Vitamin C and the Common Cold: Pauling vs. the Physicians


Diary entry by Linus Pauling, 1980. The text reads: “L[inus] P[auling] / Found enzymes enthralling / He was filled with glee / By Vitamin C”

[Part 2 of 4]

As a double Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling’s recommendation that everyone ingest 1 to 4 grams of vitamin C daily developed into a media frenzy. And with time, the debate took on a distinctly political flavor, with the battle over vitamin C argued on talk shows and in press releases, rather than vindicated in the lab.

Pauling’s accusations that the medical establishment was ignoring the potentially profound benefits of vitamin C in part because of a mutually beneficial relationship with Big Pharma did not, as one might expect, go over well with many medical professionals. Indeed, his work with vitamin C was written off by many as a passing craze, and Pauling was increasingly referred to as a “kook” and a medical “quack.”

Sci 11.022, 22.1

Notes by Linus Pauling regarding vitamin C and the common cold, 1974.

As Pauling and the physicians went back and forth, the two sides sometimes found themselves citing the same data and producing opposite conclusions. Often Pauling argued that the studies under consideration – discarded by dissenting physicians for apparently showing negligible effects – actually suggested a real value to the use of vitamin C that would be amplified if only larger doses were used.

One study in particular, authored in 1942 by A.J. Glazebrook and Scott Thomson, found vitamin C to only slightly decrease the occurrence of colds and their symptoms in a sample of college students. For proponents, the work was heralded nonetheless as significant evidence in vitamin C’s favor. The problem, Pauling believed, was that physicians expected vitamin C to act like a drug, with a concomitant “tendency…to use relatively small amounts and look for big effects.” But vitamin C wasn’t a drug, it was a nutrient, and Pauling thought its effects would not be easily observed in a typical physician’s research paradigm.

In an effort to put the issue to rest, a University of Maryland study in which eleven prisoners were given 3 grams of vitamin C a day for two weeks found that, when inoculated with cold viruses, each subject became ill. While many considered this proof that Pauling was wrong, he dismissed this study as well. For one, it lacked a placebo control group and did not take the severity of symptoms into account. Pauling likewise suspected that the prisoners were infected with a cold virus potent enough to have overwhelmed any protective effect from vitamin C.

On and on the debate raged and, by the time of Pauling’s death in 1994, little consensus had been reached: Pauling stood firm in his beliefs and the physicians hadn’t from their position.


Harri Hemilä

Today, while Pauling’s faith in and advocacy of vitamin C has endured in the public consciousness, it has not translated into concrete medical practice. Presently, the United States Food and Nutrition Board has set the Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin C at 120 mg at the highest (for pregnant women), nearly three times greater than the RDA in the 1970s, but still about 100 times lower than the levels that Pauling believed to be optimal.

So what does the research really show? Is there, in fact, zero evidence that Vitamin C prevents or cures colds, as the Food and Drug Administration once claimed?

Perhaps the best summation of the current state of affairs has been compiled by Dr. Harri Hemilä, a researcher in public health at the University of Helsinki. Hemilä, whose 2005 comprehensive study on the subject is cited by the National Institutes of Health, makes a number of intriguing points.

For one, Hemilä points out that, while the broad body of research seems to indicate that vitamin C supplementation does not decrease cold incidence in most individuals, it does significantly decrease incidence in marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers – all groups subject to consistent exposure to cold weather or physical stress – by as much as 50%. Daily supplements also appear to decrease the symptoms and duration of colds by a modest degree – observations of 14% in children and 8% in adults.

It is important to note that studies of this sort have used what Pauling would have considered to be minimum dosages for optimal health – 1 to 2 grams daily. To date, few investigations have looked into doses higher than 2 grams, presumably because it is known that, for oral doses of more than 1 gram, absorption rates fall below fifty percent. The operating idea then, is that for supplementation above 2 grams, most of the extra vitamin C is unused and excreted in one’s urine.

Yet there does exist some evidence of a more significant impact at higher dosage levels. Hemilä’s survey of the research concludes that, in some studies, doses larger than 2 grams do appear to provide some measure of therapy, if taken at the onset of cold symptoms.

Digging more deeply into the data, however, one finds conflicting results. In one study, taking 8 grams once at the onset of symptoms appeared to decrease symptoms and duration of colds. In another, 10 gram doses were given for three days during a cold, without impact.

Obviously, when trying to measure the impact of any therapy on the progression of an illness – particularly one as protean as the common cold – numerous co-factors can enter the equation. It would seem then that a thoughtful modern study of vitamin C – one that carefully considers the methodology of those conducted in the past – is still needed before we can be certain of its potential impact on the common cold.


Had Pauling invested in proving his point in the lab after the publication of Vitamin C and Common Cold, perhaps we would have a better understanding of the immune function of this nutrient today. But Pauling felt vitamin C’s protective effects against the cold were not seriously debatable and that, for him, it was time to move on. The physicians, he believed, were set in their ways – a description he often used during the long argument over vitamin C – and it was pointless for him to spend too much of his time and energy trying to disprove them.

Indeed, in Pauling’s mind, there were more important issues to take into the lab than the common cold. Because Pauling wasn’t just busy arguing that vitamin C could cure the common cold. He believed that it might cure cancer, too.


Vitamin C and the Common Cold: The Roots of Controversy

Detail from "The Perils of Pauling", National Observer, November 27, 1971.

Detail from “The Perils of Pauling”, National Observer, November 27, 1971.

[Part 1 of 4]

Growing up in the United States, many children today are told to drink plenty of orange juice to get their vitamin C, in part to avoid getting a cold. And indeed, vitamin C is now widely accepted as an important nutrient. Its antioxidant properties are valuable to cellular health and can protect against heart disease as well as the genetic damage that can lead to cancer and other dysfunctions. It aids the body’s production of collagen and other connective tissues, and is important for optimal healing from injury. It is also implicated in optimal neurotransmission (brain function), and stimulates the production of white blood cells important for immune health. This basic component of healthy living has been repeated so many times on television shows like “Sesame Street,” or in the classroom, or at home around the dinner table, that American children grow up recognizing vitamin C’s  importance as an obvious fact of life.

Perhaps surprisingly then, there is still little consensus in the medical community as to the ability of Vitamin C to significantly reduce the incidence, duration, or severity of the common cold. For Linus Pauling in 1971, it seemed so clear that Vitamin C was critical to human health that he felt compelled to publish his best-selling book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, feeling that to withhold such simple and valuable information for the public’s general well-being would be negligent. His work sparked a vitamin C craze in America: after the book’s publication, consumption of vitamin C increased so much that bulk prices nearly tripled. The public certainly believed Pauling. Professional physicians, on the other hand, were highly critical.

While the full benefits of vitamin C are better known now than was the case in Pauling’s day, even in the 1970s no one argued against the vitamin’s fundamental importance. The real argument that emerged was about how much Vitamin C was enough, and why.

Oranges and other fruits and vegetables were known to prevent scurvy from at least 1753, when British naval physician James Lind reported on its effectiveness in treating this disease of nutritional deficiency. Vitamin C was first isolated in the early 1930s by Albert Szent-Györgyi, William Waugh, and Charles Glen King, and produced in the lab shortly after by Norman Haworth and Edmund Hirst. Unlike most mammals, human beings do not naturally synthesize vitamin C within our own bodies. Along with Guinea pigs, other primates, and fruit bats, we need to acquire the entirety of our vitamin C through our diet. The Federal Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) was duly set at 60 mg each day – enough to keep one from falling prey to scurvy – by the time that Pauling arrived on the scene.

Irwin Stone. (Image by Oscar Falconi)

Irwin Stone. (Image by Oscar Falconi)

To Irwin Stone, “giving someone enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy was like feeding them just enough to keep them from starving.” Stone, a biochemist, published on Vitamin C as a food preservative beginning in 1935. In the course of this research, he discerned that a 150 lb human would need to ingest 4 to 10 grams of Vitamin C a day in order to match what a healthy rat produces on its own.

Stone met Pauling in 1966, not long after Pauling had delivered an acceptance speech for the Carl Neuberg Medal, awarded for Pauling’s assessment of sickle cell anemia as a molecular disease. In the speech, Pauling expressed his hope that he might live to see the medical advances that the next 15 years might bring. Afterward, Stone recommended that with vitamin C, Pauling (who was sixty-five years old at the time) might see the advances of the next fifty.  His interest piqued, Pauling began taking 1 gram of Vitamin C per day, and by the late 1970s, this increased to 10 or more grams daily. Around the same time, the RDA was lowered to only 45 mg. In other words, Pauling was now taking over one hundred and sixty times the daily dose of Vitamin C recommended by the government.

The concern in the medical community was, and continues to be, the potential for “overnutrition”; i.e., negative physical effects associated with consuming too much of a particular vitamin or mineral. As Pauling’s ideas gained increasing cultural currency, physicians began to warn that vitamin C consumed in such large doses might cause the development of kidney stones. Pauling countered that this was only likely in a small segment of the population – those with pre-existing hyperoxaluria – and that it could be entirely avoided by ingesting sodium ascorbate pills rather than ascorbic acid or natural sources. Pauling pointed out that, in fact, there were no health problems associated with high dose vitamin C intake other than potential stomach irritation and loose bowels – symptoms now known to occur with a daily intake of approximately two grams. For Pauling, the decision to take large doses in spite of these drawbacks seemed obvious.

But for many clinicians it was not. Leading nutritionist Dr. Victor Herbert attacked Pauling’s claims as unsupported, as did FDA head Charles Edwards, who denounced Pauling as spurring a national frenzy over vitamin C with no scientific basis. This backlash begged the question, if the benefits of Vitamin C were really medically obvious, then why would physicians mislead the public?

Medical Tribune, June 6, 1973.

Medical Tribune, June 6, 1973.

Pauling’s answer, as delivered through the media, provoked even greater controversy. Physicians were misleading the public, he said, because the reality of a cheap, safe alternative to expensive pharmaceuticals would prove economically disastrous for the medical industry. In other words, the physicians, in partnership with drug companies, had an economic interest against vitamin C. “Every day,” Pauling explained, “even every hour, radio and television commercials extol various cold remedies… I am convinced by the evidence now available that ascorbic acid is to be preferred to the analgesics, antihistamines, and other dangerous drugs that are recommended for the treatment of the common cold by purveyors of cold medicines.”

Pauling’s assertion was based in part on the opinion of Albert Szent-Györgyi, who had first isolated Vitamin C, and who told Pauling in a personal letter that,

…right from the beginning I felt that the medical profession misled the public. If you don’t take ascorbic acid with your food you get scurvy, so the medical profession said that if you don’t get scurvy you are all right. I think this is a very grave error. Scurvy is not the first sign of the deficiency, but a premortal syndrome, and for full health you need much more, very much more. I am taking, myself, about 1 gram a day.

Pauling was also drawing on the opinion of others in the medical field, such as Dr. Douglas Gildersleeve, who stated in a 1967 Fact magazine article that,

having worked as a researcher in the field, it is my contention that an effective treatment for the common cold, a cure, is available, that is being ignored because of the monetary losses that would be inflicted on pharmaceutical manufacturers, professional journals, and doctors themselves.

Pauling, in other words, wasn’t alone in staking out this controversial ground.

Pauling’s Last Year as a Grad Student

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1924.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1924.

[Part 3 of 3]

Pauling’s final year of graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, 1924-1925, was quite busy.  During this last phase of his student experience, Pauling’s primary research interests centered on hematite, corundum, and beta-alumina, though a great deal more professional and personal growth can be traced to this time in the budding young scholar’s life.

In his work on corundum and hematite, Pauling was assisted by Sterling B. Hendricks, a Texan who had received his master’s degree from Kansas State in 1924 was now in Pasadena, working on his PhD.  Hendricks became a close associate and personal friend of Pauling’s and, with their mentor Roscoe Dickinson away on a research trip, Pauling became Hendricks’ unofficial adviser. Such was Pauling’s influence that, later in life, Hendricks would come to consider himself to be “Linus’s first student.”

Together, Pauling and Hendricks worked on a theoretical paper that pieced together much of the work that they had completed over the previous year and a half. The paper was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) in March 1926 (nearly a year after Pauling had completed his PhD) and titled “The Prediction of the Relative Stabilities of Isosteric Isomeric Ions and Molecules.”  The paper was a milestone in that it was Pauling’s first paper devoted solely to the subject of the chemical bond.

It was not, however, the first paper that Hendricks and Pauling had co-authored. In 1925 the duo worked together to publish two sets of crystal structures: “The crystal structures of hematite and corundum” (March 1925) and “The crystal structures of sodium and potassium trinitrides and potassium cyanate, and the nature of the trinitride group” (December 1925).  During his last year of grad school, Pauling also collaborated with his friend and former roommate, Paul Emmett, on an X-ray determination of the crystal structure of barite.  Their article, which was published in JACS in April 1925, is another example of Pauling’s work that corrected previous published structures.

Peter Debye, 1926.

Peter Debye, 1926.

On top of the research that he was doing on crystal structures, Pauling also toyed with an idea in which he applied the Debye-Hückel theory, which was used to determine the energy coefficient of ions in dilute solutions. When he learned of this work, A.A. Noyes invited Peter Debye, who was based in Switzerland, to visit Caltech, in part to have him discuss his theory with Pauling. And although Pauling never published his original idea, in July 1925 Debye and Pauling did co-author a different paper, “The Inter-Ionic Attraction Theory of Ionized Solutes.  IV.  The Influence of Variation of Dielectric Constant on the Limiting Law for Small Concentrations.”  Appearing in JACS, the article was a contribution to a larger series published by the journal on the inter-ionic attraction theory of ionized solutes.

Later on in his life, Pauling developed a reputation for staying on top of the latest findings and issuing an informed opinion on a wide range of scientific topics.  This character trait was likely spurred by an experience that he had as a graduate student.

Early on in his graduate career, one of Pauling’s more influential professors, Richard C. Tolman, posed to him a question about diamagnetism. Pauling responded that diamagnetism was just a general property of matter, a lackluster reply that made clear that Pauling had not stayed current with the literature. Tolman kept questioning Pauling for more specific details until Pauling finally answered, “I don’t know.”  For this he was reprimanded by a Caltech post-doc who told him, “You are a graduate student now, and you’re supposed to know everything.” This was advice that Pauling took to heart and that made a big difference throughout his career in science.

The Paulings, 1925.

The Paulings, 1925.

Nearing the end of his graduate school tenure, Pauling read G.L. Clark’s paper on uranyl nitrate hexahydrate and, as he went, he corrected it.  This was a continuation of the critical reading habits that he had first developed at Oregon Agricultural College and had continued to hone by lantern light while working for the Oregon Highway Department the summer prior to his enrollment at Caltech. It was likewise a practice that he would continue throughout his career: closely reading papers and correcting errors, often by letting the author or publisher know what he had found.

By this time, with Roscoe Dickinson away, Pauling had taken up some of his mentor’s responsibilities in the lab and, as with Sterling Hendricks, was serving as an ad hoc advisor to several students.

Likewise, with Dickinson gone, Pauling began to develop his own techniques to aid in crystal structure determinations. A methodology that was quite different from the formal instruction that he had received, Pauling’s approach used atomic sizes and chemical behaviors to approximate reasonable structures for molecules.  After determining these possible structures, Pauling then used X-ray data to eliminate unlikely possibilities and to isolate the best possible structure for a particular substance.  As it turned out, this approach to scientific inquiry already had a name, the stochastic method, and Pauling ultimately put it to effective use across many different disciplines.

Linus Jr. and Ava Helen, 1925.

Linus Jr. and Ava Helen, 1925.

Pauling’s last year as a grad student also included big changes in his personal life.  After marrying in the summer of 1923, Ava Helen Pauling moved to Pasadena with her husband and kept house while he finished his degree. In the early years of their marriage, these duties also routinely included helping “keep house” in the laboratory, particularly by recording data and taking notes. Pauling’s research notebooks from these years are full of her handwriting, even including one note reminding Linus that she loved him.

In the midst of all his coursework and research, and as Pauling was wrapping up his last Winter term at Caltech, another big change came about when the Paulings’ first child, Linus Jr., was born on March 10, 1925.  By this time, Ava Helen was mostly excused from laboratory duty and focused her energies primarily on raising her children (ultimately there would be four) thus creating an atmosphere at home in which Linus could be as productive as possible.

Graduation day, 1925.

Graduation day, 1925.

Linus Pauling completed his PhD in chemistry in June 1925, tacking on minors in physics and mathematics as well. His dissertation, titled “The Determination with X-rays of the Structure of Crystals,” consisted of a compilation of articles that he had previously published with little more than new pagination connecting them together as a whole.

The summer after graduation, A.A. Noyes helped Pauling to secure a research fellowship that would enable him to stay at CIT and complete a research study on complex fluorides.  Pauling continued in this vein for the next eight months, during which time he began to make plans to leave Caltech to study as a post-doc at Berkeley, where he thought he might pursue a new set of experiments in G.N. Lewis’ lab, using funding from a National Research Fellowship that he had received.

Not wanting to lose Pauling to Berkeley and Lewis, Noyes managed to arrange for Pauling to remain in Pasadena in order to complete additional unfinished work on crystal structures.  Fortunately for Noyes, at the end of 1925, when the Guggenheim Fellowships were announced, Pauling was finally chosen for funding, having at last reached the program’s required minimum age.  At Noyes’s urging, Pauling resigned from his National Research Fellowship once he had received the good news from the Guggenheim Foundation. From there, Linus and Ava Helen took an important trip to Europe and ultimately returned to Caltech, their institutional home for the next thirty-six years.

Pauling Becomes a Researcher

Roscoe Dickinson, 1923.

Roscoe Dickinson, 1923.

[Part 2 of 3 in a series investigating Linus Pauling’s life as a graduate student]

As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (CIT), Linus Pauling tailored a research program that was focused on the properties of matter, with a particular emphasis placed on molecular structure. This interest and the techniques that he learned would shape Pauling’s scientific thinking for the rest of his life.

Pauling’s focus on the theoretical, and his questioning of why processes move forward as they do or why structures are built as they are, was in keeping with contemporary trends in physical chemistry. Pauling enrolled at Caltech with a strong desire to learn more about the discipline of physical chemistry and his early mentor, Caltech chemistry chair A.A. Noyes, encouraged him to build up his background in x-ray crystallography to further enable this pursuit.

When Pauling began classes in September 1922, he also began his research in x-ray crystallography under the direction of his major professor, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson.  Not much older than Pauling and a recently minted PhD himself, Dickinson would soon become Pauling’s friend. Within weeks, Pauling began receiving invitations for dinners at the Dickinson house and was soon spending the odd weekend on camping trips with Dickinson and his wife.  After Ava Helen and Linus were married, she too joined in these social gatherings.

Dickinson and Pauling worked closely together for most of Pauling’s first year of grad school, but once Pauling had mastered the techniques necessary to prepare his own research, he mostly moved without Dickinson’s direct supervision. In a 1977 interview, Pauling recalled that Dickinson “was remarkably clear-headed, logical, and thorough” while working in the lab.  And as for the research,

Fortunately the field of x-ray diffraction was in an excellent state in that the procedures were rather complicated but they were thoroughly logical, [and] consisted of a series of logical tests.

The rigor and the logic that were fundamental to the field both pleased Pauling immensely.  And before long, the prodigious young student had moved beyond the expertise of his mentor and had begun to conduct original research that was outside of Dickinson’s own capability. In fact, Pauling’s acumen in the lab and facility as an x-ray crystallographer advanced so rapidly that, by his own recollection

…after about three years…I was making structure determinations of crystals that the technique was not powerful enough to handle, by guessing what the structure was and then testing it.

X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling's desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

X-ray apparatus at Linus Pauling’s desk, Gates Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. 1925.

But in his earlier days, Pauling still needed some help. During November and December of his first year as a graduate student, Pauling prepared approximately twelve crystals and attempted to analyze them using x-rays, but none of the crystals yielded images sufficient enough to make a structure determination.

At this point, Dickinson stepped in and directed Pauling to the mineral molybdenite (MoS2), in the process showing him how to take an adequate sample, mount it, and analyze it using x-ray crystallography. This assistance in hand, Pauling was able to determine the structure of the crystal and Dickinson returned to his own work, confident in his feeling that Pauling was capable of doing the crystallography himself.

Soon after completing the experiment, Pauling was confronted by a very different type of confusion. With a successful structure determination in hand, he assumed that the next step would be to publish the work. So too did he assume that Dickinson would provide him with more direction, but he found that none was offered.  As such, Pauling wrote up his findings and presented them for review to his major professor.

Not long after, A.A. Noyes summoned Pauling to his office and carefully explained to the young graduate student that he had written up a paper with only his name on it and in the process had failed to acknowledge the crucial help that Dickinson had provided. Chagrined, Pauling revised the paper and listed himself as a second author, behind Dickinson. The experience proved to be an important one for Pauling, who was reminded early on of how easy it can be to minimize or discount the role that colleagues can play in one’s own research.

Molybdenite model, side view.

Molybdenite model, side view.

By the end of April 1923, Dickinson and Pauling had submitted their paper on the structure of molybdenite to the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS); it was published in June of that same year.  Together they had found the simplest crystal structure of molybdenite – which contains two molecules in a hexagonal unit – based on Laue and spectral photographs, and using the theory of space groups.  Although he published a piece on the manufacture of cement in Oregon while he was in undergrad at Oregon Agricultural College, the molybdenite paper was Pauling’s first true scientific publication.

Later that year, Pauling arrived at another milestone by publishing his first sole-author paper, one in which he described the structure of magnesium stannide (Mg2Sn) as determined, once again, by using x-rays. The paper was a huge accomplishment for another reason as well: the x-ray processes used by Pauling had never been successfully deployed for the study of an intermetallic compound before.  And even though this was his first single author paper, Pauling still made sure to thank Roscoe Dickinson in his conclusion, taking pains to avoid another scholarly faux pas.  He would continue in this practice throughout his graduate career.

Richard Tolman, 1931.

Richard Tolman, 1931.

“The crystal structure of magnesium stannide,” was one of eight articles that Pauling published during his grad school years – he completed an impressive total of six structures before receiving his doctorate. Having authored these articles, Pauling found himself on the forefront of a shift in physical chemistry: as crystallography advanced, it was becoming increasingly clear that the properties of specific compounds were based on their structures, which could now be described with mounting confidence. Indeed, several of Pauling’s articles included reevaluations of existing structures, with revised explanations as to why the structures in question had not complied with the new data that Pauling collected.

One such article was “The Entropy of Supercooled Liquids at the Absolute Zero,” which Pauling wrote with CIT faculty member Richard C. Tolman.  In their paper, the two authors corrected an earlier claim made by Ermon D. Eastman, a professor of physical chemistry at Berkeley, who had stated that complicated crystals (those with large unit cells) have greater entropy at absolute zero than do simple crystals. Using statistical mechanical techniques, Pauling and Tolman were able to show that, at absolute zero, the entropy of all perfect crystals, even those with large unit cells, also has to be zero.

Detail from 'Atombau und Spektrallinien' containing x-ray diffraction images.

Detail from ‘Atombau und Spektrallinien’ containing x-ray diffraction images.

Pauling had become familiar with Tolman through a different means. During his third term at Caltech, Spring of 1923, Pauling took Tolman’s course in advanced thermodynamics, an experience that boosted his subsequent interest in quantum theory. It was also during this period that he read Arnold Sommerfeld’s Atombau und Spektrallinien (Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines) and began to be exposed to cutting edge research in quantum theory through the numerous physics and chemistry research colloquia hosted by Caltech.

Sommerfeld would become a lasting influence on Pauling’s life and Pauling would eventually study with him in Germany while there on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926-27. But well before then, in 1923, Sommerfeld visited CIT to talk about his work with the new quantum theory. As an aid to his lectures, Sommerfeld used crystal models that he brought from Germany, which he hoped would help him to better explain this complicated work. Afterward, Pauling felt emboldened enough to to show Sommerfeld some of the models that he himself had made in the course of his own research; models that turned out to be much better than those constructed by Sommerfeld.

Pauling in Graduate School

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

Pauling in Pasadena, 1922.

[Part 1 of 3]

“My ambition to become a factor in the advancement of human knowledge can be realized only if I prepare myself properly for my work.”

-Linus Pauling, letter to A.A. Noyes, January 26, 1922

By all measures a successful chemical engineering undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, and wanting very much to continue his education and earn his PhD in chemistry, Linus Pauling wrote to several graduate programs across the country, inquiring in particular about fellowships. Though he had proven himself to be prodigious talent as a student and, already, as a teacher, Pauling’s location in Corvallis didn’t carry a great deal of cache with the country’s elite institutions. And given his family’s shaky financial health, some measure of institutional funding was going to be required if he were to advance in the academy.

Pauling heard back from Harvard first, but was disappointed by their offer, which was for a half-time instructorship. Harvard also suggested that it would take him an estimated five years to complete his degree.  A more promising option was the University of California, Berkeley, an institution that would continue to tempt Pauling in the years to come. But as soon as he received a favorable reply from the California Institute of Technology (CIT), he rescinded all other pending applications, including Berkeley. Pauling had a good feeling about Caltech, and indeed his choice would pay significant dividends for the next four decades.


Once frustrated with chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College because he found it too easy, in graduate school Pauling was both presented with more challenging questions and received more considered guidance from some of the best scientists of the day.  One such man was Arthur Amos Noyes, the chair of Caltech’s chemistry department who also served as Pauling’s contact throughout his application process.

In their correspondence, Noyes encouraged Pauling to develop his coursework independently during his final quarters at OAC. Doing so would enable the bright but undertrained Pauling to enter CIT with the strongest background the he could muster in physical chemistry.  Noyes’ suggestions included building up a solid understanding of both French and German, and also working through a more rigorous physical chemistry text than the one that Pauling was currently using in his class.

This more appropriate text, An Advanced Course in Chemical Principles, was co-authored by Noyes himself, along with a Caltech colleague, Miles S. Sherrill.  Noyes implored Pauling to move through the book, methodically solving all of its example problems, the end goal being to provide Pauling with a better understanding of the field, and to prepare him to pursue both advanced coursework at CIT as well as his own unique research agenda.

The text itself was not merely descriptive, but also guided students through the problems that it presented by giving them the information necessary to solve them. This approach was unlike that taken by other popular texts at the time, which focused instead on leading students more directly to a solution. Noyes believed that his and Sherrill’s approach would help students to internalize what they were learning and assist them in understanding the processes required to arrive at the correct answer.


Noyes’ specific suggestion was that Pauling work through the text in conjunction with the OAC physical chemistry class in which he was currently enrolled, beginning at a point in the book that matched where he was at in class.  Instead, Pauling opted to commence with an independent study of the text during the summer after he graduated from OAC and before he enrolled at CIT.  Doing so, he believed, would allow him to work through the problems systematically and would also help to occupy his time while he was working in the field, assisting with road construction and pavement testing for the Oregon Highway Department. Before he reached the Caltech campus during the third week of September 1922, Pauling had worked through the entirety of book, solving many of its problems by lantern light in his tent.

And just as he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Pauling questioned the accuracy of certain answers posed by the authors of the book.  Upon finally arriving in Pasadena that fall, a first order of business for Pauling was to compare his notes with those of Paul Emmett, his childhood friend and OAC classmate who had likewise entered a course of graduate study in chemistry at CIT.


While Pauling was still at OAC, Noyes passed along a few more ideas that might help in preparing for the rigors of Caltech. In addition to his own physical chemistry book, Noyes also suggested that Pauling read X-Rays and Crystal Structure, authored by Sir William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and likewise advised that Pauling take a mineralogy class at OAC that would cover the fundamentals of x-ray crystallography.

It is interesting to note that, while reading X-Rays and Crystal Structure (once again, put off until the summer of 1922), Pauling wrote to Emmett and told him that he was not learning much from it. The Braggs, of course, eventually became chief scientific competitors of Pauling’s, and the techniques that they described in their book proved fundamental to many of Pauling’s own early discoveries.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

A.A. Noyes, ca. 1920s.

As he tried to help Pauling secure funding for the coming school year, Noyes found himself questioning whether or not Pauling had the experience necessary to receive a teaching fellowship. Wanting to insure his study at CIT, Noyes encouraged Pauling to send further information that might help with finding a grant to cover tuition or even a graduate assistantship, which would promise a “somewhat larger payment.” Noyes assured Pauling that he assumed Pauling would eventually be qualified for a teaching fellowship the next year.

In applying to graduate programs, Pauling expressed full confidence in his capacity to succeed as a student in physical chemistry, due to his strong grasp of mathematics, his previous experience teaching quantitative analysis and his work as a teaching assistant in general chemistry.  But he also believed that the environment at Caltech was top-notch and would provide him with the training that he needed to carry out research, even though he had no prior experience in this area.

Noyes ultimately was able to offer Pauling a prized graduate assistantship, confident in his interest in pursuing pure science and a career in university teaching. Pauling would foster a close relationship with Noyes over the years, and it was Noyes who worked hardest to keep Pauling at Caltech after he had completed his PhD, warding off the advances of G.N. Lewis at Berkeley in particular.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Paul Emmett with his mother, ca. 1920s.

Pauling moved in with Paul Emmett and Paul’s mother in September 1922, and stayed with them for his first school year in Pasadena. During this time, Emmett and Pauling shared the same bed, sleeping in shifts. Pauling’s habits were such that he would stay up late studying while Emmett slept, and around 3:00 AM Emmett would get up to go to the lab, at which time Pauling then went to sleep. During this first year in California, Pauling also took Richard Chace Tolman’s class, Introduction to Mathematical Physics, which helped cement Pauling’s desire to become a theoretical physical chemist.

During his sparse free time, Pauling wrote letter after letter to his girlfriend, Ava Helen Miller, who remained in Corvallis to continue work on her Home Economics degree at OAC. Having expressed a desire to marry at least twice before Linus left for California, only to be rebuffed by their families, the two decided in their letters that they would absolutely be wed once Pauling had finished his first year of classes and just prior to his resumption of more construction work during the summer. Their plan came to fruition in Salem, Oregon on June 17, 1923, and Ava Helen moved to Pasadena that fall to accompany her new husband during his second year as a graduate student.

The New York Daily News Lawsuit: A Tangled Web


[Part 2 of 2]

In the wake of the May 1963 failure of Linus Pauling’s first libel trial versus the New York Daily News, Pauling received a letter from his secondary attorney in the case, J.P. Tonkoff.  In it, Tonkoff wrote

It was a pleasure to represent you, even though the outcome was disastrous; and I still insist that the disaster was brought about by stupidity and nothing else.

In using the word ‘stupidity’ Tonkoff was referring to the court tactics deployed by Pauling’s primary attorney in the case, Francis Hoague. And in addition to his anger over his perceptions of Hoague’s incompetence as a lawyer, Tonkoff also noted that Hoague had shorted him on his compensation for out-of-pocket expenses incurred during the trial. Indeed, Tonkoff suspected that Hoague might have pilfered some of the funds that Pauling had meant to be directed toward Tonkoff.

Around the same time, Francis Hoague also wrote a letter to Pauling about the outcome of the court case. In it, he conceded partial culpability for the poor result.

I am deeply regretful that the Daily News case did not come out in your favor. I know that it could have been tried better than it was….Whether the case was badly tried or satisfactorily tried, I put my best efforts into it; and whatever mistakes I made were not from lack of concern and thought on my part. I certainly was fully aware that this was an important case not only to you but to the issue of freedom of speech and association and to the peace movement….Of one thing I am sure, and that is that whatever caused defendant’s verdict it was not due to any failure or shortcoming on your part….Despite the unhappy ending, it has been a truly wonderful experience for me to have been associated with you and Ava Helen in these two cases over the past two years. You are the most moral and courageous people I have ever known.

In June, Tonkoff wrote another letter to Pauling, expressing mounting discontent with his colleague.  By now it was clear the relations were heading due south between the two lawyers.

I am convinced that Hoague is incompetent to be in charge of your case. If Hoague believes that this is a libelous statement he can bring an action against me, and I will establish truth of the statement beyond a shadow of a doubt….I unhesitatingly state to you that the further away Hoague is from the court room when this case is retried, the better off you are going to be. Personally, I am certain that the failure of the court to inform the jury that the publication was libelous per se is reversible error.

That month, Francis Hoague motioned for new trial; a motion that was rejected. The decision upset Hoague and at that point he decided to turn over responsibility of the case to Eleanor Piel, which was Pauling’s wish as well.

Pauling notes re: expenses incurred by the Daily News case.

Pauling notes re: expenses incurred by the Daily News case.

Meanwhile Pauling, likely spurred by his correspondence with J.P. Tonkoff, became suspicious of his past financial dealings with Francis Hoague. After studying his records, he found that Hoague had underpaid him from the settlement of the Bellingham case and that Hoague had indeed not supplied sufficient funds to Tonkoff for out-of-pocket expenses. After finally receiving the full Bellingham settlement money, Pauling decided to pay Tonkoff’s balance directly, as Hoague refused to release additional funds to Tonkoff and insisted that Tonkoff was lying.

As all of this was playing out, Tonkoff wrote a number of letters to Hoague, CC’d to Pauling, that voiced his frustration. In one response, Hoague wrote to Tonkoff

I do not know what your full purpose is in sending me these long written tirades with a copy to Dr. Pauling. I am certain that one of your purposes is to blacken me as much as possible in Dr. Pauling’s eyes. This is neither decent nor ethical, and you know it.

He also asked that Tonkoff withdraw his involvement in the case.

Concurrently, Hoague and Pauling began to discuss an agreement to transfer responsibility for the case over to Eleanor Piel. Hoague suggested that he receive one-third of 50% of the net settlement if they won, and that Piel receive two-thirds of 50%. Pauling would cover all legal costs and out-of-pocket expenses if they lost.

Around this same time, Tonkoff wrote back to Hoague concerning his suggestion that Tonkoff withdraw from the case.  As one might expect, Tonkoff didn’t agree with the idea.

Now if you think for one moment that after I supplied to editorial upon which the case was brought, and after drawing the complaint upon which the action was tried, associated New York counsel who appeared because of their feeling toward me and not toward you and who were responsible for getting the case at issue, preparing the instructions which I know you couldn’t possibly prepare, taking town days out of my office and listening to you butcher this case, plus a substantial amount of out-of-pocket expenses and, among other things, furnishing free transportation to you to New York, that I will resign from this case as counsel because you ask me to, you are sadly mistaken. If Dr. Pauling, after he has an opportunity to examine, investigate, and determine the verity of the foregoing facts, decides to retain you as counsel, I demand that he personally advise me of his decision, and then we will go from there.

In the letter, Tonkoff also stated that Hoague was attempting to overcharge Pauling for his handling of the case, as the normal litigation fee for libel suits was one-third of the settlement, not half. Pauling agreed with Tonkoff that 50% of the settlement was too much.

As the situation continued to get messier, Pauling moved in and made a final decision. He wrote to Hoague

I am not satisfied with the handling of the Daily News case. I feel, of course, that I share in the responsibility for its outcome. I relied upon you, but I feel now that it might have been wise for you to have discussed the matter of handling the case with me, in New York, and perhaps to have discussed the differences between you and Tonkoff….I propose for your consideration that your withdrawal be on the following basis. You will give up all claim to any share in any sum obtained by settlement or by decision in court, after the agreement to withdraw as my counsel has been made.

In the letter Pauling also stated that Tonkoff should likewise withdraw from the case and that Hoague withdraw his financial understanding with Eleanor Piel.

Pauling then wrote a separate letter to J.P. Tonkoff personally asking him to withdraw from the case. Tonkoff and Hoague both agreed to Pauling’s requests, at which point the Daily News case was completely transferred over to Piel.


In July 1963, Eleanor Piel compiled and formally submitted an appeal to the lower court ruling of Pauling’s libel suit versus the Daily News. One year later, the Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the original jury’s verdict. Piel then filed a Petition for Rehearing, but in the next month, August 1964, this petition too was denied.

Undaunted, Piel and Pauling then decided to file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. But in January 1965, the court decline to hear the case.

Indeed, this case and others like it had very little hope for success following the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which set a higher standard for libel of public figures and made it nearly impossible for individuals like Pauling to successfully pursue grievances of this sort. And so ended a decidedly messy chapter in Pauling’s long and complicated history of court action.

The Strange Saga of the New York Daily News Lawsuit

New York Daily News opinion piece of September 2, 1961.

New York Daily News opinion piece of September 2, 1961.

[Part 1 of 2]

As readers of this blog know, Linus Pauling was a prominent public figure who became especially well-known for his campaign against nuclear bomb testing. The “Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and Peoples of the World,” circulated by Pauling and his wife in 1957 and 1958, garnered the signatures of over 11,000 scientists from around the world, each of them condemning the detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. The petition received a great deal of attention and ultimately led to Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

The petition also came about in the midst of the Cold War, and Pauling’s protests made many Americans uncomfortable and even angry. Much of the public saw his efforts to work with communist countries as evidence of communist sympathies and, by extension, betrayal of the United States. Many newspaper editors around the country took a similarly dim view and attacked Pauling in print for his actions. Naturally, Pauling worried about the impact that articles of this sort might make on his reputation, and he chose to fight back against numerous media sources through libel lawsuits.

On September 2, 1961, the New York Daily News published an editorial titled “Two Johnny Come-Latelies” that criticized Pauling’s anti-testing activism and mocked him for his efforts in light of the resumption of bomb testing in the Soviet Union. The piece suggested that

For years, a couple of semi-prominent American loudmouths have been agitating against nuclear weapons and weapon tests – the best defense the West has against Soviet Russian and Chinese Red manpower. [Norman] Cousins and Pauling now profess to be horrified by Khrushchev’s announcement of Soviet resumption of nuclear weapon tests…But all that Pauling has done about it is to record a plea to his friend in the Kremlin to reconsider…It’s nice to have these two on the American side for once, however belatedly and lukewarmly. But their ideas on meeting the Khrushchev threat are no better than their longstanding proposals that the West cripple itself.

Reader Louis B. Settner wrote to Pauling informing him of the opinion piece and likewise wrote a letter to the editors of the Daily News that defended Pauling and objected to the editorial’s tone. The Daily News refused to publish Settner’s letter, but the protestations to the piece were far from over.

In October, Pauling responded to Settner, writing that the actions of the editors

are shocking, and of course it is shocking that the Daily News would not publish your letter. The captive press in the United States is a great danger to civilization. I am pleased to tell you that I probably shall institute suit for libel against the Daily News, on the basis of the defamatory editorial.

Francis Hoague, Pauling’s Seattle-based lawyer in a concurrent libel lawsuit filed against the Bellingham, [Washington] Herald, offered to take on the case for a fee of one-third of any settlement reached out of court or for half of a settlement arrived at in court. Hoague had already taken care of most of the preparation required for the Bellingham case, which was filed in response to editorials published in late November and early December 1960, and likely saw himself as a natural fit for this new complaint.

The case against the Bellingham paper, one of Pauling’s first lawsuits, was instigated in early 1961 and proceeded with relative rapidity. The dispute reached a settlement out of court in April 1962 with Pauling agreeing to damages of $16,000 plus a retraction. As it turned out, this was one of only two libel lawsuits, out of eight filed in total, that ended in Pauling’s favor.

List of East Coast-based character witnesses supplied by Pauling to his lawyer, Francis Hoague.

List of East Coast-based character witnesses supplied by Pauling to his lawyer, Francis Hoague.

Throughout 1962, Pauling’s team worked gather information and depose witnesses. As had been the arrangement in Bellingham, Francis Hoague worked on the Daily News case in collaboration with another more experienced lawyer, J.P. Tonkoff, though Pauling’s contract was technically with Hoague alone, and not Tonkoff.

Hoague and Tonkoff had worked well together on the Bellingham case, but they became very frustrated with each other as work on the Daily News complaint moved forward. Over time, Tonkoff came to believe that Hoague was incompetent as a litigation lawyer and expressed a wish that he were in charge of the suit, rather than Hoague.

In February 1963, the Daily News suffered a damaging blow in the form of a $201,000 verdict against the paper for having libeled a different plaintiff. This particular suit was filed by Paul J. Kern, a project manager for the New York City Housing Authority, whom the Daily News had declared to be a communist. Eleanor J. Piel, Kern’s high-profile lawyer, was a key player in the success of Kern’s suit.

Pauling’s complaint first came to trial in May 1963. Pauling’s chief counsel, Francis Hoague, included in his tactics a large number of character witnesses who spoke positively of Pauling’s character, and ultimately this strategy backfired. One of the character witnesses, chemist (and future Nobel laureate) Martin Karplus, spoke of the trial and the verdict in a 2013 oral history interview conducted by the Oregon State University Libraries.

…it was in New York, the trial, and so I went down and did testify for him, as did various other people. And then, as I remember it, he actually lost the case because the judge felt, ‘look, if you’re going to have all these people testifying for you, a libel suit really doesn’t make any sense’…and the judge said this, I remember, was that he had all these sterling witnesses, so he wasn’t harmed by what they [the Daily News] wrote.

At the end of May, Pauling met with Francis Hoague, to inform him that he would be appealing the decision and that Eleanor Piel was going to take over the Daily News case. As Pauling documented in a note to himself

I mentioned that I thought that Mrs. Piel, with her experience and knowledge of the New York courts and the opposing lawyer, could do a better job than Mr. Hoague himself. I pointed out that I felt that he was not tough enough for Mr. Carter and the New York courts.

As we’ll see next week, the situation became rather strange at this point.


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