons?
Columnist Colman McCarthy, a Pauling chum, offered an interesting theory in The Washington Post (Aug. 27) for the disdain with which the medical community held his idol. "Such conventional treaters of colds as physicians beholden to drug companies and their high-priced pills tried to dismiss Pauling as a dabbler in quackery," McCarthy wrote. Perhaps. But as Dr. James Lowell wrote in Nutrition Forum in May 1985, 'The largest corporate donor (over $500,000) to Pauling's institute has been Hoffman- La Roche, the pharmaceutical giant which is the dominant factor
in world-wide production of Vitamin C. Many of the institute's individual donors have been solicited with the help of Rodale Press (publishers of Prevention magazine) and related organizations which have publicized the institute and allowed the use of their mailing lists."