Linus Pauling. Lecturing at the Concepts of Chemical Bonding Seminar, Oslo University, Oslo, Norway. 1982.

Today marks the 110th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth, which occurred in Portland, Oregon on February 28, 1901. As has become tradition on the Pauling Blog, we are celebrating this occasion by looking back at Pauling’s life in increments of twenty-five years.


At the tender age of ten, young Linus was already at a crossroads in his life. First and foremost, his father Herman had died of a perforated ulcer the previous summer, thus throwing the Pauling family into something akin to chaos. Herman was a pharmacist and businessman of middling success, and his death was a source of major financial concern for his widow Isabelle and their three children, Linus, Pauline (age 9) and Lucile (age 7). From this point on, Linus’s childhood was certainly informed, if not dominated, by the continual need to contribute to the household income. His mother’s only asset of consequence was the family home, which she boarded out on a regular basis in an attempt to make ends meet. But as time passed and Belle’s own health faded, her only son was frequently called upon to assist with the family finances, leading Linus to assume any number of odd jobs, from delivery boy to film projectionist to grocery clerk.

Young Linus, ca. 1910s.

It was at this same time that the boy’s interest in science was beginning to flower. The previous year Herman had written a letter to the Portland Oregonian newspaper indicating that his son was a “great reader” keenly interested in ancient history and the natural sciences. In 1911 Pauling’s scientific impulses continued to flourish in the form of an insect collection that he maintained and classified using books checked out from the Portland library. Not long after, as with many scientists of his generation, Linus would develop an interest in minerals and begin compiling a personal collection of classified stones that he found.


By the age of thirty-five, Pauling had already established himself as among the world’s pre-eminent structural chemists and was well on his way to making a major impact in the biological sciences. In 1936 Pauling met Karl Landsteiner of the Rockefeller Institute, a Nobel laureate researcher best known at the time for having determined the existence of different blood types in human beings. In their initial meeting, Pauling and Landsteiner discussed Landsteiner’s program of research in immunology, a conversation that would lead to a fruitful collaboration between the two scientists. Importantly, his interactions with Landsteiner would lead Pauling to think about and publish important work on the specificity of serological reactions, in particular the relationship between antibodies and antigens in the human body.

Linus Pauling, 1936.

The year also bore witness to a major change at the California Institute of Technology: in June, Arthur Amos Noyes died. Noyes had served as chairman of the Caltech Chemistry Division for some twenty-seven years and was among the best known chemists of his era. His death ushered a power vacuum within the academic administration at Caltech, by then an emerging force in scientific research. Three of Pauling’s colleagues cautiously recommended to Caltech president Robert Millikan that Pauling be installed as interim chair of the department. Millikan agreed and offered the position to Pauling, but was met with refusal. At the time of the proposal,  Pauling was the object of some degree of criticism within the ranks at Caltech – certain of his peers felt him to be overly ambitious and even reckless in his pursuit of scientific advance – and the suggestion that Pauling assume division leadership was hardly unanimous. Millikan’s terms likewise did not meet with Pauling’s approval; in essence he felt that he would be burdened with more responsibility but would not gain in authority. The impasse would not last long however, as Pauling would eventually accept a new offer in April 1937 and begin a twenty-one year tenure as division chief.


A busy year started off with a bang when the sixty-year-old Pauling was chosen alongside a cache of other U.S. scientists as “Men of the Year” by Time magazine. By this period in Pauling’s life his peace activism was a topic of international conversation and early in the year Linus and Ava Helen followed up their famous 1958 United Nations Bomb Test Petition with a second “Appeal to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” issued in the wake of nuclear tests carried out by France. As a follow-up, the Paulings organized and attended a May conference held in Oslo Norway, at which the attendees (35 physical and biological scientists and 25 social scientists from around the world) issued the “Oslo Statement,” decrying nuclear proliferation and the continuation of nuclear tests.

Group photo of participants in the Oslo Conference, 1961.

While Pauling’s attentions during this period were increasingly drawn to his peace work, he did make time for innovative scientific research. Of particular note was his theory of anesthesia, published in July in the journal Science. Pauling’s idea was that anesthetic agents formed hydrate “cages” with properties similar to ice crystals. Owing to the nature of their molecular structure, these cages would impede electrical impulses in the brain, thus leading to unconsciousness. In a review article published one year later, the pharmacologist Chauncey Leake described the theory as “spectacular,” though for reasons that are still unclear it failed to gain traction with the larger scientific community.


By age eighty-five, Pauling’s interests centered largely upon his continuing fascination with vitamin C. Having already published monographs focusing upon ascorbic acid’s capacity to ward of the common cold and the flu, Pauling was ready to put his thinking together into a general audience book that would discuss the path to happier and healthier lives. The result was How to Live Longer and Feel Better, a modest critical and commercial success that helped bolster the reputation and the finances of the struggling Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

Pauling at 85.

Many of the recommendations that Pauling made in How to Live Longer… were fairly typical of most health promotion books: a sensible diet, regular exercise and no smoking. The major exception to this moderate approach was the famed author’s stance on vitamin supplementation. In biographer Thomas Hager‘s words

Pauling was now advising between 6 and 18 grams of vitamin C per day, plus 400-16,000 IU of vitamin E (40-160 times the RDA), 25,000 IU of vitamin A (five times the RDA), and one or two ‘super B’ tablets for the B vitamins, along with a basic mineral supplement.

This staunch belief in the value of megavitamins would stay with Pauling until his death eight years later, in August 1994.


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.