Perutz’s Hemoglobin Breakthroughs and Later Work

Perutz with his hemoglobin molecule, 1959. Image credit: Life Sciences Foundation.

Perutz with his hemoglobin molecule, 1959. Image credit: Life Sciences Foundation.

[Part II of our survey of the life of Max Perutz, this time focusing on the years 1941-2002. Published in commemoration of the Perutz centenary, May 2014.]

Knowing that his parents were safe from Nazi persecution and able to return to the United States, circumstances began improving for Max Perutz. The Rockefeller Foundation reactivated his grant, allowing him to support himself while stateside as well as his parents in Cambridge, England. Perutz’s father was also able to find work as a laser operator during the war and afterwards qualified for a pension.

In September 1941, Perutz met Gisela Peiser, who was an accountant at the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, an organization that assisted Jewish and other academic refugees fleeing from the Nazis. After a quick courtship, they were married the following March and, in December 1944, welcomed their daughter Vivien into the world. That same year, Perutz also found himself back in good stead with the British government and recruited to research ice strength for potential ice stations in the North Atlantic. The research did not work out, so Perutz returned to his work on hemoglobin at Cambridge. The next few years were spent trying to put together a secure source of income for him and his growing family. In the interim, he took out more loans and found a temporary fellowship.

Meanwhile, Perutz’s health continued to suffer. As his chronic gastrointestinal attacks became more unbearable, interfering with his daily activities more and more, Perutz began to seek out help. Most doctors he saw told him it was a psychological problem, but eventually one doctor recognized that the symptoms could be treated by a mixture of atropine and codeine. The remedy helped enough for Perutz to live more or less undisturbed by the problem for several years, though eventually that would change.


Perutz and John Kendrew, 1962. Image credit: Nobel Foundation.

Perutz and John Kendrew, 1962. Image credit: Nobel Foundation.

In 1947, the war now completed, Perutz, along with John Kendrew, was appointed to head the new Research Unit for the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems (Perutz later shortened the unit’s name to Molecular Biology Research) at the recently established Medical Research Council. Situated at the Cavendish Laboratory in the physics department, the group expanded on Perutz’s earlier application of x-ray crystallography to biological materials. Perutz, in this new administrative role, described his lab management as one where he would “leave people free to do what they wanted…if they were good scientists.”

One of the several student researchers that came through the lab was Francis Crick, who started work in 1949. Perutz had Crick look at the validity of his hemoglobin model, which was the culmination of roughly six years of research. Crick applied his mathematical training to show that the model was “nonsense.” Perutz accepted Crick’s assessment and later reflected that only in England at that time could a student be so critical of their principal investigator. Crick was eventually drawn away from hemoglobin research by James Watson, who came to the lab in 1951 to work under Kendrew on molecular structure, but his impact on the development of Perutz’s hemoglobin structure was long-lived.

Throughout the late 1940s, Perutz also continued his work on glaciers in the Alps and helped found the Glacier Physics Committee in 1947. Though he had trouble recruiting able assistants who could also ski (the first two broke their legs), the work gave Perutz and his family the opportunity to spend summers in the mountains. Perutz’s research led him to conclude that glaciers flowed faster at the surface than at the bottom.

Perutz’s digestive attacks began increasing in intensity in the early 1950s to the point where, in 1954, he was hospitalized for ten days. While there, doctors looked for possible causes but came up empty and could only prescribe bismuth, with little effect. What did help, for reasons Perutz did not understand, was visiting the Alps, and so he arranged for a trip after being released from the hospital. Unfortunately the attacks resumed as soon as he returned to Cambridge, pushing Perutz to his limits – he considered resignation and even contemplated suicide. In desperate straits, he arranged for another trip to the Alps that spring but, once there, continued to get worse and, as an added complication, came down with scurvy.

When he returned, Perutz sought out other doctors who might be able to help, eventually visiting Werner Jacobson, who was also at Cambridge. Jacobson thought Perutz’s symptoms sounded like those of Celiac disease. He suggested that his patient stop eating wheat, or more specifically gluten, which immediately improved Perutz’s condition. Whenever the symptoms appeared again, as they did in the early 1960s, Perutz could trace them back to gluten; he eventually stopped eating any form of bread, since even gluten-free flour contained small amounts of gluten that negatively affected his health.


Perutz in lecture. Image credit: Nature.

Perutz in lecture. Image credit: Nature.

Perutz’s improved physical condition coincided with the final years of his triumphant work on a determination of the structure of hemoglobin. After working out a solution to interpret x-ray diffraction photos of proteins three-dimensionally, Perutz came upon the structure in September 1959, submitting his findings to Nature before heading to the Alps to ski over the winter break. By the time he returned, he was famous.  It was quickly and widely acknowledged that his work comprised a major breakthrough for both chemistry and biology.  As Hugh E. Huxley wrote, in 2002

He was the first person to find out how to determine protein structure by X-ray crystallography, after many years of patient struggle, and he applied the technique to solve the structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in blood….The results showed that it was possible to see, in the atomic detail necessary to understand mechanisms, the structure of the macromolecules that carry out many of the functions of a living cell. Such knowledge is basic to the revolution that has swept through biology in the past 50 years, and to modern medicine and biotechnology.

By Fall 1962 there were rumors that Perutz would be awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. As October arrived, he began receiving calls from the press, but did not quite trust them. As the calls continued, Perutz received a telegram and thought, along with the rest of the lab, that it may be from the Nobel committee. Alas, the message was only from Nature asking how many reprints of his article Perutz wanted. That afternoon however, Perutz received another telegram, the one he had been waiting for. The lab celebrated with a champagne party as Perutz and Kendrew had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins, would receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Perutz continued to work on the hemoglobin structure after his rise to fame, next turning to the question of how the structure changed with the uptake of oxygen. His Nobel lecture described this continued research on the four subunits within hemoglobin that changed their structure as oxygen was taken up; the first description of how proteins changed in structure.

In the years that followed, Perutz focused more on why this change occurred. Aided by automated x-ray diffraction machines and able assistants, Perutz’s lab was able to turn out more measurements than ever before. But the measurements, as Perutz later related, did not make any sense. After one of his research assistants completed his postdoc, Perutz looked closer at his results and realized that the new x-ray instruments had not been calibrated correctly.

In 1967, with all the bugs fixed, Perutz and his team put together the first atomic model of hemoglobin, but Perutz’s questions about why the structure changed still were not answered. By 1970, the lab was able to construct an oxygen-free model, allowing Perutz to compare it with the oxygenated model. As Perutz later described “there came this dramatic moment when between them, the models revealed the whole mechanism.” What he was able to see was how a slight movement of the iron atom triggered a change in the whole molecule. Thus, Perutz felt he was able to explain “all the physiological functions of hemoglobin on the basis of its structure.” The results were published in Nature.

Within the field, objections to Perutz’s explanation were numerous and he spent much of the next two decades refuting criticisms and refining his own explanation. At the same time, his celebrity also rose among scientists as he was increasingly invited to give lectures all over Europe and North America. By 1975 Perutz’s fame outside of scientific circles had grown such that Queen Elizabeth II invited him to visit with her at Buckingham Palace. Afterwards, Perutz expressed his regrets to the Queen’s secretary that “she had made me talk away like an excited little boy about my own doings and that I never asked her anything about hers.” Nonetheless, Perutz did hope that the Queen would enjoy his gift, the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin.


Max Perutz with his hemoglobin model. Image credit: BBC.

Max Perutz with his hemoglobin model. Image credit: BBC.

By 1980 Perutz had begun to reach out to broader audiences more intentionally. Shortly after retiring from the chair of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Perutz wrote a memoir of his time there. This, in turn, inspired him to compile an account of his experiences during World War II and submit it to the New Yorker. Penned in 1980 but not published until 1985, “Enemy Alien” helped bring Perutz greater levels of fame, as he received more letters after its publication than he did congratulations for his Nobel Prize.

An Italian pharmaceutical company also approached Perutz in 1980 to give a lecture on the social implications of molecular biology. According to a 2001 interview, Perutz told the company that “molecular biology has no social implications,” but that he could talk about “science as a whole.” This spurred him to take more of an interest in broader scientific questions, ultimately leading him to adopt controversial stances combatting criticism of the Green Revolution, DDT use and nuclear power, among other issues in the headlines. It also evolved into an interest in philosophy – Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies proved particularly impactful. By 1989, Perutz expanded his popular lectures into a book of essays, Is Science Necessary? which included writings that he had also done for the New York Review of Books as well as “Enemy Alien.”

While continuing to write for the New York Review of Books up to the end of his life, Perutz also pursued new research on proteins and hemoglobin, taking a particular interest in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In 2001, right before he passed away, Perutz was still at the lab seven to eight hours a day (including lunch and tea), preparing a publication for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the common structure of insoluble protein deposits in neurodegenerative diseases. He passed away at the age of 87, unable to reconcile his initial structure with x-ray diffraction photos which showed contradicting features that Perutz concluded arose from three different structures. The results were published in 2002, after Perutz had died, in two separate articles.

Max Perutz (1914-2002)

Max Perutz. Credit: Theresianische Akademie Wien.

Max Perutz. Credit: Theresianische Akademie Wien.

[Ed Note: We mark the centenary of Max Perutz' birth today with the first in a series of posts on his life and his associations with Linus Pauling. Today's post focuses on his life from 1914-1941.]

Max Ferdinand Perutz was born May 19, 1914 in Vienna, the third child and second son of Hugo and Adele Perutz.  His birth came little more than a month before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent start of World War I. Vienna was largely untouched by the war, but suffered mightily from the economic depression that followed. The Perutzes, who had accumulated a substantial fortune from family textile concerns, lost their savings to the rapid postwar inflation. Nonetheless, according to biographer Georgina Ferry, the family managed to maintain an income and “within a few years of the war’s end, they were living as well as before.”

In a 2001 interview with Katherine Thompson for the British Library, Perutz said that he remembered little of these early years. He did recall being a “very delicate child,” contracting pneumonia three times before he was six and a very serious fever at age nine. Fortunately, he was able to recover from the fever after his nanny took him to a resort in the Alps for the winter. After World War II, chest x-rays revealed that Perutz had suffered from tuberculosis, the likely cause of his fever.

Perutz’s physical delicacy affected his social life as well; he described himself as a “weakling at school” who had no friends early on since he was sick so often. Because of his condition, Perutz did not excel at most sports. But his many holidays in the Alps led him to develop a lifelong love of rock climbing and skiing. These skills eventually earned Perutz the respect of his peers after he won a prize for the school skiing team.

Perutz attended private primary schools until entering the newly organized Realgymnasium, which brought a shift in focus from classics to modern languages and the sciences. Perutz described his early years of schooling as “eight years of unbearable boredom.” This boredom began to wane as Perutz gravitated toward English literature, an interest enabled by his Anglophile father who saw that he was tutored in English in addition to the more common French. Perutz secretly read Charles Dickens and other British novelists under the bench while at school, later furthering this passion with his first girlfriend, who was from England. Perutz’s parents expected him to take over the family textile business once he was old enough, and were heartened by his developing intellectual prowess.

However, the business route never appealed to Perutz, especially after he was exposed to chemistry by an influential teachers, and at eighteen he began formal pursuit of his interest in chemistry at the University of Vienna. (Protests from his parents were soothed by the help of a friend of Perutz’s older brother, a chemist at Dow.) As with his primary schooling, Perutz was not very impressed by the education that he received at university. He described the curriculum’s lack of mathematical training and decidedly practical emphasis as “chemistry done by heart” because of the reading and memorizing he was forced to do in lieu of actual laboratory work. But ultimately he made it through and, in the process, cultivated a new attraction to physics which he would later fulfill as a graduate student in England.


Portrait of Perutz drawn by William Lawrence Bragg. Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Portrait of Perutz drawn by William Lawrence Bragg. Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

From Vienna, Perutz moved on to Cambridge, where he hoped to work with Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the university’s first chair of biochemistry and recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work on the relation between vitamins and growth. Since Perutz showed up without letting anyone know, he did not find out that he could not work with Hopkins until he actually arrived. Chastened, Perutz looked elsewhere and ended up in the Cavendish Laboratory of Physics doing x-ray crystallography. “Without knowing it,” Perutz later recalled, this “was one of the best things I could have done.”  Supported by £500 sent by his father, Perutz settled in and was able to take care of his own finances for the duration of his doctoral studies.  His health continued to suffer though – once in England, he began to experience frequent and painful digestive problems.

The first project that interested Perutz was identifying radioactive deposits dug out from the cliffs in Cornwall. Perutz measured the half-life of the material, but found that it did not correspond to any known elements. Excited that he may have discovered a new element, Perutz shared his findings with Cambridge luminaries Ernest Rutherford and J. D. Bernal, who helped him to determine that the substance was, in fact, radium. Bernal also encouraged Perutz to publish his findings and to present them at a Royal Society soiree. This led to his first publication, “The Iron-Rhodonite from Slag,” which appeared in Mineralogy Magazine in 1937.

At the end of his first year at Cambridge, Perutz spent his summer holiday back in Austria and thought about what he might do for his doctoral dissertation. Felix Haurowitz, then at Charles University in Prague, suggested focusing on hemoglobin, telling Perutz that he could get crystallized hemoglobin from Gilbert Smithson Adair at Cambridge. When he returned and acquired the hemoglobin, Perutz says he “immediately got a lovely x-ray diffraction picture,” which “thrilled” Bernal.

In the midst of his hemoglobin research, Perutz also agreed to assist a man who came to the Cavendish Laboratory looking for researchers to satisfy his own interest in glacier development. Perutz saw this as a perfect opportunity to spend more time skiing in the Alps. He published his work in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1939, describing how melting and the movement of water contributed to glacier formation and flow.

In March 1940, Perutz wrapped up his Ph.D., which described the structure of hemoglobin and the x-ray methods used to develop the model. Yet the looming threat and subsequent reality of war overshadowed his findings and began to color components of his world that were much more important than his research.


Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

As World War II approached, the Perutz family, still in Vienna, looked for ways to get out. The Perutzes were ethnic Jews, but Max’s parents were non-observant and Perutz himself had been baptized Catholic. As a young boy, Perutz was very devout, a character trait that he abandoned after his prayers that the Italians not invade Ethiopia were not answered. While his baptism was meant to protect him from anti-Semitism, he claimed that his family “very rarely” experienced discrimination before the Anschluss. Once the Nazis assumed power, the Perutz family quickly left with Max’s brother and sister going to the United States and his parents coming to stay in Cambridge. Hugo and Adele Perutz, used to supporting themselves, lost their businesses and spent all their money leaving Vienna – according to their son, they “were traumatized by suddenly being poor.”

To get them to England, Max both had to prove that he could support them and was also required to pay a thousand pounds, compelling him to sell some of his mother’s jewelry and to borrow funds to cover the rest. Around this time, William Lawrence Bragg, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics, came to the Cavendish. Bragg was very excited about Perutz’s work with hemoglobin and helped him to secure a grant with the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. The grant provided £275 per year, enough for Perutz to prove that he could support his parents. But soon the family would come into even more trouble.

In May 1940, just two months after he finished his Ph.D., Perutz was interned by the British government. He was first taken and held in a school at Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge, for one week before being transported to Liverpool. By July, Perutz, along with roughly twelve-hundred others, was shipped across the Atlantic to a camp near Quebec City, Canada, where the residents’ status was upgraded from “internee” to “civilian prisoner of war,” a change that promised access to clothing and army rations. In a 1985 essay for the New Yorker, titled “Enemy Alien,” Perutz wrote,

To have been arrested, interned, and deported as an enemy alien by the English, whom I had regarded as my friends, made me more bitter than to have lost freedom itself. Having first been rejected as a Jew by my native Austria, which I loved, I now found myself rejected as a German by my adopted country.

Perutz’s friends were working on his behalf to have him released, unknown to him since he could receive no communications.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, Perutz tried to make the best of things and organized a “camp university.” Hermann Bondi, a mathematician also from Vienna, taught on vector analysis, while Klaus Fuchs, a student at Bristol who fled Hitler’s persecution for being a communist, taught theoretical physics. For his part, Perutz drew on past research of his own, explaining the atomic structure of crystals to all who might be interested.

The Rockefeller Foundation did not forget about Perutz and arranged a professorship for him at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Hearing rumors that his father had also been interned and worried that he would not be able to obtain a visa to travel once he had been established in the United States, Perutz was eager to go back to England to check on his parents. After several delays and transfers, Perutz arrived back in Cambridge in January 1941, finding his father already released and his friends happy to see him.

The Decline of Orthomolecular Psychiatry

Abram Hoffer and Linus Pauling at the symposium, "Adjuvant Nutrition in Cancer Treatment," Tulsa, Oklahoma, November 1992.

Abram Hoffer and Linus Pauling at the symposium, “Adjuvant Nutrition in Cancer Treatment,” Tulsa, Oklahoma, November 1992.

We have written before on both the orthomolecular psychiatry of Linus Pauling and the birth of orthomolecular medicine, which has its roots in nutritional (later called orthomolecular) psychiatry. This post delves further into how orthomolecular psychiatry came to be, as well as its marginalization out of the scientific mainstream.

It all began with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who, in 1938, famously synthesized LSD and discovered its psychedelic properties. After several trials, some on himself, Hofmann developed the hypothesis that LSD mimics the effects of psychosis.

Hofmann’s idea inspired two English psychiatrists, Dr. Humphry Osmond and Dr. John Smythies, to further his research in the late 1940s. Using mescaline (derived from the peyote cactus) as their basic compound, the duo took Hofmann’s work a step further, eventually conjecturing that schizophrenics suffered from an overdose of an endogenous (made in the body) toxin that was similar in structure to mescaline and LSD.

Finding no sympathy in England – at the dominated by Freudian thought – Osmond and Smythies took their work to Saskatchewan, Canada, relocating there in late 1951. Once in Canada, Osmond met Abram Hoffer, a fellow psychiatrist with whom he would collaborate for decades. Together, Hoffer and Osmond ran the psychiatric sciences and therapies divisions of the psychiatric hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which housed a number of schizophrenic patients.

Hoffer and Osmond eventually discovered the toxin that Osmond and Smythies had suspected was causing the psychoses present in schizophrenics: adrenochrome, a byproduct of the body’s metabolic oxidization of adrenaline and noradrenaline. The next step in helping their patients, the doctors felt, was to find some way to alleviate the psychoses brought about by schizophrenia. This led them to nicotinic acid, also known as vitamin B3 or niacin. Niacin, they learned, was known anecdotally to help patients with neuropsychiatric disorders. This fit with the fact that pellagra, a disease caused by a deficiency of niacin, sometimes presents with psychiatric symptoms.

Eager to test their theory that vitamin B3 could help alleviate mental disease, Hoffer and Osmond began experimentation, dosing their schizophrenic patients with large amounts of niacin by adding it to their daily diets in the first double-blind tests performed in psychiatry. Once the experimentation was finished, Hoffer and Osmond followed their patients for ten years, measuring the effectiveness of their added-vitamin therapy in terms of readmission rates and ability to find outside employment once released from the hospital.

In 1962 Hoffer and Osmond published the book Niacin Therapy in Psychiatry, the text that introduced Linus Pauling to the duo’s megavitamin work. The book revivified his interest in the biochemical basis of mental illness, which he had been studying for a decade, having previously learned that phenylketonuria is a molecular disease in much the same way as sickle-cell anemia.

By the time Pauling read the niacin book, anecdotes about megavitamin therapy, as it was then called, had begun to spread. Additionally, it had already been discovered that niacin could lower cholesterol levels. When added to his prior knowledge, these facts led Pauling to find the evidence presented in the book compelling enough to merit further investigation. The final ingredient to Pauling’s interest appeared the next year, when Dr. Irwin Stone introduced Pauling to the potential health benefits of large doses of Vitamin C. .

It wasn’t until 1967 that Pauling coined the term “orthomolecular,” using it in print for the first time in a paper titled “Orthomolecular Methods in Medicine.” In 1968 Pauling wrote his more famous paper on the subject, “Orthomolecular Psychiatry,” published in the journal Science. Pauling, of course, went on to found the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine with Art Robinson in 1973, (soon after renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine) and co-edit the book Orthomolecular Psychiatry: Treatment of Schizophrenia in the same year. Around this time, Pauling also began broadening his theory of orthomolecular medicine to include the whole body, not just the mind.


But what happened to Hoffer and Osmond? The answer to this question plays a part in understanding why many doctors today still refuse to consider orthomolecular medicine a legitimate form of treatment.

In 1967 Hoffer and Osmond formed both the Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation and the American Schizophrenia Association. The two doctors had recently been encountering a great deal of resistance to the publication of their ideas, so they started their own journal, the Journal of Schizophrenia, in the same year. They asked Pauling to serve on the editorial board; Pauling agreed, participating in that capacity for the rest of his professional life.

In 1973 orthomolecular psychiatry was dealt a serious blow by the American Psychological Association Task Force. That year, the group published a report titled “Megavitamin and Orthomolecular Therapy in Psychiatry,” condemning the practice as unsupported at best and “deplorable” at worst. Hoffer and Osmond were subjected to humiliation and orthomolecular psychiatry was deemed unworthy of study or application. The following year, Pauling responded to the report, pointing out a number of flaws, including errors in methodology, lack of research, confusion of focus, and bias:

Orthomolecular psychiatry is the achievement and preservation of good mental health by the provision of the optimum molecular environment for the mind, especially the optimum concentrations of substances normally present in the human body, such as the vitamins….The APA task force report Megavitamin and Orthomolecular Therapy in Psychiatry discusses vitamins in a very limited way (niacin only) and deals with only one or two aspects of the theory. Its arguments are in part faulty and its conclusions unjustified.

But Pauling, Hoffer, and Osmond’s expressions of outrage at perceived mistreatment by the APA weren’t enough to overcome further obstacles that lay ahead. For one, in the mid-1970s, orthomolecular psychiatry, rather than sticking to megavitamin doses, expanded to include diet in the treatment of mental health, as well as avoiding stimulants like nicotine. However, no consensus was reached within the community with regard to precise standards for the practice, so recommendations varied from doctor to doctor, making the efficacy of orthomolecular psychiatry difficult to evaluate.

The mainstream introduction of tranquilizers and the phasing out of electroconvulsive therapy in the treatment of mental illness also proved a barrier to the orthomolecular community. Tranquilizers, unlike megavitamins, were immediately successful in alleviating symptoms, making orthomolecular medicine, which took time to work, appear ineffective by comparison.

Eventually, whenever a patient would ask about megavitamin or orthomolecular therapy as an alternative treatment, many doctors would simply cite the APA report, claiming that it had disproven orthomolecular methods. After a while, most patients simply stopped asking.

The American Schizophrenia Association eventually became the Huxley Institute for Biosocial Research, still led by Abram Hoffer. Dr. Hoffer asked Pauling to serve on its board of directors but Pauling declined, by then more interested in pursuing Vitamin C in the treatment of cancer and colds.  The flagging in his energy for the discipline of orthomolecular psychiatry was indicative of the lack of momentum within the field, a situation that persisted for the remainder of Pauling’s life.

Humphry Osmond, the Original Psychedelic Psychiatrist

Humphry Osmond (front row seated, far left), with the Paulings and others at a gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma. June 1972.

Humphry Osmond (front row seated, far left), with the Paulings and others at a gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma. April 1972.

Dr. Humphry Fortescue Osmond, while never a direct collaborator of Linus Pauling’s, was nonetheless a professional influence in his life and a friend. Alongside Dr. Abram Hoffer, Osmond helped to establish orthomolecular psychiatry, the precursor to the larger body of work on orthomolecular medicine that consumed Pauling for close to three decades. Later in life, Pauling and Osmond wrote numerous letters back and forth, in which Osmond often shared interesting articles on the uses of vitamin C, schizophrenia, nutrition, and orthomolecular medicine.

Osmond is famous to both the medical community and to the public for related, yet separate reasons. In the field of medicine, Osmond, along with Abram Hoffer, is best known for his work in orthomolecular psychiatry. Working together, the two doctors performed extensive studies on schizophrenic patients in psychiatric hospitals in Saskatchewan, Canada, using niacin (vitamin B3) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as potential cures for the disease. Osmond is also known for his work with lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, in the treatment of alcoholism and as a way for psychiatrists and psychologists to experience something approximating what he believed to be the state that schizophrenics experience as they struggle with their illnesses.

To the public however, Humphry Osmond will forever be known as the man who coined the term “psychedelic” and the man who “turned on,” in the words of the famous LSD advocate Timothy Leary, acclaimed British author Aldous Huxley, a man with whom he developed a close friendship. In the early 1950s, Huxley approached Osmond after reading an article on his research with mescaline; Huxley expressed a desire for Osmond to run a human trial of the drug with Huxley as subject. Osmond wasn’t fond of the proposal, not relishing “the possibility, however remote, of finding a small but discreditable niche in literary history as the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad.” Despite his misgivings, Osmond dosed Huxley with 400 mg of mescaline in 1953.  The result was recorded in Huxley’s cult hit The Doors of Perception (1954), a book that both takes its name from William Blake’s poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and inspired the name of the legendary 1960s rock band, The Doors.

Later, when discussing his flight of hallucinogenic fancy, Huxley, writing to Osmond, penned this bit of verse:

To make this mundane world sublime, / take half a gram of phanerothyme.

The word phanerothyme, cobbled together from the Greek, translates roughly to “manifest spirit.”

In response Osmond wrote some poetry of his own, in the process coining a term that soon spread around the world:

To fathom Hell or soar Angelic, / just take a pinch of psychedelic.

Psychedelic – again from Greek etymology – translates to “mind-manifesting.” By 1957 Osmond had introduced the word to the medical community as a way to describe the euphoric, perception-altering, mind-expanding effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, mescaline, DMT, and psilocybin. Previously the only well-known description of this concept was “psychotomimetic,” a mimicry of the symptoms of psychosis.


Humphry Osmond was born in July 1917 in Surrey, England, gaining his primary and secondary education from Haileybury, a long-established boarding school in Hertfordshire. After Haileybury, Osmond earned his medical degree from Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London, in 1942, and from there joined the Royal Navy, commissioning as a surgeon-lieutenant and training to be a ship’s psychiatrist.

After the Second World War concluded in 1945, Osmond returned home and accepted a position as a resident psychiatrist at St. George’s Hospital, Tooting. It was here that he met his future wife, Amy “Jane” Roffey, and his first major research partner, Dr. John Smythies. Together, Smythies and Osmond performed a number of studies in the late 1940s on the chemical composition and effects of the drug mescaline – a hallucinogenic derived from the peyote cactus – having been inspired by the work of Albert Hofmann, who had discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD a decade prior.

From their research, Smythies and Osmond hypothesized that because the experience of subjects on mescaline seemingly mimicked the symptoms of schizophrenia, and that because mescaline is structurally related to adrenaline, it could be possible that schizophrenics were over-producing a chemical related to both mescaline and adrenaline. They called this hypothesis, fittingly, the “M-hypothesis.” The idea, when presented to the British psychiatric medical community – which at the time was dominated by Freudian thinking – was not well received. Feeling isolated in the UK, in 1951 Humphry and Jane Osmond, along with John Smythies, immigrated to Canada, where Osmond had been offered a job as the clinical director of the psychiatric hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

"How to Live with Schizophrenia," by Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, 1966.

“How to Live with Schizophrenia,” by Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, 1966.

It was at Weyburn that Osmond met Dr. Abram Hoffer, director of psychiatry at the hospital, with whom Osmond would collaborate for the next decade. Working together with the patients at Weyburn and at neighboring hospitals, Osmond and Hoffer developed what became known as the “Hoffer-Osmond Adrenochrome-Hypothesis.” Using the M-hypothesis as their basis, Osmond and Hoffer claimed that it was adrenochrome, a byproduct of adrenaline that is structurally similar to mescaline and other hallucinogens, that schizophrenics were overproducing.  In theory, schizophrenics were suffering from their disease either as a result of their bodies producing too much adrenochrome or through an inability to properly metabolize adrenaline.

Working from this hypothesis, Osmond and Hoffer next searched for a way to reduce the overproduction of adrenochrome, hoping to find a cure for schizophrenia as well as additional evidence for their idea. Learning that niacin might limit the production of adrenaline, they decided to dose their schizophrenic patients with “megavitamin” amounts of B3, adding it to their diets in the first double-blind studies ever conducted in the field of psychiatry. The results were encouraging: according to their studies, the recovery rate for the schizophrenics that they treated over the next few years doubled from 35% to 75%.

In addition, the Osmond and Hoffer studies provided data that added to the finding that niacin could reduce cholesterol, a result that was replicated and confirmed by the Mayo Clinic in 1956. This finding is now globally accepted and niacin is presently used in the treatment of high cholesterol all over the world.


An example of Hoffer's "memos," October 1976.

An example of Hoffer’s “memos,” October 1976.

In 1967 Linus Pauling – who had learned of Hoffer’s work on niacin two years before – read the Osmond and Hoffer studies and, finding the subject interesting enough to pursue further, wrote to the duo asking for more information.  The data that he received was eventually included by Pauling alongside his own theories in his seminal paper, “Orthomolecular Psychiatry” (published in Science in 1968) as well as in the book that he co-edited with Dr. David Hawkins, Orthomolecular Psychiatry: Treatment of Schizophrenia (1973). Over time, Pauling expanded his orthomolecular theory from the study of the mind to include the whole body, thus creating the field of orthomolecular medicine.

This initial contact between Drs. Pauling and Osmond led to a nearly thirty-year correspondence between the two men, with Osmond regularly sending to Pauling selected copies of his “memos” – commentaries in which Osmond would paste a news article onto the left side of a sheet of blank paper, then cover the right side and the back with prodigious, elegant essays on the context, significance, and meaning of the article. (These memos were collected into a book, Predicting the Past, and published in 1981). Osmond made special effort to forward to Pauling those memos concerning ways in which orthomolecular medicine was being used around the world as well as any material on mental illnesses.

Exchanges between the two men were often personal as well as professional. For example, after learning of Ava Helen Pauling’s trouble with cataracts, Osmond sent Dr. Pauling any information that he could find on the ocular malady, of which Osmond was also a sufferer. Osmond also wrote letters filled with his thoughts on Pauling’s activism and increasing celebrity, including a letter in which he agreed with Pauling’s negative assessment of physicist Edward Teller, a major advocate for U.S. nuclear armament and the hydrogen bomb, as well as a letter congratulating Pauling on his 1977 appearance on NOVA.


1972i.4-cropped

In 1961 Osmond was appointed Director of the Bureau of Research in Neurology and Psychiatry at Princeton University. While there, he continued his research into schizophrenia as a physical illness. In 1970, hallucinogenic drugs like mescaline, LSD, and DMT were declared controlled substances, and studies on the effects of these drugs on psychiatric patients was curtailed.

In 1971 Osmond resigned his position at Princeton and moved to Alabama, where he taught at the University of Alabama, Birmingham as a professor of psychiatry. He worked there alongside his old friend, John Smythies. Osmond also consulted at Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, the oldest and largest in-patient psychiatric hospital in Alabama. He retired from the university and the hospital in 1992. A decade later, by then an octogenarian, Osmond granted an interview for a documentary on the history of LSD, titled “Hofmann’s Potion.” Not long after, in February 2004, Osmond died of natural causes at his daughter’s home in Appleton, Wisconsin. Abram Hoffer wrote an obituary on the event of Osmond’s passing, which was featured in the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Some of Humphry Osmond’s more well-known books include The Chemical Basis of Clinical Psychiatry (with Abram Hoffer, 1960); How to Live with Schizophrenia (with Hoffer, 1966); Psychedelics: The Uses and Implications of Hallucinogenic Drugs (with Bernard Aaronson, 1970); and Models of Madness, Models of Medicine (with Miriam Siegler, 1974). A complete bibliography of his works can be found here.

Some Personal Thoughts on Vitamin C in the 1980s and Now

[Guest post written by John Leavitt, Ph.D., Nerac, Inc., Tolland, CT.]

The author in his laboratory at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. Originally published in Science Digest, June 1986.

The author in his laboratory at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. Originally published in Science Digest, June 1986.

During my daily work for pharmaceutical and biotech clients, I am continuously learning about developments resulting from my research at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto, CA in the 1980s. Likewise, I am regularly coming into contact with new medically related developments focusing on vitamin C, an interest of Linus Pauling in those years.

With regard to our research on human plastins, a gene family of proteins that we discovered, cloned, and characterized at the Pauling Institute, it has recently been reported that plastin (PLS3) is a marker of carcinoma cells circulating in the blood (for example Yokobori, et al.). Our hypothesis was that when this protein was inappropriately expressed in cells from solid tissues, as it is in many tumor types, (e.g. carcinomas, fibrosarcomas, etc.) these potential tumor cells become more like blood cells in that they are able to live and replicate in an anchorage-independent state, an essential property of metastatic tumor cells. It is metastasis that kills us when we get cancer. Thus plastins, discovered and characterized at the Pauling Institute, may turn out to be the “holy grail” of cancer research.

I often run across new information on the medical importance of vitamin C without looking for it. Back in the 1980s, we would receive an annual shipment of loose vitamin C from Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. as a way of saying thank you to Dr. Pauling for his advocacy of the merits of vitamin C. We received no funding from Hoffmann-La Roche though. One year I recall that two dignitaries from the company visited us. Dr. Pauling, with me and several others, walked our visitors to lunch a few blocks down El Camino Real in Palo Alto to my favorite restaurant, the Captain’s Cabin.

Afterward, while walking back to the Institute, one of the guests asked Dr. Pauling if he thought the perceived benefits of vitamin C were due to the placebo effect. I was amused because I too had said something ill-advised like that to Dr. Pauling in my first few months at the Institute. I mentioned to him that I had a vitamin C-resistant cold to which he replied, “You’re not taking enough!” and told me that he takes 18 grams a day. No doubt he had calculated this number based on the amount of vitamin C that animals produce within themselves every day. He would stir 18 grams into a large glass of water and imbibe the glass with no great rush.


A few months ago I heard a physician state in the national media that taking supplemental vitamins is a waste of money. This bold assertion reminded me of the announcement of the discovery of cold fusion and another premature announcement of the discovery of a cure for AIDS. The progress of science is slow but relentless, like the new developments with plastins fifteen years after I left LPISM’s labs.

On October 31, 2013, Kim, et al. at Seoul National University in South Korea published their findings on a new strain of experimental mice. The researchers knocked out the mouse gene encoding the enzyme L-gulono-γ-lactone oxidase, known as gulo for short. This is the gene that is missing in humans and that keeps us from synthesizing our own vitamin C, unlike nearly all other animals. An extreme lack of vitamin C in our diet can lead to scurvy, caused by aberrant expression of collagen in our connective tissues because of starvation of vitamin C in our diet. In these mice the lack of this gene caused “vitamin C insufficiency” in an animal model – a model that can now be used to learn more about the importance of vitamin C.

As these mice matured they expressed known blood markers of liver damage. This damage, called fibrosis, is basically the scarring of the liver, sort of like the scarring of the skin that is caused by certain types of skin damage. Concomitantly, as the mice aged, reactive oxygen species (ROS) and lipid peroxides increased in the liver, as did activated hepatic stellate cells, which deposited abnormal collagen fibriles on the basement membrane of functional liver cells. There is a wealth of evidence that elevated ROS in the lungs, liver, and kidneys is associated with pulmonary, hepatic, and renal fibrosis. Elevated vitamin C in these tissues will quench ROS.

Currently in the United States, there are no drugs approved to treat any of these forms of fibrosis. Fortunately, Intermune’s drug, pirfenidone, is close to approval for treatment of pulmonary fibrosis and has already been approved in Canada, Europe, and Japan. This drug reduces ROS and inhibits other key targets that are suspected of playing a role in the development of fibrosis. So who is to say that supplementing your diet with vitamin C is of no consequence? It is certainly not toxic in any way. Oh, by the way, pulmonary fibrosis is worse than cancer – it kills you in three to five years once diagnosed. You basically die of asphyxiation.


In the last week I stumbled upon another interesting paper on the effects of vitamin C on humans. A 2011 paper by Juraschek, et al. at Johns Hopkins University Medical School reported the results of a significant meta-analysis (a systematic review of multiple clinical trials) of 13 randomized clinical trials involving 556 patients who took a median dose of 500 mg of vitamin C per day. (I take a full gram)

The purpose of the study was to examine the effects of vitamin C supplementation on uric acid levels in the blood. Elevated uric acid levels in the blood causes gout, because saturation of blood with uric acid causes urate crystals to form in the synovial fluids of joints (e.g. crystal arthritis). Drugs that lower uric acid in the blood are used to treat gout because lowering uric acid causes the urate crystals to dissolve to ameliorate the arthritic pain.

Admittedly gout is not as bad as cancer. But another systematic clinical review of multiple trials on humans published in 2012 by Lottmann, et al. at the IGES Institut GmBH in Germany has shown clearly that having gout is associated with both all-cause mortality and, in particular, cardiovascular mortality. So what could be worse than death by gout?

I think I will keep taking vitamin C.

Scenes from the 2014 Pauling Legacy Award Event

On Monday, April 21st, Dr. Zia Mian became the eighth individual to receive the Linus Pauling Legacy Award, granted every other year to an individual who has achieved in an area once of interest to Linus Pauling.

Mian’s talk, “Out of the Nuclear Shadow: Scientists and the Struggle Against the Bomb,” provided an informative and often sobering view of the history of anti-nuclear activism within the scientific community and the challenges that the world continues to face today as nuclear technologies become more widespread.  Mian’s talk, once transcribed, will be made freely available on the website of the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center in the coming weeks.  We’ll be sure to pass along word as soon as it goes live.

In the meantime, here’s a glimpse of the event, which took place at the Oregon Historical Society Museum in downtown Portland.

Irwin Stone’s Impact on Pauling

Linus Pauling and Irwin Stone, 1977.

Linus Pauling and Irwin Stone, 1977.

[Part 2 of 2]

Four years after Irwin Stone first convinced Linus Pauling to start taking megadoses of vitamin C, Pauling decided to share with the world the successes that he had observed in his own improved mental and physical health.

In 1970 Pauling began to work on a book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, and he wrote to Stone asking permission to dedicate it to him. He also sent Stone a copy of the manuscript to review. Stone wrote back praising the work.

The book is excellent and should go far to eliminate this thoroughly unnecessary and annoying condition, at least among your readers. The audience will increase over the years, especially if Medicine can eventually see the light.

Stone continued to encounter difficulty getting his own scientific articles about ascorbic acid published and he certainly did not have the funding to run his own clinical trials. Partly as a result, he too was writing a book about vitamin C and all of the many diseases that he thought were related to hypoascorbemia. A  major thrust of the book was its plea for large scale research on the topic. Stone hoped to get popular opinion on board with his ideas in order to place pressure on physicians and nutritionists to do research in this area.

Pauling’s Vitamin C and the Common Cold was a popular success. Many readers around the world were persuaded by his ideas and began to take vitamin C supplements to prevent and treat colds. Some of his acclaim rubbed off on Irwin Stone, who wrote to Pauling telling him that he too was finally receiving recognition from popular media sources, including NBC.

In 1971 Stone retired to San Jose, California and devoted the rest of his life to researching and promoting the need for high consumption of vitamin C by humans. That same year he finished his book, The Healing Factor: Vitamin C Against Disease, and asked that Pauling write a foreword for it. Pauling was glad to do so, calling it “an outstanding contribution to knowledge.”

Stone's inscription to Pauling in a first edition of The Healing Factor, 1972.

Stone’s inscription to Pauling in a first edition of The Healing Factor, 1972.

Despite their popular appeal, Pauling and Stone continued to encounter problems convincing medical practitioners and researchers to take their ideas about ascorbic acid seriously. Stone believed that this was so because vitamin C would be a much more inexpensive cure than the current treatments of the time, causing pharmaceutical companies and doctors to lose money.

One medical doctor, Ewan Cameron, did believe in the effectiveness of vitamin C against cancer and was treating his terminal cancer patients with megadoses of it in Glasgow, Scotland. He formed a trans-Atlantic research partnership with Pauling in 1971 and they began to collaborate on papers discussing the use of vitamin C against cancer, eventually publishing ten articles together.

Through his partnership with Pauling, Cameron also began to correspond with Stone about the implementation of vitamin C against cancer and their shared difficulties getting the medical community to accept their hypotheses.

Cameron maintained a unique viewpoint on the treatment of cancer and how ascorbic acid might fit into a clinical regimen. In December 1974, he explained his views to Stone.

It is completely contrary to all contemporary medical thought to even suggest that such a mundane substance as ascorbic acid could have any value in such a complicated disease as cancer. This is because cancer research is concentrating all its energies in searching for more and more sophisticated ways of selectively destroying cancer cells. The research is becoming so complex and so unproductive, that it is natural to assume that ‘the answer’ must be extraordinarily complex and almost beyond human comprehension….We would make much more progress if we accept that cancer cells are normal cells that merely happen to be behaving in an abnormal way. We would then accept that cancer cells have an equal right to live, and concentrate our energies in suppressing the abnormal behavior pattern.

Throughout their correspondence, Cameron described his successes treating cancer with ascorbic acid. But he also noted that a number of patients showed no improvement from it or, at best, their cancer was brought to a standstill. He was disappointed that his primary successes were mostly by way of increasing patients’ survival time, not in curing them. Cameron thought that the greatest success would be in prophylaxis – taking megadoses of ascorbic acid throughout one’s life in order to prevent cancer.


In 1978 Stone wrote a letter to the editor of Nutrition Today in response to the publication’s recent issue focusing on ascorbic acid. His letter shows how fervently he believed in hypoascorbemia.

I regard our most serious medical problem to be the dangerous complacency that the orthodox medical establishment exhibits toward Chronic Subclinical Scurvy and its refusal to do anything to correct and alleviate this potentially-fatal human birth defect. Chronic Subclinical Scurvy has killed more human victims, caused more disease and misery among Mankind than any other single factor in the past and is continuing this evil record in the present. I’m worried about the future, because that is where I’m spending the rest of my life.

Meanwhile, Stone and Pauling’s relationship continued to flourish. In 1977 Pauling invited Stone to become a member of the Board of Associates of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science, an offer that was accepted. Pauling also attended Stone’s surprise 70th birthday party that year. In 1981 Stone was unable to make it to Pauling’s 80th birthday, but he did pass along a message.

You will recall the promise I made you in 1966 of 50 more healthy years of life with Megascorbics. You thought I was exaggerating and said you would be satisfied with 15 years. Well the 15th year is now and I am looking forward to attending your 115th birthday party in 2016. Megascorbics makes you practically indestructible.

In response, Pauling wrote, “I am glad to express my thanks to you for having written to me in 1966. Your letter and the reprints of your papers changed my life.” While Pauling did not make it to 2016, he did live until 1994, passing away at 93 years of age.

The last letter that Pauling wrote to Stone concerned a joint award from the Academy of Orthomolecular Psychiatry and the Orthomolecular Medical Society that Stone was to receive. The Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine was also going to surprise him with a second award. Pauling wrote,

For many years you have been an inspiration to me, because of your devotion to vitamin C and your conviction that a high intake of vitamin C has great value in improving the health of human beings. You have rendered a great service to the people of the world through your continued study of vitamin C over a period of fifty years.

Unfortunately, Dr. Irwin Stone died on May 4, 1984, at the age of 77, while in Los Angeles to receive the award. He died by choking on regurgitated food, the result of a constricted esophagus that had plagued him ever since his car accident many years prior.

Irwin Stone received two honorary doctorates, many additional awards, and 26 patents. He also published over 120 scientific papers throughout his life (at least 50 were about vitamin C) and wrote one book, The Healing Factor, published in 1972. He was father to one son, Steven, and was married to his wife Barbara for over 50 years.

In December 1986, two years after his death, Barbara Stone sent Pauling a card congratulating him on the publication of his latest book, How to Live Longer and Feel Better. She wrote “Irwin would have enjoyed reading it and noting the many references to him and other colleagues.” Pauling hadn’t exaggerated in his 1981 letter: Irwin Stone really did change his life and made a profound impact on the scientific legacy that Pauling leaves behind today.

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