Vitamin C and Heart Disease: An Open Question

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A note on LDL cholesterol and Lipoprotein (a) written by Pauling on his office chalkboard.

[An analysis of Linus Pauling’s research on vitamin C and heart disease, part 4 of 4]

In June 1992, Linus Pauling visited the Texas Heart Institute, after which he accepted an offer to write an editorial for the organization’s journal. He completed his short piece, “Can Vitamins Help Control Heart Disease and Strokes?” in March 1993, a little over a year before he passed away.

The Texas Heart Institute article turned out to be Pauling’s final public statement of consequence on the question of ascorbic acid and cardiovascular health. In his text, he argued once again that, although physicians had long known that arterial lesions cause heart disease, they had not yet accepted the evidence that lesions are brought about by low levels of vitamin C in the blood. This consensus had been maintained despite a widely accepted understanding that vitamin C is necessary to repair bodily tissues via collagen production.

Unfortunately for Pauling, the research required to clearly to shift scientific opinion was not forthcoming. Pauling realized that a major study needed to be funded to show a strong relationship between intake of larger doses of nutritional supplements (especially vitamin C) and even greater preventative or therapeutic health benefits for victims of cardiovascular disease. As the idea’s chief proponent, Pauling would have seemed to be a primary figure in attracting grant funds for such a study. However, in part because of the intense controversy over Pauling’s previous work with vitamin C and the common cold, and vitamin C and cancer, Pauling’s reputation had been badly marred within the medical mainstream, and research dollars had become very difficult for Pauling to source.

Partly as a result, his and Matthias Rath’s work stressing the importance of vitamin C as a key factor in combating heart disease was perhaps a case of too little, too late. Though the tandem had succeeded in establishing a general sense of the potential importance of vitamin C in heart disease prevention, the circumstances surrounding their work were not ripe enough for the duo to develop a more complete and lasting understanding of the types and levels of nutrients needed to ensure optimum heart health.


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Linus Pauling giving an interview at Deer Flat Ranch, September 1993.

Other material considerations further compounded the problem. For one, at precisely the same time that the cardiovascular work was gaining traction, the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine was in the depths of dire financial straits. Furthermore, Linus Pauling was now nearly 93 years old and in declining health. As he battled with the cancer diagnosis that would ultimately claim his life, Pauling realized that could no longer go on assisting Rath. Meanwhile, Rath’s relationship with others in the Institute had fallen into turmoil, and the Linus Pauling Heart Foundation, which Rath directed, was withering on a vine of financial insolvency.

Rath was ultimately asked to leave the Institute amidst a period of legal disarray, partly a result of his having never signed the Institute’s mandatory employee patent agreement. In the wake of his departure from the Institute, and following the death of Linus Pauling in August 1994, the Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease largely slipped into obscurity, though some echo of it has remained in the public consciousness.


In the years that followed Pauling’s death, the Institute’s cardiovascular program continued to investigate the role that nutrients like vitamin C, E, and B6 might play in limiting oxidative damage brought about by low density lipoproteins (LDL) in individuals suffering from atherosclerosis. Similar work is on-going today in multiple laboratories.

At present, the scientific understanding of the importance of vitamin C in preventing or treating heart disease remains somewhat mixed. Although vitamin C does not appear to directly lower blood cholesterol levels, evidence exists that it does significantly lower low density lipoprotein and Lp (a) levels, which in turn helps to protect arteries from blockage by these cholesterol-carrying molecules.

Total blood cholesterol may also lessen with increased vitamin C intake due to the fact that vitamin C is an HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor, meaning that if vitamin C levels are high, the body manufactures less cholesterol. Additionally, vitamin C’s benefits to the body as both a primary collagen producer and as an antioxidant contribute to what most studies agree to be a significant, though still not fully understood, protective effect against heart disease when taken in doses of 400 to 2,000 mg daily. As in Pauling’s era, this level of supplementation is far above the current Recommended Daily Allowance for adult men and women, which is 60 mg per day.

Likewise, the interaction between lysine and vitamin C that many of Pauling’s case study patients found to be highly therapeutic – with anecdotal reports of actual reversal of atherosclerosis in certain patients – has not been investigated further. And so it is that, more than twenty years after his death, Linus Pauling’s ideas on the impact that nutritional supplementation might make on heart health remain just as tantalizing and out of reach as they were when Pauling was alive and active.

The Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease

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[An examination of Pauling’s research on vitamin C and heart disease, part 3 of 4.]

In early 1991, Dr. Howard Bachrach of Southold, New York informed Linus Pauling of experimental results indicating that lipoprotein (a) [commonly abbreviated as Lp(a)] binding to arterial walls could be suppressed through the use of supplemental lysine. In the weeks that followed, Bachrach continued to exchange information with Pauling and his colleague at the Linus Pauling Institute of Medicine, Matthias Rath, in hopes of determining if lysine, vitamin C, or some combination of the two might not only prohibit but actually reverse plaque accretion in vitamin C-deficient guinea pigs.

A breakthrough came about on February 28, 1991 – Linus Pauling’s 90th birthday – when Rath reported to his colleagues his finding that Lp(a), as synthesized in the liver, was in fact regulated in an unknown way by the amount of vitamin C present in the body.

Lp(a) was understood by Rath and Pauling to form from low density lipoprotein (LDL) and Apoliprotein A-1 [abbrevied apo(a)] in the liver in amounts largely determined by the rate of synthesis of apo(a). This rate of synthesis was increased by low vitamin C concentrations in the blood. Rath and Pauling published the finding in Medical Science Research, arguing that plaque formation was not caused by LDL cholesterol, as previously thought, but lipoprotein (a) instead. Crucially, high doses of vitamin C was identified by the authors as being central to reducing these dangerous lipoprotein (a) levels.


This discovery formed the basis for what Pauling and Rath would eventually call their Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease. Fundamental to this framework was Pauling and Rath’s belief that cardiovascular disease was a degenerative disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. The theory also put forth that humans’ inability to synthesize their own vitamin C drove the disease, though it was also aggravated by genetic defects and exogenous risk factors, such as free radicals introduced by cigarette smoke or oxidatively modified triglyceride-rich lipoproteins exerting a noxious effect on the vascular wall.

Further, lipoprotein (a) was put forth as an evolutionary surrogate for vitamin C in animals – like primates and guinea pigs – that no longer produced their own ascorbic acid. This collection of species shows much higher levels of Lp(a) in the blood, a characterstic seen by Pauling and Rath as serving as an ad hoc biological mechanism used by the body to repair damaged tissues through deposit on weakening arterial walls. Too much Lp(a), however, leads to plaque formation, causing angina, heart attack, and stroke. A lack of vitamin C thus leads indirectly to the deterioration of arteries.

From there, the researchers argued that this problem could be easily fixed if only the recommended doses of vitamin C were increased to levels many times larger than those prescribed by the federal government. Were the body enabled to make use of supplemental vitamin C to produce collagen – as all animals that synthesize vitamin C internally do – humans would be much more efficient at repairing damaged arterial walls. Indeed, vitamin C could function not only to strengthen arterial walls, but also to reduce the amount of Lp(a) being produced by the body and consequently – as a co-factor in the hydroxylation reaction that converts cholesterol to bile acids – lowering the amount of free cholesterol in the blood as well.


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Published in the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine Newsletter, March 1992.

To Pauling and Rath, the logic supported their theory was clear. Critics, however, demanded large clinical studies to support the claims, and this was research that the Institute, which was struggling mightily for funds, did not have the resources to pursue.

It was at this point that other interested researchers took up the torch. One of them, Dr. James Enstrom at UCLA, led a 1992 study of over 11,000 human subjects. Enstrom’s work indicated that those individuals who regularly took supplements of vitamin C at federally recommended levels enjoyed significantly lower rates of heart disease than did those not subscribing to a supplementation routine. This data led Enstrom’s team to wonder – in tandem with Pauling and Rath – whether larger doses would achieve an even greater protective effect.

In 1993, hoping to add additional support to the hypothesis, Pauling published three case studies in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine. Each study focused on individuals who had suffered from severe cardiovascular disease and undergone surgical procedures, including heart bypass. The individuals in question had read Pauling’s papers with Rath and had decided to try adding lysine and vitamin C to their diet. In certain cases, members of the study group had already been taking fairly high doses of vitamin C and then added lysine.

The 1993 data clearly were not anything like controlled studies and were reported on anecdotally by Pauling. Further, the amounts of lysine and vitamin C ingested varied significantly between individuals, but was generally in the range of between 3 to 6 grams per day of each supplement. Many within the study group reported rapid relief and positive responses.

Though far from authoritative, the published case studies did help to bolster Pauling and Rath’s position, attracting increased interest in the work. However, the duo also received plenty of letters, some filled with irritation, from people who had incorporated supplementation and saw no positive change. Some correspondents, in fact, were getting worse.

Pauling, Rath, and Lipoprotein(a)

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[An examination of Pauling’s research on vitamin C and heart disease. Part 2 of 4.]

In 1989, a young medical doctor by the name of Matthias Rath began working at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. Rath had come from Germany, where he and his colleagues had uncovered evidence that the cause of plaque development in atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries brought about by cholesterol deposits) was not a direct result of the presence of Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL), as had been previously thought. Rather, the Rath group found that LDL was synthesized in the liver into a new substance called lipoprotein (a), which binds to and carries cholesterol to sites throughout the bloodstream, building up on arterial walls in the process.

In moving to the Pauling Institute, Rath brought with him a specific interest in the potential relationship between vitamin C and lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a). He hoped that, in collaborating with Linus Pauling, he might be able to more fully explain the preventative effects of vitamin C on cardiovascular disease that had been observed in vitamin C-deficient animal models.

However, within the field, there existed significant skepticism as to whether vitamin C could actually affect Lp (a) levels in the blood, since these levels were not known to be modifiable by diet or drugs; – rather, the operating assumption was that the levels were genetically determined. Furthermore, concerns were raised that high doses of vitamin C might lead to an increased zinc-to-copper ratio in the blood, the end result being hypercholesterolemia and a concurrent increase in the risk of stroke or heart attack.

Skeptics also argued that an intense regimen of vitamin supplementation might spur the development of kidney stones, due to the acidification of urine in patients unable to take sodium ascorbate for health reasons. Additional fears were expressed that large doses of vitamin C, vitamin E, and other nutrients that act as blood thinners might interact dangerously with blood-thinning medications taken by many heart patients already.


Unsurprisingly, Rath and Pauling were hopeful that a solution could be found that would put to rest all of the naysaying. In this, the duo was driven by a belief that an optimum amount of vitamin C and other vitamins would mitigate any negative complications while simultaneously preventing a majority of heart disease.

By February 1990, Rath and Pauling were preparing to run experiments using vitamin C-deficient guinea pigs with induced atherosclerosis. These trials, according to Pauling, were devised by Rath and based on the idea that lipoprotein (a) synthesis in a small number of animals might be correlate with the inability to synthesize vitamin C. Pauling remained involved mostly as an eager and interested advisor and patron for Rath’s work on the subject.

In terms of their business arrangement, Pauling made it clear early on that Rath should not be held to the regular patent agreement for LPISM employees (25% royalties to the inventor, 75% to the Institute). Since Rath had developed the idea and foundational work outside LPISM, Pauling suggested a 50/50 split on the profits.

In addition to his scientific work, Rath was also a peace activist, an outspoken opponent of international corporate exploitation, and an advocate for the control of nuclear weapons, and as such he had followed Pauling’s political exploits with great personal interest for many years. Perhaps because of these shared qualities and the growing connection between the two, Rath refused the favorable 50/50 deal that Pauling had recommended. Instead, Rath communicated to Pauling that he believed the Institute should receive any and all profits, leaving Pauling to infer that Rath required no royalties for what he viewed, in principle, as an effort to decrease the amount of suffering endured by people with heart disease. In the end, Rath never signed the Institute’s patent agreement at all.


The first major paper to emerge out of Rath and Pauling’s collaboration was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in December 1990 and titled “Immunological Evidence for the Accumulation of Lipoprotein(a) in the Atherosclerotic Lesion of the Hypoascorbemic Guinea Pig.” The publication reported on Rath’s study and showed that vitamin C protected arteries from fatty build-up at an intake of what would be about 5 grams a day in humans, as adjusted for weight. This dose stood in stark contrast to the much smaller Recommended Daily Allowance at that time, which was 50 mg.

With this paper, it appeared that Pauling had finally acquired a critical piece of evidence that he had been searching for ever since writing Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970: experimental proof that a widespread lack of vitamin C in the human diet was resulting in negative health consequences that ranged far beyond scurvy. Likewise, for Pauling, the Rath studies were a clear indication that the federally recommended dose, though sufficient to prevent scurvy, was by no means optimal. Rather, at 50 mg per day, humans were living in a state of chronic vitamin C deprivation and were suffering from a wide range of maladies as a result.


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From 1990 on, the connection between vitamin C and heart disease took center stage in Pauling’s life. Invigorated, he and Rath both saw the topic as a key new focus for research at the Institute, and a program that would pair well with growing national interest in orthomolecular medicine and in controlling health through diet.

To promote this vision, The Linus Pauling Heart Foundation was established as a non-profit agency that aimed specifically to raise money to support the clinical trials needed to determine the exact value of different doses of vitamins needed to prevent cardiovascular disease. In addition to the vitamin C work, the Foundation also sought to  generate funds that would support investigations into alternative heart therapies that used proline, lysine, and niacin.

Once it was established, Pauling named Rath as president of the Foundation, which operated separately from the Institute, but with some financial backing. To draw support for the Foundation’s work, Pauling made regular appearances on media outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Likewise, over the course of the next two years, he issued a steady stream of press releases arguing in favor of the use of vitamin C, vitamin B3, nicotinic acid, and lysine to prevent and even reverse the onset of cardiovascular disease. In these, Pauling also alluded to the notion that Lp(a) might be implicated not only in heart disease, but also in diabetes and cancer. No specific optimal vitamin intake was ever detailed in the news releases. Instead, readers were encouraged to make donations to the Foundation so that research to better understand the role that vitamins play in controlling heart disease might more rapidly progress.

Vitamin C and Cardiovascular Disease: The Roots of Controversy

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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.

Pauling and Asimov: Playful Needling, Mutual Respect

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[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.”


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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.'”


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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

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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.


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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.

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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.”

Remembering Jack Roberts

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.