Vitamin C and Cardiovascular Disease: The Roots of Controversy


Caricature of Linus Pauling created by Eleanor Mill and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1992.

[Part 1 of 4]

“People are not dying from too much fatty food, they’re dying from too little vitamin C.”

-Linus Pauling, Vitamin C and Heart Disease, 1977

Health-conscious readers of a certain age have likely experienced a frustrating back and forth in food trends over the past several decades, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s. First eggs were said to be bad for you because they are high in cholesterol, then it was learned that they didn’t increase cholesterol in the blood. Likewise, butter was believed to be a health risk because of its high levels of saturated fats, however, butter (especially from grass fed animals, and especially as opposed to margarine) is now argued to be a valuable source of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Chocolate and red meat, too, were decried for being too fatty or, in the case of chocolate, also too sugary. Yet today, both are viewed as useful and even valuable sources of nutrition, so long as they are consumed in moderation.

These swings in consensus swept across the United States beginning in the 1970s largely in response to rising concerns over cardiovascular disease, or CVD. CVD includes a range of maladies such as angina, or heart attack, and many occur in conjunction with atherosclerosis, or the build-up of fatty plaques on arterial walls.

Today, CVD remains the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming over 600,000 lives every year. As health professionals have sought to provide guidance on balanced eating, ideas have flip-flopped on the potential dangers of many foods because, over time, it has become increasingly clear that cutting these foods out of one’s diet altogether had little to no impact on rates of CVD.

Linus Pauling was arguing in support of this point of view long before the data had been gathered to confirm it. Pauling believed that the trend toward removing eggs, red meat, and whole milk from American diets was an ill-advised scheme that restricted valuable sources of protein and nutrients from individuals who often could not afford substitutes for these staple foods. In Pauling’s view, it should have been clear to physicians and other health professionals that these dietary sources of cholesterol could not significantly impact total cholesterol levels in the blood, because cholesterol is synthesized, to a great extent, within the body due to its importance in the maintenance of cell membranes.

The real problem behind heart disease, then, was not a high-cholesterol diet. The problem behind heart disease, Pauling argued, was a widespread failure to ingest a substance that could limit the body’s natural production of life-threatening cholesterol: Vitamin C.

As early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, researchers were uncovering evidence that high vitamin C intake reduced cholesterol in vitamin C-deficient guinea pigs, rats, and rabbits. Perhaps most notably, in the 1950s a Canadian group of researchers led by Dr. G.C. Willis found that above-average cholesterol intake did not result in plaque deposits in non-human subjects’ arteries so long as the diet was paired with a high-dose vitamin C regimen.

Intrigued, Linus Pauling began a search for other champions of this view, and in 1972 he wrote to Dr. Donald Harrison at the Stanford Medical School of Cardiology inquiring into additional research that was being conducted on the interplay between vitamin C and a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Harrison responded that, although the results were not yet published, he had found lower levels of cholesterol in the livers of guinea pigs that had been fed non-trivial doses of vitamin C.

By 1976 many had come to accept that vitamin C played some role in the regulation of cholesterol metabolism and thus in the progression, or lack thereof, of atherosclerosis and CVD. In addition to Harrison’s studies at Stanford, preliminary work conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that ascorbic acid and ascorbic acid sulfate (two forms of vitamin C) significantly reduced atherosclerosis caused by cholesterol plaques in rabbits.

However, at about this time, other research projects had suggested the opposite, and indicated that increased intake of vitamin C might in fact increase the risk of heart disease by inhibiting the absorption of copper in the intestinal tract. As a result of this inhibited absorption, the ratio of zinc to copper in the blood would stray from what is ideal and ultimately result in hypercholesterolemia: an imbalance in zinc and copper metabolism that is implicated in coronary heart disease.

These findings created a scenario in which the Pauling camp was squared off against many physicians over the confusing and opposing views that large doses of vitamin C both reduced and increased one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

Throughout the 1970s, Pauling’s broad argument in favor of the fundamental importance of vitamin C to optimum human health was based on the idea that when primates lost the gene for vitamin C synthesis about forty million years ago, systematic physiological imbalances arose that continue to carry negative health consequences for humans today.

Pauling was quick to point out that all animals require vitamin C to live and that most synthesize it naturally. Yet humans – primates who do not synthesize their vitamin C naturally – typically obtain far less of it in their diet (when adjusted for body weight) than do other primates and non-synthesizing animals like guinea pigs. In addition, animals of this sort, when fed moderate to low levels of vitamin C, showed increased risk for development of arterial plaques of cholesterol.

What was less clear was whether or not this same effect was occurring in humans. Physicians opposed to Pauling’s view based their arguments on the idea that humans are physiologically different in important ways from the animals used to model the effects of vitamin C deficiency in the laboratory. Pauling scoffed at this notion and firmly believed that vitamin C deficiency in humans was the true cause of CVD. But even he could not fully explain exactly why vitamin C should be directly related to heart disease.

Over a decade later, in 1989, when a scientist named Matthias Rath came to the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, Pauling would finally find what he believed to be the key to explaining how and why vitamin C was so important to the well-being of the human heart.

Ilya Prigogine: The Poet of Thermodynamics


[Celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ilya Prigogine]

“The attitude of Einstein toward science, for example, was to go beyond the reality of the moment. He wanted to transcend time…for him science was an introduction to a timeless reality beyond the illusion of becoming. My own attitude is very different because, to some extent, I want to feel the evolution of things. I don’t believe in transcending, but in being embedded in a reality that is temporal.”

Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) is best known today for his work in thermodynamics and especially for his focus on the concepts of irreversibility and dissipative structures. He was a champion of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, compelled by a lifelong fascination with biology’s apparent denial of the principals of physics, and his work is often described as having attempted to marry thermodynamics – particularly the concept of entropy – to biological evolution.

At first glance, notions of entropy and biological evolution seem irreconcilable: one states that the universe trends to disorder and the other suggests that organisms continue to become more ordered as they evolve. Partly because of this, Prigogine’s theories were unpopular within the scientific community for a number of years as they ran counter to traditional schools of thought within physics and thermodynamics.

In developing his thinking, Prigogine worked within the framework of Arthur Eddington’s “arrow of time” concept, which describes time’s asymmetrical, one-way direction. Prigogine was specifically interested in exploring its role in irreversible systems.  Although dismayed by his contemporaries’ lack of interest in challenging accepted concepts of time, Prigogine nevertheless persisted in his research and was eventually awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on dissipative structures.

Prigogine’s ideas have since been adapted for many purposes. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for one, has used the work in developing predicative tools for traffic patterns. Biologists have likewise used it to deepen their understanding of the glycolytic cycle.

But perhaps most notably, Prigogine is often cited as offering an alternative to the view that the universe will end in “heat death.” On the contrary, Prigogine believed just the opposite to be true, that our universe will continue to become more and more ordered to the point of becoming self-aware. Although many of his theories eventually gained widespread recognition, his speculations where the universe was concerned remained a matter of debate.


The irreversibility of time is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos.”

Ilya Romanovich Prigogine was born into a Jewish family in Moscow on January 25, 1917, just months before the Russian Revolution. Repulsed by the new communist regime, his family left Moscow in 1921 and travelled Europe for a few years, staying first in Lithuania, then in Berlin. The family eventually settling in Brussels, where Prigogine spent his formative years. His mother, a conservatory student, spent a great deal of time teaching music to Prigogine and his older brother. She noted later that her younger son could read music before words and, as a child, that Ilya proved himself a talented pianist who aspired to become a concert pianist.

As he grew a bit older, Prigogine attended Ixelles Athenaeum, a school known for its rigorous curriculum focusing on the classics. It was likely there that Prigogine developed an appreciation of and interest in classical literature and philosophy. He was particularly taken with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, whom he later credited with shaping the direction of his early research.

After he turned seventeen and entered the Université Libre de Bruxelles, he decided to focus his studies on criminology. In preparation, Prigogine embarked on a mission to uncover the inner workings of a criminal’s mind. This led to a preoccupation with studying the chemical composition of the human brain and his fascination with the subject ultimately compelled him to change his major to chemistry.

In his fourth year at the university, Prigogine began studying under Théophile de Donder. The pair focused their efforts on transforming the “classical” view of thermodynamics that gave privilege to near equilibrium systems. Specifically, they argued that in practical applications, phenomena that are very far from equilibrium and produce minimum entropy are the most common. Such phenomena had been largely excluded from classical thermodynamics on the basis that they were transitory or parasitic.

As his research moved forward, the question of non-equilibrium consumed Prigogine’s interest, because he saw it as vital to explaining a variety of processes in living organisms. By 1945, a mere four years after obtaining his doctorate at the Université Libre, he had formulated a theorem of minimum entropy production to account for non-equilibrium states. At the time, this was not a widely respected theory, and years later Prigogine could still recall the disdain with which some of his colleagues had treated his interest in the subject.

In 1950 Prigogine accepted a position at the Université Libre, where he worked with his colleague Paul Glansdorff on research that eventually arrived at dissipative structures in the late 1960s. In 1967 Prigogine accepted a professorship in physics and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and from then on he split his time between Texas and Brussels. Shortly after this appointment, he and René Lefever proposed what is now known as the Brusselator, a model of chemical reactions with oscillation.

Named the director of the International Solvay Institutes in Brussels in 1959, Prigogine was still working in this capacity when he sought to organize the 1987 Solvay conference in Austin. In the months leading up to this conference, he contacted Linus Pauling in the hopes that Pauling would approve of his idea to form a joint physics and chemistry meeting on the subject of surface phenomena. Pauling responded enthusiastically and told Prigogine of his own recent work with icosahedral and decagonal quasicrystals. Prigogine extended an invitation to Pauling to attend the conference, but Pauling was unable to attend due to commitments in Washington D.C. that ran concurrent with the conference. Beyond this, Pauling and Prigogine maintained little in the way of a correspondence.


From the 1987 Solvay Conference in Austin, Texas. Prigogine is pictured in the bottom right. Pauling was unable to attend this conference.

Science for the benefit of humanity is only possible if the scientific attitude is deeply rooted in the culture as a whole. This implies certainly a better dissemination of scientific information on the side of the public, but also on the other a better understanding of the problems of our time by the scientific community.

After spending decades receiving little to no recognition for his work, Prigogine was informed that he would receive the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In a speech of introduction at the Nobel ceremonies, Prigogine was praised not only for his research and its significant impact, but also for the eloquence that had inspired his nickname, “the poet of thermodynamics.”

In his own banquet speech, Prigogine refrained from delving too deeply into his research and instead emphasized the need for cooperation between the scientific community and the surrounding culture. In interviews conducted after he received the Nobel Prize, Prigogine expressed his long-running dissatisfaction with the classical scientific treatment of time, and cited this as the spark that had driven his interests in subjects like thermodynamics, irreversibility, entropy, and dissipative structures.

Prigogine was also a proponent of the principle of “self-organization” or the process through which order arises between local components of a disordered system. Prigogine called this phenomenon “order through fluctuations,” sometimes translated as “order out of chaos” because of its association with entropy production. He proposed that these fluctuations eventually led to a state of irreversibility that could go in two directions: evolution or disorder. For Prigogine, the nature of these fluctuations served as the link between biological evolution and thermodynamics that he had sought to uncover for his entire career.


The future is uncertain…but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.

By the time of his death in May 2003, Ilya Prigogine had written or co-authored eight books. In addition to his Nobel Prize, he received fifty-three honorary doctorates and won a bevy of awards including The Descartes Medal, the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, and the Swedish Academy’s Rumford Gold Medal. He belonged to sixty-four national and professional organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1989, the king of Belgium bestowed upon Prigogine the title of Viscount, an especially significant honor for someone who had not been born in Belgium.

In 2003, shortly before his death, Prigogine signed the third Humanist Manifesto, pledging, along with twenty-two other Nobel Laureates, to “lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” In this, as in his undaunted and hugely creative pursuit of scientific truth, Prigogine was among Linus Pauling’s scientific brethren.

Pauling and Asimov: Playful Needling, Mutual Respect


[Part 2 of 2]

By the late 1980s, Linus Pauling had expanded his editorial quest with his old friend Isaac Asimov. No longer content to just correct more current publications, Pauling was now dredging up Asimov’s old errors. In this, one is able to intuit a certain playfulness on Pauling’s part, as if correcting these past inaccuracies served mainly as fodder for continuing the banter between two long-time acquaintances.

Specifically, in 1989 Pauling wrote to Asimov about a 1982 article that he had published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Erroneously, but perhaps seeking to needle his correspondent a bit, Pauling opened this particular note by saying that

The mistake that I’m writing to you about today is, I think, only the second one that I have noticed in your writings. Perhaps it gives me some pleasure to think that you are not infallible.

In the piece under retrospective review, Asimov had claimed that a double bond was weaker than a single bond, which Pauling assured him was all wrong. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, Pauling conveyed to Asimov that, by various criteria, a double bond is found to be about twice as strong as a single bond.

“What you are really thinking about, but not clearly,” he went on, “is that a double bond is sometimes weaker than two single bonds between atoms of the same two kinds.” In his text, Asimov had claimed that a double carbon-oxygen bond was weaker than a carbon-oxygen single bond, but Pauling clarified that what he probably meant was that the double bond energy of carbon-oxygen in some molecular structures might be a little less than the energy of two single carbon-oxygen bonds.

One can easily imagine Asimov shaking his head a bit as he penned his response. “Chalk up one more mistake I’ll never make again. Unfortunately, I keep thinking up brand new mistakes.” He then added, perhaps with a tinge of sarcasm, “How fortunate I am to have you as a friend!”

Throughout the remainder of his years, Pauling continued to provide these apparently good natured criticisms, announcing on another occasion that he was “pleased to report” that he had found another place where the great science fiction writer had slipped up.

This time, in yet another recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov discussed the Doppler effect. In it, he explained that sound waves are closer together when emanating from an approaching train than they would be if the train had been standing still and, as such, that the wave length upon approach is thus longer and the pitch lower. Pauling pointed out that, in fact, the opposite was true: the wave length was shorter and the pitch higher as the train was approaching.

In his retort, Asimov excused this particular error on the grounds that, “the damned typesetter left out a line or two.”

“I don’t mind making a mistake and being corrected,” he continued, “but it does bother one to have someone else make the mistake and make you look like a fool – but it happens to all of us.”


As 1990 rolled around and Linus Pauling stepped down as director of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, he perhaps had a bit more spare time on his hands; time which he could dedicate to writing more helpful letters to his pen pal Isaac Asimov!

By now Pauling was reciting inaccuracies from memory, in one instance having apparently lost the article under consideration and unable to clearly recall what it was even about (“I think, cold fusion…” Pauling mused, though remaining unsure). On less stable footing that usual, Pauling offered an editorial olive branch of sorts, praising Asimov for so “rarely” making mistakes before nonetheless correcting yet another error, this one having to do with dideuterium molecules and their protons and electrons.

In case that wasn’t enough, Pauling’s concern for Asimov’s writing soon went beyond its scientific content. In a 1991 letter, Pauling criticized Asimov’s usage of the word “escapees” in a recent article. Pauling defended his stance with an appeal to the adjudicators of such things: “I join with authorities on the English language,” he argued, “Fowler’s Modern Usage, Second Edition, 1965 says ‘Escapee is a superfluous word that should not be allowed to usurp the place of escaper. One might as well call deserters ‘desertees.'”


Though on the surface it may not always have appeared to be so, a strong bond of mutual respect was nestled within what sometimes came across as a rather pedantic relationship between one of the great scientists and one of the great science fiction writers in human history. Delighted as he was to spot an error, Pauling confessed to Asimov that, for years, he had admired his very broad knowledge of science and his ability to present it in an accessible and exciting way to a general group of readers. He likewise added that he greatly appreciated Asimov’s excellent use of English, stray use of “escapee” not withstanding.

After Asimov passed away in April 1992, Pauling sent a heartfelt letter to his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov. “I am sure you know that I was very fond of Isaac,” he told her. “I read his articles with much pleasure and some profit (he occasionally presented facts that were new to me). From time to time, too, I had the pleasure of corresponding with him.”

Indeed, Pauling respected Asimov not only as an author and a purveyor of general scientific knowledge to the public, but also as an advocate for social change. Isaac Asimov had been president of the American Humanist Association from 1985 until his death, and in that time the organization operated throughout the United States and internationally as an agnostic ministry and educational outreach organization that hoped to teach others to do good and to preserve peace and prosperity for humanity regardless of religious creed. With such a list of accomplishments to his name, it is easy to see why Pauling gravitated to Asimov. As Pauling said in his final letter to Janet Jeppson Asimov, “He was a truly remarkable person.”

Letters to Asimov


Isaac Asimov

[Part 1 of 2]

If you were to explore Linus Pauling’s extensive personal library, which covers everything from ancient philosophy to the life and times of Joseph Priestley to novels authored by John Grisham, you would find a large and dog-eared section dedicated to science fiction. Pauling was an avid reader of the genre and one of his favorite authors was Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation Trilogy and Pebble in the Sky were left a little weak in the binding by Pauling from repeated reads. Pauling was so taken with these and other sci-fi works that he even briefly considered writing a novel himself, though he never found the time amidst all of his other pursuits.

Pauling’s connection to the world of science fiction remained especially tied to a periodical called Fantasy and Science Fiction, which he read thoroughly and often, and in which Isaac Asimov frequently published. Initially through this joint association with the periodical, Pauling and Asimov developed a robust correspondence that lasted for many years. The duo’s relationship evolved accordingly, with Pauling often serving as a volunteer editor, a sometimes royal “pain in the Asimov,” and always a steadfast friend.


Ever watchful and equipped with a critical eye, Pauling regularly expressed qualms with multiple science fiction writers, including some of his favorites, like Asimov. Pauling’s correspondence with Asimov began in 1959 with a fan letter of sorts, which Asimov later praised for, “the gracious way in which [it] referred to my work,” as well as the pride that it had bestowed upon him to feel that he had, “however tangentially and distantly,” been an inspiration to Linus Pauling.  Asimov considered Pauling to be one of the greatest scientists alive, and in 1963 he listed him in Fantasy and Science Fiction as being among the top 72 scientists of all time.

Naturally, Pauling was pleased to be viewed in this way and quickly wrote to Asimov to thank him for the plaudit. However, being something of a perfectionist, he also suggested a slightly altered description of his work for increased accuracy, in the event that Asimov might use the sketch for future publications.

Pauling’s “first round of edits” on Asimov’s work didn’t stop there, as he had noticed a far more egregious error in Asimov’s list of great scientists: namely, quantum theorist Louis de Broglie was listed as having died, but Pauling assured Asimov that de Broglie was most definitely still alive. In his reply, Asimov identified the source of his error: he had accidentally looked up Louis’ brother Maurice, who had died in 1960, in a careless perusal of Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. “I am quite embarrassed at having mistakenly killed poor de Broglie,” Asimov wrote, adding, “I can assure you that I have unkilled him.”

Their correspondence continued, and a year later Pauling wrote with more corrections on some calculations that Asimov had published concerning the mass of electrons replacing the sun and the mass of electrons replacing the Earth – proportional to the true masses of the sun and the Earth – required to produce a force of electrostatic repulsion equal to the gravitational force of attraction between the sun and the Earth at the same distance. Pauling explained that, upon review, he found the two masses that Asimov had given to be rather a bit too small:

The factor needed to correct each of them is a large number: it is 1 followed by 21 zeros. From time to time teachers and students write to me to point out errors in my books College Chemistry and General Chemistry. So far, I think, no one has reported an error in these books quite so large as this one.

Asimov replied that the figures had seemed small to him as well but that, in writing the original piece, he had gone over the mathematics and, believing the reasoning to be sound, had convinced himself that common sense and intuition on the matter were irrelevant. He admitted

when I got your letter, my heart sank for I knew I was wrong if you said I was. Thank you, Professor Pauling, for taking the trouble and time to save me from my own stupidity… For heavens’ sake, please don’t stop reading my articles. I need someone to catch these points.


In retrospect, it would appear that Asimov had opened Pandora’s Box as, after inviting Pauling to pay close attention to his science fiction writing, the letters correcting his work became far more frequent.

A characteristic example came about by way of a 1978 submission to Fantasy and Science Fiction. In it, Asimov claimed that the French scientists Guillaume Amontons and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac had observed that if a gas at the freezing point of water was decreased in temperature to -1 C, then both the volume and the pressure of the gas would decline by 1/273 of the temperature. Pauling declared in no uncertain terms that, “This statement and the rest of the discussion on this page are wrong.”

What Asimov should have said, Pauling explained, was that if the volume is constant, the pressure decreases by 1/273. Likewise, if pressure is kept constant, then volume decreases by 1/273. As such, “if for some reason the fractional decrease in volume were kept the same as the fractional decrease in pressure, each of them would be 1/546.”

Asimov responded courteously. “It is always with mingled pride and apprehension that I realize you have your eye on me,” he wrote. “You remain my favorite scientist, and may you continue to flourish for seven more decades at least.”

Pauling did indeed continue to flourish, and even as he neared the twilight of his life the letters to Asimov still showed up. To wit: in a 1986 piece, Asimov had claimed that the curvature of the Earth was 0.000012 miles to the mile. This, Pauling alerted him, would make curvature dimensionless. “The usual definition of curvature is that it is the reciprocal of the radius of curvature, which for the earth is 4,000 miles,” he corrected. “Accordingly, the curvature of the earth is 0.00025 reciprocal miles.”

The quantity that Asimov gave for the curvature, according to Pauling, yielded the correct answer only by ignoring his error in dimensions and only at a distance of 3.3 miles from a given point on the surface of the Earth, but not at any other distance. Asimov replied with dismay: he had done some “quick back of the envelope calculations and was, of course, egregiously wrong.”

The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries: Now Accepting Applications

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its tenth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in SCARC. Stipends of $2,500 per month, renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500), will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2017.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. Many past Resident Scholars have engaged primarily with the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link):

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Remembering Jack Roberts


Jack Roberts

On October 29, 2016, John D. “Jack” Roberts, renowned scientist, professor, and pioneer in organic chemistry, died of a stroke at the age of 98. Roberts was a colleague of Linus Pauling’s at Caltech during the 1950s and early 1960s, and a friend until Pauling’s death in 1994. During a career at Caltech that spanned more than sixty years, Roberts served as chairman of the chemistry department as well as Institute vice president, provost, and dean of faculty. As a scientist, Roberts pioneered techniques in organic and physical chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). He also expanded the range of interdisciplinary study within the chemical sciences, focusing in particular on the application of experimental techniques of physical chemistry to organic molecules.

Jack Dombrowski Roberts was born in 1918 in Los Angeles, “where the freeways cross,” as he said in a 2007 interview. He developed an interest in science at an early age, and was particularly captivated by Einstein’s theory of relativity, taking advantage of his location to attend open houses held at Caltech while Einstein was a visiting professor. These events, as well as the opportunity to see Caltech’s impressive high voltage lab, made a deep impression on him growing up. Thus inspired, he and a cousin conducted frequent experiments in a home-built lab, sometimes resulting in accidents or explosions that warranted a visit to the doctor.

Although he wanted to attend Caltech, Roberts chose UCLA because of financial considerations. Even so, he worked six days a week at a bakery to pay for his tuition up until his sophomore year, when he accepted a research position. Because UCLA didn’t have a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the time, Roberts was enlisted to work as a lab assistant, a position that would have ordinarily gone to a doctoral candidate. (As a sophomore, Roberts learned the techniques of glass blowing so that he could make his own equipment.) In later years, Roberts reflected on this time fondly, recounting with a laugh some of the eccentricities of his lab mates, classmates, and UCLA professors. Indeed, he attributed most of his future success to the unique opportunities and relationships with faculty that he enjoyed during this time. Of particular note was his connection with Professor William G. Young, who became a close friend, and for whom Roberts wrote a biographical memoir when Young died in 1980.

Following a brief foray into graduate work at Penn State, the attack on Pearl Harbor called Roberts to return to UCLA. Once back, he worked on war projects related to oxygenation and deoxygenation.  On July 11, 1942, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Edith Johnson, and the pair settled happily in L.A. Edith had attended UC Berkeley for one and a half years before going into the insurance business to help support her family. While he was working on his thesis, Jack would wake up early with Edith and usually be the first person in the lab. Often Edith would come to his lab after work and fix dinner over a Bunsen burner. They were married for sixty-eight years, until Edith’s death in 2010


Jack and Edith Roberts

After completing his thesis in 1944, Roberts began lecturing at UCLA as a post-doc and pursuing his own research projects on cyclopropyl chloride. He enjoyed the position and the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues and students alike. One particular colleague, Paul Bartlett, made such a strong impression on him that he applied for and received a year-long National Research Council Fellowship to work with Bartlett at Harvard University. While there, Roberts continued his work on cyclopropyl chloride and began a new inquiry into metalation.

Roberts accepted a position at MIT after his fellowship, buoyed by the support of Arthur Cope, chair of the MIT Chemistry department. As chair, Cope was intent on changing the dynamic at MIT by inviting new professors to the campus and reinstating a strong research focus. Once settled, Roberts immersed himself in resonance theory and quantum chemistry. By then, Roberts had realized that quantum mechanics was slowly outranking more classical research practice, and he wanted his classes to reflect this shift, despite his relative inexperience with the subject. In order to do so, he taught himself the basics almost overnight, thus challenging himself nearly as much as his students.

While he was at MIT, Roberts also worked as a consultant for DuPont and became involved with research on molecular orbital theory, on which he published a few papers as well as a successful book. He incorporated these ideas into his lectures as well, and his students responded enthusiastically. Importantly, a colleague, Richard Ogg, introduced the concept of NMR to Roberts while he was affiliated with DuPont, but it was a few more years before the ideas really took told for Roberts.

Roberts recalled his time at MIT as fruitful, yet troubled. While he won more space for the chemistry department and enjoyed the motivated students with whom he worked, the department’s older faculty – those who dated to the era before Arthur Cope had become chair – held both Cope and Roberts in low regard. As such, when Ernest Swift offered him a job at Caltech in 1952, Roberts was quick to accept. Once arrived, he became acquainted with a number of extraordinary scientists, including Linus Pauling. Friends and former colleagues of Roberts expressed concerns that Pauling tended to overshadow the scientists with whom he worked, but Roberts and Pauling quickly established a mutual respect for one another. Roberts especially appreciated Pauling’s multidisciplinary exploration and his attention to teaching and inclusivity.

Their shared commitment to that last characteristic was demonstrated by the case of Dorothy Semenow, the first female graduate student at Caltech, whose enrollment Pauling and Roberts were instrumental in bringing about. In his later years, Roberts said that this milestone in Caltech’s history, was “clearly the best thing I have done at Caltech in the sixty years I’ve been here.” Semenow received her degree in chemistry and biology in 1955 and, after her admittance, Caltech relaxed its policies regarding gender, agreeing to accept female students who exhibited “exceptional” aptitude and who could prove that they were of the same high caliber as the Institute’s male students. Caltech went completely co-ed in the 1970s.


Roberts in lecture, 1962.

As he became more deeply involved with spectroscopy, Roberts garnered support from Pauling to bring NMR technology to Caltech, arguing that the the investment would give Institute chemists a powerful new structural tool to study organic compounds. Roberts had clearly chosen the right ally; not only did Pauling secure funding, he also assigned space for Roberts and his team to work in the newly constructed Church lab. In addition to the research that he conducted using the machine, Roberts was also responsible for maintaining it and expanding the scope of its use, tasks which proved alternately frustrating and rewarding.

Later on, space arose as a different sort of issue, when a disagreement arose over laboratory allocations for Pauling’s orthomolecular research. In 1963, newly appointed as chairman of the chemistry department, Roberts approached Pauling about giving up two of his rooms in order to fulfill promises that the department had made to newly appointed faculty. The issue was debated for weeks, with Pauling pushing for a different approach in which he would give up one room and share others, thereby yielding the same square footage while, in his view, using the spaces that he did have more efficiently.

Roberts rejected some of Pauling’s suggestions and accepted others in what he later remembered to be a reasonable and civilized resolution. Pauling saw the matter differently, claiming that Roberts had expressed little regard for his orthomolecular research. Though the issue of space allocation was ultimately passed on to a committee that came to a compromise requiring Pauling to give up less space than initially proposed, the conflict was one of many reasons why, at the end of 1963, Pauling ultimately decided to seek opportunities elsewhere.

When Pauling decided to leave Caltech, Roberts was the second person that Pauling told, the first being Ava Helen. Shortly after Pauling resigned, Roberts offered him an honorary position of sorts, as a research associate. Pauling accepted, with the caveat that he not have an office, a salary, or duties. But Pauling’s continuing involvement with Caltech was important to Roberts, who valued Pauling’s scientific legacy and never took issue with the political stances that had led to soured relationships with so many others in Pasadena. Reflecting specifically on Pauling’s work as an activist, Roberts said

It seems to me that, in the long run, you do better to be known as a bastion of integrity than as a weather vane, responsive only to the directions whence the money winds blow.

Though no longer close scientific colleagues, Pauling and Roberts continued to exchange letters and Christmas cards for the rest of Pauling’s life.


Roberts family holiday card, with accompanying diagram. 1993.

Meanwhile, Roberts was writing extensively. In 1959, he published Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, an influential text which included his own color illustrations. In 1977, he and Marjorie Caserio, one of his post-doctoral fellows, co-authored Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry, the manuscript of which Pauling had helped to edit. Roberts spoke with pride of sending his four children to Stanford by giving them the copyright to another successful book, Organic Chemistry: Methane to Macromolecules, which he co-authored with Ross Stewart. Roberts was also very active with the National Science Foundation, evaluating projects and grant proposals.

In 1980, Roberts received the Linus Pauling Medal from the Puget Sound and Oregon sections of the American Chemical Society, a distinction rewarding contributions to chemistry that have attracted national and international recognition. In 1987, Roberts received an even more prestigious decoration, the Priestley Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society and an award that Pauling himself had received three years prior. In his acceptance speech, Roberts praised Caltech as having been “the ideal place” for him to pursue his scientific career. He likewise affirmed Pauling’s scientific work and his political activism as well, stating

I am glad that Linus is also associated with Priestley, not only for his contributions to chemistry, but even more for his adherence to the same high moral and social principles. Chemistry – indeed the world – needs more men and women with not only the ideas of Priestley and Pauling, but also with the same willingness to work to establish those ideals in a far-from-perfect world.

From 1980-1983, Roberts served as Caltech’s provost, vice president, and dean of faculty. He officially retired in 1988, but continued to mentor students well into his nineties as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at Caltech, providing the same inspiration and encouragement that he himself had received at the Institute’s open houses during his youth. Roberts also reveled in the achievements of his children and his students, writing, in his autobiography, “One does not achieve in a vacuum—people are needed, not only to help, but to appreciate. 

At the time of his death, Roberts had taught at Caltech for over sixty years and had earned honorary degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Munich, and Temple University. In 1998, he was named one of the seventy-five most influential chemists of the last seventy-five years. He later received the National Academy of Science Award for Chemistry in Service to Society (2009) and the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal (2013). He will be remembered as a pioneer in physical organic chemistry, an extraordinary scientist, and an invaluable mentor.

The Nixon Doctrine and the End of the Vietnam War


An image of the April 24, 1971 March on Washington, as held in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. The Paulings participated in a companion march held in San Francisco that same day.

[Pauling and the Vietnam War, Part 7 of 7]

“The American people are now learning the truth about the war…our entry into it on a great scale without even a request from South Vietnam…the corruption, the complete absence of a rational and moral goal…and the American people are now determined to bring this madness to an end.”

-Linus Pauling, 1969

In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at the age of seventy-nine and was replaced by Premier Pham Van Dong. At this same time, the anti-war movement was gaining considerable strength in the United States. In October, a “Vietnam Moratorium Day” was declared, during which students and faculty alike walked off of campuses across the country to talk about the war with members of their community.

At Stanford University, Linus Pauling, who had recently taken a position there as a visiting lecturer, was a central figure in this event. On the evening of the moratorium, he delivered a speech in which he proclaimed that the American people were finally learning the truth about the Vietnam War and the United States’ “cold blooded” ambition to retain control of Southeast Asia as part of a Western capitalist “economic sphere.” He delivered a similar message a month later in a talk given at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. A story on the event, published in the Montgomery Advertiser, quoted Pauling as follows:

We – you and I and the majority of Americans – who are going to stop this war, are now face to face in opposition to the small group of rich and powerful people who are using their power to keep the war going, year after year: the people who benefit from the war, the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon and the war contractors who get the 15 billion dollars per year of excess profits on the guns, bombs, Napalm, planes and other instruments of war; and also the politicians, such as President Nixon, who are indebted to them.

The United States’ new President, Richard Nixon, had begun the troop withdrawals that he had promised on the campaign trail the year before. His plan, dubbed the
Nixon Doctrine, was to build up the Army of South Vietnam to the point where they could take over the defense of their own country. This policy came to be known as “Vietnamization.” Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese – and by extension the National Liberation Front – with aid. By 1970, Nixon announced that 150,000 U.S. soldiers would be withdrawn over the next year, thus reducing the American troop presence by about 265,500 people from the time when he had entered office.

However, at the same time, Nixon ordered a massive increase in bombing along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, and likewise redeployed many of the withdrawn troops to areas along the coast or just outside of Vietnam. These actions incited huge protests by those outraged by the President’s apparent subversion of his promise to de-escalate the war effort.

Pauling was among those who protested, speaking out in particular against the bombing incursions into Cambodia.  While attending a benefit in support of the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to End the War, Pauling also declared that it had made him “sick” when Nixon stated before Congress that he would draw down troop numbers, and then, “five days later,” sent aircraft and ground troops to Cambodia. In response, Pauling suggested that everyone in the Bay Area “get sick” and take a week off of work. He explained his rationale as such:

When everyone is sick, the work stops, the economy is slowed down. If there is such an epidemic here, during the next week, it might spread over the whole country! Let our slogan be, “We’re sick of the war.”

Illness of another sort was also on Pauling’s mind. Around the same time that he proposed calling in sick to work, Pauling also recorded a radio address for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles on the subject of defoliant use in Vietnam. By 1968, he explained, 500,000 acres of cropland had been destroyed in Vietnam through the use of herbicides, some of which contained arsenic compounds. Not only did this action purposely lead to the starvation and death of civilians – especially the young and elderly – but Pauling attested that four scientists returning from South Vietnam with samples of food, hair, mother’s milk, and other substances had found them to be contaminated by these highly toxic herbicides.

Moreover, some of the herbicides being used in the war effort were not only very lethal but also very stable, and Pauling emphasized that these poisonous compounds would remain in the ecosystems of Vietnam for many years. Pauling further pointed out that several of the herbicides had been developed deliberately for the purpose of crop destruction as a tool of war by E.J. Kraus, the chairman of the Botany department at the University of Chicago. Pauling saw this as a violation of the proper role of university research, and cast aspersions upon the influence that the military and corporate war profiteers alike were gaining with respect to his academic colleagues’ research agendas.


The Paulings at an unidentified peace rally, possibly the April 24, 1971 San Francisco companion event to the March on Washington.

As these and other horrors of the Vietnam War gained increasing media traction, the anti-war movement, and the concurrent withdrawal of troops, continued. In 1971, Australia and New Zealand withdrew their complements of soldiers, and the American troop count was likewise further reduced to 196,700, with the return of an additional 45,000 troops promised for 1972. But even as this significant drawdown in ground forces was underway, significant U.S. naval and air might remained in the Gulf of Tonkin, as well as in Thailand and Guam.

From Pauling’s perspective, the major problem now hampering on-going peace talks in Paris was President Nixon’s continuing support of Generals Thieu and Ky of South Vietnam, political figureheads who had been put into power following a United States-sanctioned coup that had resulted in the assassination of the previous leader, President Diem. Both the North and many citizens of South Vietnam now refused to acknowledge these men as representatives of the provisional government of South Vietnam, and negotiations predictably suffered as a consequence.

In May 1972, a group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and calling itself Hostages for Peace organized an extraordinary measure in an attempt to curb the violence in Southeast Asia. The group circulated a pledge which read as follows:

We, the undersigned American citizens, declare our willingness to go to Hanoi and Haiphong, and to declare ourselves Peace Hostages to protect Vietnamese citizens and American prisoners of war from American bombing. We each agree to spend at least two weeks in northern Vietnam until all the bombing of the area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and meteriel are removed from Indochina.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling signed this pledge, agreeing to use themselves, effectively, as human shields against further American bombardment of North Vietnam. It was a courageous and potentially deadly commitment that the couple would, thankfully, not be called upon to realize.


“Hostages for Peace Pledge.” May 6, 1972.

On January 15, 1973, just weeks after a major bombing offensive had decimated what remained of North Vietnam’s economic and industrial capacity, President Nixon ended all military action against the North. The Paris Peace Accords were signed twelve days later, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was subsequently declared across North and South Vietnam, and U.S. prisoners of war were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and the South.

In other words, the conditions that Ho Chi Minh had made clear to Linus Pauling in 1965, and which Pauling had argued in favor of for the past eight years, had now been codified as an international agreement. In that time, it is estimated that anywhere from 800,000 to just over a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on all sides were killed, in addition to 200,000 Cambodians and 60,000 Laotians. Over 58,000 U.S. soldiers also lost their lives, with more than 1,500 still missing in action.

Tragically, like the Geneva Accords before them, the Paris Peace Accords were quickly broken. In 1974, the Viet Cong resumed military operations, and South Vietnam’s President Thieu declared that the Paris agreement was no longer in effect.

But this time, no American help arrived. In 1975, President Gerald Ford requested that Congress fund the re-supply of South Vietnam to defeat the National Liberation Front, who were now aided by a formal North Vietnamese invading force that was well-equipped, in large part, by other communist countries. Ford’s request was refused, and on April 27th, 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, shelling the city while American helicopters evacuated vulnerable South Vietnamese citizens until the North’s tanks finally breached the lines of the South Vietnamese Army and captured the city.

In July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and, over the next ten years, more than one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, with as many as 165,000 dying as a result.

After the war’s end, Linus Pauling carefully filed away the letters, the posters from various protests and anti-war lectures, and the memories of a long and bitter conflict. Included in these papers was correspondence concerning the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s 26th celebration of nationhood in 1971. Though he was not in Hanoi for the event, Pauling had been in contact with a group that was, National Peace Action Coalition representatives Judy Lerner, David McReynolds, James and Patricia Lafferty, Joseph Urgo, and Ruth Colby.

The group had been met by the Peoples’ Coalition for Peace and Justice of North Vietnam, which hosted their visit. At the birthday celebration, where Premier Pham Van Dong declared the regime of the south fascist and called for the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to unite to gain, “freedom, independence, peace and friendship, happiness and prosperity” for all of Indochina, the Americans were invited to make a statement of their own. Taking the stage, they articulated their feelings as best as they could:

No words of ours can fully express how deeply we have been moved by the way in which we have been received. We, citizens of a nation that has brought such terrible suffering to the peoples of Indochina, have been received as friends. The people of Vietnam understand that it is the rulers of the United States and not its citizens who are the enemy of the Vietnamese. One of our members is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it would have been natural if he had been received with hostility. Instead, the guide in the War Museum embraced him with tears in his eyes – a simple human encounter which lifted both men above the level of being Vietnamese or American, to the level of brothers who suffered together in this, the most tragic war America has ever waged.

As North Vietnam celebrated its independence – an independence that had never been gained by South Vietnam – the American delegation in Hanoi affirmed again that, as the anti-war movement in the United States continued to swell, they would do everything in their power to end the conflict. This was a cause to which Linus and Ava Helen Pauling likewise devoted considerable energy over a full decade, and one that ultimately – through the pressure placed upon the governments involved by many such individuals throughout the world – played an important role in ending the Vietnam War.