Pauling and the Dutch Stellingen

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1935.

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1935.

LP: One interesting thing that you may not know is that I guess I introduced the proposition system into the United States.

Q: Proposition system?

LP: Yes, in doctor’s examinations.

Q: Oh, the Dutch theses?

LP: The Dutch Stellingen. In 1935, I think it was, I’d been talking about these propositions. The doctor’s examinations were pretty boring, for the faculty anyway. One of my students named Harker, David Harker, volunteered to prepare some propositions. So I said, ‘all right,’ and he brought in about four propositions. This was such a success that the division of chemistry and chemical engineering here required from then on that students prepare and submit a set of propositions. Then, when Harker went to Johns Hopkins, he got them to introduce the system there. Then other students went to Berkeley and various other places so that it’s rather widespread. It even has spread to some physics departments. I wrote a paper about it. One of my papers is on the use of propositions in doctor’s examinations.

Q: Do you encourage the type that Goudsmit used in which he threw in one or two about Egyptian hieroglyphics?

LP: Yes, what the Dutch called the 13th proposition, we encourage that too. One of my students had a proposition that the Southern Pacific, instead of having trains over the Tehachapi, should run buses from Los Angeles to Bakersfield connecting with the train there; and a few years later they did. One student had a 13th proposition: ‘It would be possible for the chemistry division to give two more graduate fellowships without any increase in the budget.’ When he was asked, ‘How could that be done?’ he said, ‘Fire both of the janitors in the building and hire one good one.’ He was complaining about the janitors. Well, I went down into the room in which our seminars used to be given, and opened the door. It was dark; I turned on the light, and there were the janitors sitting in the dark. Just sitting there.

-Linus Pauling, interview with John L. Heilbron,  March 1964

For more facets of Linus Pauling, see Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from the Oregon State University Press.

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Clarifying Three Widespread Quotes

When we find ourselves with a few spare moments, one of our favorite pastimes is conducting Google Blogsearch queries for the term “Linus Pauling.”  Typically we come across a few of the more recent posts that we ourselves have published, catch up with the latest news from The Linus Pauling Quartet and sometimes unearth interesting bits of information that spur new ideas for the PaulingBlog.

One does not have to search for too long, however, before finding one of three quotes that have spread rather dramatically across the internet.  One of these quotes was definitely uttered by Pauling, but is often imperfectly reproduced.  A second quote was actually published, but we have our doubts as to whether or not Pauling really did say it.  The third quote, we and others feel, is likely a fabrication.

Yes: On Having Good Ideas

Pauling delighted in recounting a specific quote on his “method” for having good ideas.  The quote shows up in many forms at various spots on the web, but is probably best recited as follows:

The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.

The provenance of this famous quote is traced to a letter written to Pauling by a former graduate student, David Harker, in commemoration of Pauling’s sixtieth birthday.  Here’s the urtext:

Excerpt from a letter by David Harker to Linus Pauling, February 20, 1961.

Excerpt from a letter by David Harker to Linus Pauling, February 20, 1961.

Listen: Pauling recounts the circumstances of this quote:

Maybe: On Cancer Research

“Everyone should know that most cancer research is largely a fraud, and that the major cancer research organizations are derelict in their duties to the people who support them.”

Google has indexed 547 static webpages that include some version of this quote, attributed to Linus Pauling.  Only one of these 547 pages includes a citation: Outrage! For Those Opposed to Animal Abuse. (Tonbridge, Kent England) 47, October/November 1986.  The staff at Animal Aid, which published this issue of Outrage!, kindly provided us with a scan of the page on which this quote appears — see the lower left-hand side:

pg. 14

Outrage! (Oct/Nov 1986): pg. 14

The first detail that pops out to us is that there is no citation provided for the quote.  It’s pretty clear too, that the quote was not given by Pauling as an exclusive to Outrage! Moreover — and most importantly — it seems unlikely to us that Pauling would paint with such a clumsy brush in recounting his feelings about cancer research.

The background to the cancer research circumstance is fascinating but too complex for us to detail here. (Evelleen Richards’ tremendous Vitamin C and Cancer: Medicine or Politics? is highly recommended for those interested in the whole story)  For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that Pauling took considerable umbrage with a series of trials conducted by the Mayo Clinic, first in 1979 and later in 1985, that purported to refute his and Ewan Cameron‘s work on the potential for treating cancer with large amounts of ascorbic acid. (A bit more background is here and here.) One of Pauling’s major complaints was that the Mayo Clinic had misrepresented its trial methods in a manner that biased the data toward its eventual conclusion.  In her book, Richards includes the text of a slide that Pauling often used in his post-Mayo lectures on vitamin C and cancer:

The Mayo article is misleading and dishonest.  It might be described as fraudulent.  It purported to be a repetition of Dr. Cameron’s study, but it was greatly different, in a way that the Mayo Clinic investigators succeeded in hiding from the readers of their paper.

Clearly Pauling was deeply upset about the Mayo trials and their conclusions — his anger on this matter is well-documented in the Pauling archive — and he obviously wasn’t against describing the Mayo work as “fraudulent.”  However, his extending that description to “most cancer research” strikes us as being out of character.  Pauling was a very clear thinker and a careful writer, and it seems to us that his feelings about cancer research, circa 1986, are more likely summed up by these extracts from his book How to Live Longer and Feel Better

Despite the great amount of money and effort expended in the study of cancer, progress during the last twenty-five years has been slow.  A significant increase in survival time after diagnosis was achieved about thirty years ago, largely through improvements in the techniques of surgery and anesthesia.  During the last twenty-five years some improvement in treatment of certain kinds of cancer has been achieved, mainly through the use of high-energy radiation and chemotherapy, but for most kinds of cancer there has been essentially no decrease in either incidence or length of time of survival after diagnosis, and it has become evident that some new ideas are needed, if greater control over this scourge is to be achieved.

Critical?  For sure.  But hardly incendiary. None of this, of course, is proof that Pauling, in a fit of pique, didn’t one day lump most cancer research under the “Fraud” heading.  Our feeling is that it is unlikely.  But even if he did, the calmer and more balanced 1986 quote is surely more indicative of his true feelings on the matter.

Probably Not: On the Importance of Minerals

“You can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.”

This one shows up on roughly 1,500 web pages and is uniformly uncited.  Importantly, most of the 1,500 sites on which the text is used are attempting to sell a product. In the Spring/Summer 2003 edition of their newsletter, the Linus Pauling Institute staff directly addressed the dubious nature of these thoughts on minerals.

A statement purportedly attributed to Linus Pauling has proliferated on the Internet, often in association with the sale of mineral supplements. The alleged quote is usually akin to “You can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.” We are reasonably certain that Pauling never made such a statement for the obvious reason that it is untrue. Pauling was interested in the health effects of micronutrients, especially vitamin C, the vitamin that absorbed his interest for almost thirty years. Throughout his career, Pauling used x-ray diffraction to elucidate the molecular structure of many inorganic substances, such as minerals, and organic substances like proteins. If he had been particularly interested in the health benefits of minerals, he would have focused his research in this direction. There is no evidence in the published literature that he did so.

Indeed, while Pauling does recommend taking a mineral supplement every day as part of his “Regimen for Better Health” (How to Live Longer and Feel Better, p. 9) he specifically warns against overdoing it (p. 12), noting that

The essential minerals differ from the vitamins in that overdoses of minerals may be harmful.  Do not increase your vitamin intake by taking a large number of vitamin-mineral tablets.  Limit your mineral intake to the recommended amounts.

This from a guy who was taking 18 grams of vitamin C at the time that he was authoring How to Live Longer…

We feel reasonably confident in our research on the items discussed in this post.  However, if anyone can provide definitive proof for either the cancer research or minerals quotes, please do let us know and we’ll promise to devote a future blog post to further clarification of the matter.