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.

The Road to Oslo: Accolades from Allies

Handmade card honoring the Paulings, 1963.

Handmade card honoring the Paulings, 1963.

[Examining Pauling’s activities in November 1963, Part 2 of 2]

Away from the stress of managing his public image, Pauling’s response to the flood of supportive letters that he received was one of gratitude as he recognized that he would not have won the Nobel Peace Prize without the work of many others around the world. In the November issue of War/Peace Report, Pauling pointed out, “I share this prize with the major part of the scientific community and especially with Bertrand Russell.” As more and more letters came in, he began to expand his recognitions even further. In response to a telegram from the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, L. John Collins, Pauling agreed that the Peace Prize

was a ‘richly deserved honor,’ as you say. In fact, I think that there was a good bit of luck involved – perhaps that the Norwegian Nobel Committee felt that I was a good representative of the organized and disorganized nuclear disarmament movement.

Additionally, the award was “having a great influence on the peace workers of the whole world,” as Pauling told the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. Ultimately, as Pauling would confess to the President of the Women’s Union of Argentina, the Peace Prize was “an honor not earned by me alone, but rather also by you and your associates, and by other peace workers throughout the whole world.”

The attention Pauling received from various organizations after winning the Peace Prize could only have made his indebtedness to other peace workers more apparent to himself. Teas and dinners were held in Pauling’s honor around Pasadena while the American Civil Liberties Union feted him at the Annual Bill of Rights Banquet in Los Angeles alongside Leroy Johnson, the first African-American state senator in Georgia since 1871. Pauling was surrounded by supporters and fellow peace advocates, assuring him he was not alone.

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Pauling also garnered celebratory attention from the peace community with the establishment of the American Peace Prize. The October issue of the newsletter Peace Concern, published in Montpelier, Vermont, announced the formation of a prize which would match the $51,000 that came with the Nobel award. The American fund would be compiled through donations from individuals of one dollar each. By the end of the year, bolstered by organizational assistance from the group Women for Peace, over 1,000 people had made donations of varying amounts for peace work that would be administered by the Paulings. The controversy created by the editorial in Life also stirred the writers of Peace Concern to note that the American Peace Prize

does strengthen our feeling that the American peace movement can, through the American Peace Prize, avail itself of the pleasure of kicking in the face (nonviolently, now!) ‘Life’s’ assertion that ‘…the eccentric Dr. Pauling and his weird politics have never been taken seriously by American opinion.’

The American Nobel Memorial Foundation likewise emerged as an organization that wanted to honor Pauling, but they quickly aroused his suspicion. Pauling was first approached by the executive chairman of the foundation, Jacques F. Ferrand, in a letter dated October 21, in which he reminded Pauling that he had attended the foundation’s dinner in 1961 and requested that he join them again at their upcoming dinner at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Ferrand further proposed that, at this dinner, which would also be attended by senators and members of congress, they form a “committee for nominations” for Nobel Peace Prize candidates and recipients.

In just over a week, Pauling responded that he saw “no need for deliberation by such a Forum” since many people, including members of the Senate and Congress, could make nominations as individuals. Setting up a parallel forum for nominating and selecting recipients concerned Pauling. Pauling also sent carbon copies to others in hopes of alerting them to the activities of the foundation. Among these correspondents was Albert Szent-Györgyi, the discoverer of vitamin C and winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize for Physiology. Pauling pointed out to Szent-Györgyi that the American Nobel Memorial Foundation claimed him as Honorary Chairman.

Szent-Györgyi replied that he was surprised but presumed “that they have asked my permission to use my name and it is quite possible that I consented. In any case, I have forgotten about it.” What he did know about the foundation was that “the Nobel Committee, in Stockholm…disavowed all connection with the American Nobel Memorial Foundation,” something that Pauling would find out for himself as he had also written Gunnar Jahn of the Nobel Committee about the matter.

Ferrand “was not only surprised but most disillusioned” by Pauling’s response, and hoped that the two of them could work out a way for the public to be more directly involved in selecting Peace Prize recipients through their representatives in government. Pauling maintained his position, reiterating his suspicions of the foundation’s proposed actions and asking for copies of its legal documents, such as its articles of incorporation. This last move by Pauling seems to have silenced Ferrand. In April of the following year, New York State Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz brought charges against the American Nobel Memorial Foundation on behalf of the Swedish Embassy for using the Nobel name under misleading circumstances.

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Amidst all of the accolades and controversy, Pauling still had to plan his trip, which he eventually decided to restrict to Norway and Sweden. It is customary for Nobel Laureates not to give any public talks between their nomination and acceptance, yet the Norwegian Student Association approached Pauling about speaking on the day of the Nobel ceremonies at a separate ceremony that combined the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights with an anti-apartheid meeting.

August Schon, the director of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, had alerted Pauling to the possibility that he might be approached by the students and reminded him of the usual practice of laureates not speaking before the acceptance of their award. Pauling’s response to the Norwegian Student Association was much more straight forward: he simply was too busy, with a note to himself that he “shouldn’t do anything else.” Inundated by a flood of invitations, Pauling delegated the scheduling and planning of his post-acceptance speaking tour to Otto Bastiansen, a professor at Oslo University.

Fortunately, Pauling and Ava Helen were able to get away to their ranch for some peace and quiet at the end of November before leaving for Europe. While at the ranch, Pauling worked on his acceptance speech and his Nobel Lecture, “Science and Peace,” while Ava Helen likewise drafted speeches that she had been invited to give. Pauling had become so adept at writing his speeches, the draft that he left the ranch with, which he composed over six days, remained largely unaltered once he reached the podium in Oslo.

Linus Pauling baseball!

As the Phillies and Rays prepare for another rendition of the Fall Classic, we thought it appropriate to share with you one of our favorite pieces of video:  Linus Pauling playing beach baseball at a Caltech chemistry department picnic in 1938.

Author of more than 1,100 published articles and inarguably one of history’s great minds, Pauling’s knowledge of the strike zone was, evidently, a little less authoritative.  And while coaches around the world would surely appreciate Pauling’s hustle on the basepaths, one does fear for the safety of those enlisted to play third for any team opposing the two-time Nobel prizewinner.

The Linus Pauling baseball clip is just a small segment of “The Edward W. Hughes Tapes,” a series of home movies recorded by Hughes, for twenty-five years a colleague of Pauling’s at Caltech.  The Hughes tapes, which run to just under an hour, offer fascinating glimpses of Caltech social gatherings and Pasadena life over the course of five decades.  Along with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, careful viewers will note the presence of multiple scientific luminaries in the films — Albert Szent-Györgyi, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jerry Donohue, James Watson and Francis Crick, to name a few.

It is worth noting that the tapes also include footage from additional baseball outings at later department picnics.  Pauling — whose general disinclination toward sports was covered here — doesn’t take part in these match-ups.  One who was a bit more interested in tossing it around the diamond was 1976 Nobel chemistry laureate William Lipscomb, who, in 1995, recounted that

[Pauling’s] illness from nephritis and his frequent trips meant that we did not see him very often, but he and his family did occasionally attend the Caltech Chemists games of (intermediate) baseball in the local league.

In a footnote, Lipscomb adds a few memorable details of his time roaming the outfield with The Chemists:

Seventy-five feet between bases, softball, but hardball rules and overhand pitching from 57.5 feet. I made the local newspaper for an unassisted triple play while playing center field.

Oregon State University, of course, has become something of a baseball powerhouse, given the Beavers’ back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.  Our colleagues in the University Archives have created a terrific website documenting the evolution of this program through its centenary: Oregon State Baseball: 100 Years to a National Championship, 1907-2006.