Pauling’s Study of Schizophrenia: Clashes with Jean Mayer

Jean Mayer. Credit: Tufts University

[Part 8 of 9]

“I am afraid you and Jean Mayer will have to lock horns. Read the attached clipping. He is doing you a lot of harm.”

-Richard Stanton, publisher of Executive Health, to Pauling, 1976.

One of the most vocal critics of Linus Pauling’s orthomolecular approach to the treatment of schizophrenia was a popular and respected nutritionist by the name of Jean Mayer. The battle between the two, which mostly played out in public forums, was pitched and sometimes ugly.

Born in France in 1920, Jean Mayer received degrees from the University of Paris in 1939. After graduation, and with the outbreak of World War II, Mayer joined the French army and served as a second lieutenant. He was captured by German forces in 1940 but managed to escape. He then fought with the Free French and Allied forces in parts of Italy and Northern Africa; for his bravery he was awarded fourteen medals, including the Croix de Guerre, which is one of France’s highest military honors.

After the war, Mayer moved to the United States, serving as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow from 1946-1948. During this period, he also met and married an American, Elizabeth Van Huysen. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale in 1950, and went on to a faculty career at Harvard, where he remained for twenty-five years. In 1975 he left Harvard to become president of Tufts University, remaining in that post for sixteen years. He died of a heart attack in 1993.

Mayer spent much of his career focusing on nutrition, and eventually became quite well-known for this work. Perhaps most notably, Mayer correctly identified a biological link between blood glucose levels and feelings of hunger. From there, Mayer helped to popularize the idea that obesity was a “disease of civilization” caused by a variety of factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating a poor diet, and failing to get enough exercise. As his profile rose, Mayer helped found the National Council on Hunger and Malnutrition, and also served as an advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, helping to initiate federal food assistance programs during this time.

Mayer was also deeply concerned about the intersection between malnutrition and human suffering worldwide. When the Biafran War erupted in Nigeria in 1969 for example, Mayer traveled to Africa to try and assess the needs of the starving. The report that he authored convinced President Nixon to increase food aid to the war-torn region. During later periods of regional famine, Mayer was often among the first experts called upon to assess the needs of hungry people.

Given his background, it is not surprising that Mayer took an interest in Pauling’s orthomolecular research. And the more he learned, the more he came to disagree with the approach, finding it ineffective and ultimately harmful. As he began to air his disagreements with the work, a feud emerged between the two high-profile scientists, one that would last for the better part of two decades.

Although Mayer and Pauling’s public disagreement was long-standing, the crux of the issue never really changed: Mayer did not think orthomolecular therapy worked and Pauling was certain that it did. As such, their discourse tended to revolve around efforts by Pauling to disprove what he believed to be blatant misrepresentations by Mayer.

One noteworthy exchange began with Mayer publicizing a report suggesting that orthomolecular treatment of schizophrenia increased the suicide rate of those treated. Mayer was quite well-known when he began pushing this report, and Pauling knew that its conclusions would be treated as gospel by many. As such, Pauling knew that he would need to both correct what he saw as misrepresentations and also redirect public opinion in favor of trusting orthomolecular methods.

In the opinion piece that he wrote as a rebuttal, Pauling pointed out that the report’s claim had been based on a single case study. This lone outlier, in Pauling’s view, “ha[d] very little value” and should certainly not be used to draw any broader conclusions. From there, Pauling publicly urged Mayer to avoid basing his criticisms on others’ research, but to instead assess the efficacy and safety of the research that Pauling and his colleagues had done, which included numerous double-blind studies — a far cry from the single case that Mayer had leaned on. Indeed, Pauling was keen to address the suicide issue head-on, and pressed Mayer to examine the data in one double-blind study where four placebo patients had tragically taken their own lives, with nothing of the sort being recorded for the orthomolecular patients. Pauling wrote that this data “has some significance” and could not ethically be ignored by critics like Mayer.

Mayer did not retreat in his response, illustrating his position in a letter sent to Pauling. The letter contained an anecdote in which Mayer wrote of a friend’s son who had developed suicidal schizophrenia. After an initial period of hospitalization,

his father heard of treatment of schizophrenia by large doses of vitamins, to which [Pauling’s name] was associated, removed his son from close supervision, and sent him to be treated with vitamins[…] Two weeks later the young man hanged himself.

Though a stark and compelling story, the anecdote failed in the same way as the single-case report that Mayer had previously amplified. Though Pauling had no reason to dispute the truth of what Mayer had conveyed, he again expressed fundamental disagreement with Mayer’s use of a solitary account in his campaign to discredit orthomolecular therapies.

Amidst the public back and forth, Pauling invited Mayer to attend an orthomolecular symposium being hosted at Stanford University in the summer of 1972. The invitation included offer of a $250 honorarium, plus all expenses paid. Notably, Pauling did not ask that Mayer speak at the event, instead suggesting that he participate as an attendee “and take part in the discussions.” Mayer declined the invitation, citing plans to be out of the country at the time, “probably in France.”

By the mid-1970s, Mayer’s profile had grown with the public largely through his syndicated newspaper column, in which he would often respond to subscriber-generated questions concerning health. In other instances, Mayer used the space write longer form pieces on topics that he thought relevant and useful to his readership, which sometimes meant a renewal of attacks on orthomolecular therapy.

In one such instance – an April 1975 column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere – Mayer criticized the notion that vitamins could be used to treat schizophrenia, citing as support the growing number of mainstream researchers who argued that orthomolecular therapy had “been thoroughly disproved.” (In this, Mayer was presumably leaning on a report authored by a National Institute of Mental Health task force that had come out against orthomolecular treatments.) In other pieces, Mayer reiterated his belief that the lack of substantial changes in positive and consistent outcomes for schizophrenia patients being treated with megavitamin doses was enough to disprove even the most ardent supporters of orthomolecular therapy.

Though the volleys would continue, there did emerge a brief moment in 1983 when Mayer and Pauling joined together in supporting the ailing Soviet scientist, Andrei Sakharov. Despite their differences, Mayer and Pauling were acutely sympathetic to the perceived cruelty that Sakharov was enduring while in exile in the city of Gorky. (modern day Nizhny Novgorod). And when a new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, rose to power after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, many scientists, including Mayer and Pauling, embraced the opportunity to lobby for Sakharov’s release. The tone of Pauling and Mayer’s correspondence shifts during this period, as the two scientists wrote to one another to coordinate and support this work.

The cordiality was short lived however and, pretty quickly, interactions became even more vitriolic. By 1985, Mayer was a decade into his tenure as president of Tufts University, and in this capacity was able to significantly influence the school’s Diet and Nutrition newsletter. On multiple occasions, Mayer used the publication as a personal soapbox to once again discredit Pauling and his approach to schizophrenia treatment. The January 1985 issue, for instance, featured a series of articles to this effect, an effort that Pauling found to be not only inaccurate, but also petty. In a letter to Mayer, Pauling made his feelings clear:

I am disappointed[…] I think that this is the largest collection of false and misleading statements about vitamin C that I have seen so far. Every bit of contrary evidence, no matter how feeble, that has been dug up or invented in the past seems to be mentioned here.

Mayer’s response was to further the criticism, with the next issue of the newsletter making mention that “no well-designed study has ever shown that vitamins at any level cure more psychiatric problems, including schizophrenia.” In response, Pauling wrote again to Mayer that “the statements about vitamins in relation to schizophrenia are completely wrong” and that “The impression that I have is that you are part of the group that makes little effort to discover the truth about nutrition.” Given that Mayer’s entire scientific career had been based on his expertise and devotion to the field of nutrition, Pauling’s words might be interpreted as having been particularly biting.

Though the two continued to battle in public from time to time, their conflict gradually fell from view. Regardless, the two never did arrive at any agreement on the validity of orthomolecular therapy, their feud only concluding with Mayer’s death on New Year’s Day, 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: