Thomas Addis: The Man Who Saved Pauling

Thomas Addis, 1920s

[Part 2 of 5]

When Linus Pauling received his diagnosis of Bright’s disease in March of 1941, his prognosis was grim. At the time Bright’s disease was considered to be fatal and the majority of the medical community was in agreement that there was no cure or effective treatment. Fortunately for Pauling, a man by the name of Dr. Thomas Addis did not agree.

Thomas Addis, known to close friends and colleagues as Tom, was born on July 27, 1881 in Edinburgh, Scotland. After fulfilling a position as a Carnegie Research Scholar and Fellow, Addis left Europe in 1911 to pursue a career as clinical investigator at Stanford Medical School. Upon arriving in the United States, Addis devoted his life’s work to the study of kidney disease. By the time of his death at age 67, Addis’s achievements were such that some would refer to him in reverent tones. In the estimation of William Dock, an MD at the State University of New York, “As a medical scientist he was in a class by himself.”

Addis’s accomplishments placed him in a league of his own as a medical investigator and his persistent advocacy for his patients made him a superior clinician. This combination accounts for his recognition as a superior clinical investigator.

During his lifetime, Addis published more than 130 scientific papers. He also published two books on renal disease, The Renal Lesion in Bright’s Disease (1931) and Glomerular Nephritis: Diagnosis and Treatment (1948), both of which were well received in the medical community. Stanford University Medical professor Arthur Leonard Bloomfield would recount:

Addis’s book with Oliver on the renal lesion in Bright’s Disease is, of course, a classic, but the little volume on glomerular nephritis completed only a few months before his death seems to embody his philosophy of disease and of science in general; it will perhaps interpret the man to his followers better than anything else he has done.

Known for his unique laboratory structure, Addis strongly encouraged the collaboration of all members of his scientific team and managed his laboratory based on what he believed to be “democratic centralist principles.” Among his co-workers was Elesa, a lab dietician and Addis’s wife.

Throughout his career, Addis’s loyalty to the group as a whole never wavered. People’s World writer, Pele Edises, once requested a “profile interview” with just Addis, to which he replied, “Why can’t you just write about the lab and leave me out of it?” Addis was often described as a man of integrity and would most surely have disapproved of this blog post had his group members and their contributions not been mentioned.


Over the course of Pauling’s treatment, he and Addis became scientific colleagues and good friends. Beyond their shared professional interests, Pauling and Addis also maintained characteristically active political minds. Outspoken in his beliefs, Addis’s political affiliations led him to assume a position as the founder and chairman of the San Francisco Chapter of the Spanish Refugee Appeal. A primary activity of the Appeal was to assist the funding of a clinic in Toulouse, France, known as the Varsovie Hospital, dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of Spanish Republican refugees.

Like Pauling, Addis’s political inclinations met with significant resistance throughout his professional career. In a note that Pauling dictated in preparation for an Addis memorial, Pauling noted that Addis’s affiliation with the American Medical Association (AMA) had been turbulent throughout his lifetime due to his political allegiances. In one instance Addis raised objections to the AMA’s California Medical Association’s support of a coffee cancer cure which Addis believed to exploit individuals seeking treatment. In another incident Addis spoke out against a $25.00 contribution requested or required by the AMA to fund a fight against President Truman’s system of medical insurance.

Thomas Addis passed away on June 4, 1949, in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. His death was mourned at home and abroad – the October 1949 newsletter of the Varsovie Hospital includes this passage:

Con la muerte del Dr. Thomas Addis, los antifranquistas, los republicanos españoles, perdemos un gran amigo y un valiente luchador en defensa de nuestra causa, por la República, por la Democracia y por la Paz. [With the death of Dr. Thomas Addis, the anti-fascist Spanish republicans lost a great friend and a valiant fighter in the defense of our cause, for the Republic, for the Democracy, and for peace.]

In his honor a new laboratory was added to the out-patient clinic of the Varsovie Hospital in 1950. And long after his death, Addis’s name was used effectively to raise funds for the clinic and to provide aide to the Spanish refugees who were victims of the Franco regime. In a March 1950 letter to Ava Helen Pauling, Addis’s former secretary, in commenting on the Paulings’ political stands, noted “how happy and proud Dr. Addis would be, could he know.”

The Thomas Addis Memorial Award, 1955.

In 1955 Linus Pauling was awarded the first Thomas Addis Memorial Award by the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Nephrosis Foundation. The award would evolve into an annual honor granted in recognition of significant contributions to the study of the kidney and its diseases.

After Addis’s death, Pauling offered to write a memorial detailing Addis’s life and accomplishments. In response, the Addis family prohibited any mention of Addis’s political affiliations, for fear of their personal safety, given the nation’s current political climate. As a result Pauling and his co-author, Dr. Richard Lippman, made the executive decision to delay publication. In Lippman’s estimation, “It is impossible to characterize Dr. Addis in my opinion, without some discussion of his political ideas and his philosophy of politics and people.”

A revised version of the piece, co-authored by Pauling and Kevin Lemley, would not appear in print until 1994, the year of Pauling’s death.

4 Responses

  1. This is a wonderful piece on the life and accomplishments of Dr. Addis.

    For anyone who is interested in primary source material regarding Dr. Addis, the Stanford Medical History Center has a collection of his personal papers, an inventory of which can be found here:

    http://elane.stanford.edu/aid/19_Addis/index.htm

    We would be glad to offer support for anyone interested in doing research on Dr. Addis.

    Drew Bourn
    Curator
    Stanford Medical History Center

  2. […] with him until after the memorial service for Linus Pauling’s trusted physician and friend, Dr. Thomas Addis, who died in […]

  3. Very interesting articles. Are there any references available to AMA’s support of a coffee cancer cure ?
    They certainly did not support Gersons coffee enemas.

  4. Here is the text of Pauling’s note to self on the subject, written July 4, 1950.

    “Elesa Addis said to me today that Dr. Addis was always involved in medical politics, and that he was in and out and in and out again of the American Medical Association throughout his life. He was not a member at the time of his death, because he had resigned, or been expelled, a year or two earlier as a result of his objection to a $25.00 contribution asked or required by the AMA for the fight against President Truman’s system of medical insurance.

    “At an earlier time he had left the Association because of his fight against the support by the California Medical Association of the coffee (?) cancer cure. [LP’s parenthesized question mark] Great numbers of poor people were sending all of the money they could get hold of to come to San Francisco for this treatment, and Dr. Addis felt convinced that it was not valuable. He and some other doctors wrote to all of the members of the California Medical Association, and attempted to get the Journal of the American Medical Association to publish an article about the so called cancer cure.”

    So in this particular instance, Addis’ specific complaint was with the California Medical Association, which led to a split with the AMA.

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