Travels in China, 1973

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling at the Great Wall of China, 1973.

In March 1973, little more than one year after Richard Nixon’s historic visit, Linus Pauling received a letter inviting him to travel to China for three weeks in the coming summer. He was invited by Wu Yu-hsun, Vice President of the Scientific and Technical Association of the People’s Republic of China, who informed Pauling that his accommodation and transportation would be provided by the Association. “It is my belief that your visit will contribute to the promotion of the traditional friendship and scientific exchanges between the scholars of China and America,” Wu wrote.

Following Wu’s instructions for obtaining a visa, Pauling wrote to the Embassy of the Chinese People’s Republic in Ottawa, Canada, on April 4, requesting visas for him and Ava Helen. (At that time, there was no Chinese embassy in the United States as diplomatic relations between the two countries had not yet been formalized.) Two months later, he received a reply from the embassy, accompanied by applications for the two visas.  On August 8 Pauling wrote to Vice President Wu to let him know that the trip details had been finalized and informing him that he and Ava Helen would arrive in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 16, and leave Monday, October 8.

In his letter, Pauling mentioned his book Vitamin C and the Common Cold, stating his belief that vitamin C not only decreases the severity and instances of the common cold, but does the same for other diseases. As such, he expressed a desire for both himself and Ava Helen to engage with relevant Chinese medical authorities and members of the Ministry of Public Health about this matter. Pauling also communicated his interest in talking with physicians and scientists about Oxypolygelatin, a blood plasma substitute that he had developed during World War II, as well as his desire that he and Ava Helen see his former student, Chia-si Lu, a chemist and crystallographer, and also their friend Professor Tsien, an authority on rockets whom they knew from Caltech. On August 9, Pauling returned the visa applications along with a letter stating that “I do not travel without my wife, and I have assumed that the invitation includes her also.”

After finally receiving their visas, the Paulings departed San Francisco for Hong Kong on Friday, September 14, 1973. They spent that night in Honolulu, and arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 16.

Much of what we know now about the Paulings’ visit to China comes from Linus’ travel log.  The log is very detail-oriented – so much so that one wonders how much detail is owed to Pauling’s insatiable scientific appetite, and how much to his knowledge that the U. S. government was historically suspicious of his every move, and likely maintained a particular interest in his activities while traveling through communist China.

The Paulings arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday night, stayed an extra day, and went by train to Canton on Tuesday. They spent Tuesday night at a guest house in Canton, where Pauling noted that it was “very hot during the day, very humid, and humid and hot during the night, too.” After visiting Sun Yat Sen University and having lunch, the couple flew to Shanghai, where Pauling judged the humidity to be less oppressive. They visited the Shanghai Industrial Exhibition on the morning of September 20, and the Institute of Biochemistry in the afternoon. In his travel log, Pauling recorded the details of research being conducted by an Institute staff member who was working on nucleotides and nucleosides. One investigation in particular focused on the effectiveness of nucleotides in increasing the yields of different plants such as rice. Pauling also spoke with Mr. Kung who, in 1965. was among the first scientists to synthesize insulin, and a man named Lee, who was conducting work on liver cancer.

Pauling was particularly interested in a screening of 150,000 people in Shanghai that was described to him by Mr. Lee. In the screening, 158 people were found to have an embryonic globulin in their blood which is manufactured in large amounts by people who have liver cancer. All of these 158 subjects either already had cancer or developed it later. Pauling suggested that the people who tested positive for this embryonic globulin be given 10 g of vitamin C per day, in an effort to stave off further development of the cancer.

While in Shanghai, the Paulings frequently saw members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic at mealtimes, since they were staying at the same hotel. Pauling noted that he and Ava Helen had tickets to hear the orchestra on September 21. But before that, in the morning, he visited the Peking Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Academia Sinica, where he saw the laboratories and learned about the Institute’s work on steroids. Meanwhile Ava Helen went shopping and visited the zoo, where, Pauling’s record shows, she saw “three giant pandas and several small ones.”

In the afternoon, the Paulings toured a commune. This commune was likely one of many established by Mao Zedong in the late 1950s with the aim of turning China into an industrialized nation. At the commune, Pauling took note of the work and lifestyle of its 24,000 inhabitants, who mostly made tools or did farm work.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling with hospital staff members, Shanghai, China. 1973.

On Saturday, September 22, Linus and Ava Helen visited the Shanghai Institute of Pharmacology and later the Shanghai Psychiatric Hospital, where they observed a wide array of treatments being given to patients, including acupuncture. Pauling presented the director of the hospital with a copy of his book Orthomolecular Psychiatry, and discussed megavitamin therapy with the hospital’s staff. Afterwards the Paulings watched an acrobatics performance, and the next day they continued to enjoy China’s culture by visiting the Children’s Palace and the Palace of History.

When the Paulings went on a sightseeing tour down to the banks of the Hwang-ho with Chia-si Lu, Pauling’s former Caltech student, Chia-si told them of the hardship that had existed before China’s “liberation.” By liberation, Pauling’s student was referring to the Chinese Revolution in which Mao Zedong and his supporters took over China’s government and installed communist rule in 1949. According to Chia-si, who had been in the U.S. for five years during the 1940s, only about ten percent of the money that he periodically sent home to his wife and son would actually reach them; the rest was taken by the Bank of China, which, according to Chia-si, was the bank of T.V. Soong at the time. For a few years Chia-si’s wife and son were close to starvation, along with many other people in China. However, after the revolution, the new Maoist government controlled the price and distribution of food and, in Chia-si’s estimation, the quality of life improved. (It is important to note that this perspective is contrary to other more contemporary analyses of Chinese food security under Mao.)

Although a few days are excluded from his travel log, Pauling wrote notes in his diary about activities related to hemoglobin and orthomolecular medicine on September 24, and a trip by train to Hangchow that evening, where he and Ava Helen did some sightseeing. Their tourism included the Ling Yin Temple, the Tiger Spring, the Jade Fountain, a tea ceremony, a boat ride on West Lake and a visit to a brocade factory. They attended another in a long string of banquets, and saw the Dragon Well Spring before leaving by train.

Pauling next wrote in his journal on Friday, September 28, to record his and Ava Helen’s tour of a petroleum refinery. The day before, on Thursday, they had visited the big bridge across the Yangtze, after which Pauling gave a lecture on vitamin C and good health at Nanking University. On Thursday night, the Paulings went to a dancing and singing performance staged by children of the district of Nanking. That weekend, the Paulings attended the National Day banquet in Beijing in the dining room of the Hall of Ten Thousand, to which 1,000 guests were invited by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Before the banquet, the Paulings had visited the Forbidden City once in the morning, and again in the afternoon.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling with three unknown individuals at a statue of Mao Zedong. China, 1973.

Pauling’s log does not contain entries any further than September 30, which leaves the next few days until his departure on October 8 unaccounted for. However, other documents indicate that the Paulings did get their desired opportunity to speak with scientists Dr. Ma Hai-teh and Rewi Alley on the subject of oxypolygelatin. Pauling wrote to Dr. Ma a few months later, in February 1974, to tell him about further work being conducted on the substance. In his letter, Pauling intimated that he had the idea that the properties of gelatin as a plasma extender would be improved if the long thin gelatin molecules could be tied together into rosettes using hydrogen peroxide, such that the molecules would not escape into the dilate urine through pores in the glomerular filter. This would improve the substance’s time of retention in the body. Pauling also pointed out that oxypolygelatin is non-antigenic, while other proteins are antigenic, meaning that they cause the body to produce antibodies.

Linus and Ava Helen’s first trip to China was a good experience both culturally and scientifically; one in which they were able to appreciate the historical and artistic aspects of the country while likewise engaging in scientific dialogue with Chinese scientists. While there, Pauling was able to spread the word about the benefits of vitamin C and orthomolecular psychiatry, and also to learn about research being conducted in China, including an unlikely exchange of ideas on oxypolygelatin, a substance that he hadn’t touched in some thirty years.