A Somber Return to China, 1981

The Paulings in Tianjin, June 1981.

In the summer of 1981, Linus Pauling participated in the First International Conference on Human Nutrition, which took place in Japan and China. The conference lasted from May 31 to June 8, and was sponsored by the China Medical Association and the Foundation for Nutritional Advancement, the latter of which Pauling was president. The conference took place in Tokyo, Japan and Tianjin, China, travels to which would comprise the first part of a trip that would also take the Paulings to Germany and to London. Their daughter Linda and her husband Barclay accompanied Linus and Ava Helen to the Orient.

Pauling made the opening remarks at the beginning of the conference in Tokyo on June 1. After the Tokyo sessions were completed three days later, the Paulings flew to Peking, traveled in an official vehicle to Tianjin (a “red flag limousine,” as recorded by Pauling in his journal) and stayed in the State Guest House in the same suite used by Richard Nixon during his iconic 1972 trip to China.  From June 4-8, Pauling participated in the conference, which was jointly planned by the FNA and Professor Chou Pei-yuan, the President of the University of Beijing. This was the second and last time Pauling was to visit China.

A day after arriving in China, the Paulings toured Tianjin Medical College, Tianjin Hospital and Tianjin Children’s Hospital before attending a formal reception given by Li Xiannian, who eventually became the Chinese Head of State in 1983. The conference in China formally opened on June 6, again with Pauling delivering the opening remarks. In them, he discussed the roots of his interest in the field of nutrition, and also reflected upon the early years of his scientific career beginning with his focus on minerals and later interest in the nature of life, which arose in 1929 largely because of the presence of Thomas Hunt Morgan (who had discovered the concept of the gene) at Caltech.

An unidentified individual, Arthur Sackler, the Chinese Minister of Health and Linus Pauling, June 1981.

In his talk, Pauling explained that he had decided to learn more about organic chemistry in order to understand how molecules are built and how they interact with each other, beginning with hemoglobin. During this time, Pauling also studied antibodies, immunology, sickle cell anemias, and other heretic anemias. In 1954 he decided to look at other groups of diseases to see if they could be classed as molecular diseases, and chose to study mental illness over cancer, because he felt that many people were working on cancer already. After researching mental illness for ten years, he became interested in vitamins.

According to Pauling, his interest in vitamins came about when he learned that the Canadian scientists Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond were treating schizophrenia patients with large amounts of niacin. Simultaneously, Gerald Milner had been giving large amounts of ascorbic acid to mentally ill patients, with positive results. Pauling later observed that vitamin C had value in the control of cancer, so he became involved with cancer. Near the end of his address, Pauling remarked, “As I look back on my life, I see that I have enjoyed myself very much and a good bit of this enjoyment has come from the continued recognition of something new about the universe.”

Other talks given over the course of the Tianjin conference included “Vitamin C and Cancer,” delivered by Pauling; “Extending Life Span of Patients with Terminal Cancer Using High Doses of Vitamin C,” given by Dr. Akira Murata from the Department of Agriculture at Saga University, Japan; and “A Study on Fortified Foods with Ascorbic Acid Phosphate,” given by Professor Chou Deqin, from the Chinese Institute of Military Hygiene.

The conference closed on Monday, June 8. The next day, the Paulings took part in a sight-seeing tour of the Great Wall and the Ming tombs. Later that week, Pauling gave a talk on chemical bonds in transition metals at Peking University, and continued to give lectures and meet with various scientists throughout the rest of his time in China.

Photo of Ava Helen Pauling taken in China, six months prior to her death.

The trip took a dramatic turn for the worse when, in the afternoon of June 19, Ava Helen had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. Though she left the hospital the next day, she remained medicated and too sick to travel for a few days after, causing the Paulings to change their plans. She remained weak for the rest of their time in China, though recovered enough to complete their planned itinerary through Germany and London.

When the couple returned to California and Ava Helen underwent exploratory surgery, it was determined that she was facing a recurrence of stomach cancer, from which she had been suffering for the past five years. Her cancer was deemed inoperable and only a few short months later, on December 7, 1981, Ava Helen would pass away, three weeks shy of her 78th birthday.

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