Pauling at UCSD: Season of Tumult



[Part 2 of 3 in a series exploring Linus Pauling’s years on faculty at the University of California, San Diego.]

As his program on orthomolecular psychiatry began to take off, Pauling’s work as an activist moved forward with as much zeal as ever. Despite criticism that his association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) and his protests against the Vietnam War made no sense in the context of his scientific career, Pauling had stopped viewing his interests as an activist and his scientific research as being separate branches of a single life.

Pauling happened to be at the University of Massachusetts a mere five days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Invited to deliver a series of lectures as the university’s first Distinguished Professor, Pauling fashioned his remarks around the topic of the human aspect of scientific discoveries. Reflecting on the tumult of the previous week, Pauling told his audience that it was not enough to mourn the fallen civil rights leader. Rather, individuals of good conscience were obligated to carry King’s legacy forward by continuing the work that he began.

In keeping with this theme over the course of his lectures, Pauling emphasized the scientist’s responsibility to ensure that discoveries be used for the good of all humanity and society, rather than in support of war and human suffering. Scientific inquiry should also emphasize solutions to current issues, he felt, pointing to the lack of equality in access to medical care in the United States as one such issue. Pauling saw his work in orthomolecular medicine as potentially solving this problem: vitamins were fairly inexpensive, more accessible, and could, he believed, significantly improve one’s mental and physical well-being.


Notes used by Pauling for his talk, “The Scientific Revolution,” delivered as a component of the lecture series, “The Revolutionary Age, the Challenge to Man,” March 3, 1968.

Pauling made similar connections to his work on sickle cell anemia.

Though he was no longer involved in the daily operations of the CSDI, he continued to participate in a public lecture series that the center sponsored throughout his time in San Diego. In one contribution to a series titled “The Revolutionary Age: The Challenge to Man,” Pauling put forth a potential solution to sickle cell disease. As science had succeeded in identifying the gene mutation responsible for the disease, Pauling believed that forms of social control could be used to prevent carriers of the mutation from marrying and procreating. Over time, Pauling reasoned, the mutation would eventually be phased out.

Pauling specifically called for the drafting of laws that would require genetic testing before marriage. Should tests of this sort reveal that two heterozygotes (individuals carrying one normal chromosome and one mutation) intended to marry, their application for a license would be denied. Pauling put forth similar ideas about restricting the number of children that a couple could have if one parent was shown to be a carrier for sickle cell trait.

In proposing these ideas, Pauling aimed to ensure that his discovery of the molecular basis of sickle cell disease was used to decrease human suffering. Likewise, he felt that whatever hardships the laws that he proposed might cause in the short run, the future benefits accrued from the gradual elimination of the disease would justify the legislation.

Partly because he called this approach “negative eugenics,” Pauling came into harsh criticism for his point of view; indeed, his ideas on this topic remain controversial today. In a number of the lectures that he delivered around the time of his CSDI talk, however, Pauling took pains to clarify that his perspective was not aligned with the broader field of eugenics, a body of thought to which he was opposed. On the contrary, Pauling’s focus was purely genetic and his specific motivation was borne out of a desire to eliminate harmful genetic conditions.


Bruno Zimm. Credit: University of California, San Diego

At the end of February 1968, Pauling turned 67 year old, and the University of California regents used his age as a mechanism to hold up discussions about his obtaining a permanent appointment in San Diego. Sixty-seven, the board argued, was the typical retiring age within the UC system. Moreover, the UC regents were empowered to veto any age-related retirement exceptions and, given his radical political views, Pauling was unlikely to receive any support at all from the group, much less an exception.

One of the stated reasons why the regents harbored concerns about Pauling’s politics was his increasingly strident rhetoric. Pauling frequently commended student strikes and demonstrations, and although he emphasized nonviolence as the most effective means to foster social change, he encouraged students to recognize that authorities may incite violence through tactics of their own. In these cases, he felt that retaliation was justified, even necessary.

Pauling also believed that the regents and their trustees wielded too much power; for him they were part of a system that largely inhibited social progress and took power away from students. For their part, the regents saw Pauling in a similar light: a dangerously powerful radical who was constraining the university’s capacity to grow.

Realizing that, in all likelihood, Pauling was soon to be forced out, his UCSD colleagues Fred Wall and Bruno Zimm began searching for a way to shift the governing authority for his reappointment to the university president, Charles Hitch, with whom Pauling had maintained a positive relationship. After months of negotiations, Zimm succeeded in winning for Pauling a second year-long appointment.

Pauling expressed gratitude to Zimm for his efforts, but the slim possibility of a permanent position at UCSD had emerged as a source of lingering dismay. Looking for a longer term academic home, Pauling began considering other universities that might also provide better support for his research.

Over time, Ava Helen had also found herself frustrated with UCSD and La Jolla in general. In particular, she disliked their rental house and missed their previous home in Santa Barbara, where she had been able to tend a beautiful garden. As 1968 moved forward, the couple began spending more and more time at Deer Flat Ranch, with Ava Helen hinting that she would like to make the ranch their permanent home in the coming years.


Chris Hables Gray, Resident Scholar

Dr. Chris Hables Gray

Dr. Chris Hables Gray, professor at the Union Institute and University and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the fourth individual this year to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  Dr. Gray is a self-described “anarchist, feminist, post-modernist” who has written widely on a number of subjects, with a particular emphasis on cyborgs and evolution.

Gray visited Corvallis to examine the Paul Lawrence Farber Papers and the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, spurred by a keen interest in tracing the development of Pauling’s thinking on evolution.  His provocative Resident Scholar presentation, titled “Linus Pauling and the Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics,” generated a great deal of thoughtful discussion among those who gathered to hear him speak.

Gray’s thesis was that, in at least two instances, Linus Pauling gave in to what Paul Farber termed “the temptations of evolutionary ethics.”  Farber, a historian of science and emeritus chair of the OSU History Department, defined this temptation as the impulse to use science as a basis for a full system of normative ethics.  Gray is sympathetic to Farber’s warnings against this impulse as, in his view,

Culture is not different from nature.  Human culture is natural.  It is evolved, as much as the behavior of mockingbirds or ants.  All of life is evolved.  The natural/biological vs. cultural distinction is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  [On the same token], humans are not rational.

As an extension of this postulate, Gray offered this thought, which was fundamental to his presentation

I don’t think evolutionary science will ever provide a base for a system of ethics.  The ideas and actions behind the Holocaust are as natural as those behind the Civil Rights movement.  All that humans do is natural….Farber is right that evolutionary science cannot give us a normative ethics, a complete system of ethics.  It cannot show what should be ethical, but it can show what is possible and what is impossible.  It can help us in our ethical reasoning.

During his stay in Corvallis, Gray traced Pauling’s thinking on evolution from his earliest documented years, noting a particularly optimistic Junior Class Oration in which the future scientific great “makes of evolution a religion.”  As time moved on, Pauling’s thoughts on the topic changed somewhat, his optimism tempered by the realities of the atomic age.  Instead of a religion, evolution became a morality.  Likewise, man was no longer destined to evolve into a superman, but rather was part of a superorganism, “humankind,” whose greatest attributes – as Pauling noted in 1959 – were “sanity (reason), and morality (ethical principles.)”

For Pauling the concept of morality was firmly rooted in Albert Schweitzer’s principle of “minimization of suffering,” and it is here that he began to fall prey to the temptations of evolutionary ethics. Most glaring was Pauling’s advocacy of negative eugenics in the mid- to late-1960s.  As Gray noted

Pauling saw reality as based on molecules, and so diseases were molecular….His work on sickle-cell anemia was framed in this way. Once he realized that it was a genetic disease he put forward some startling solutions… [including the tattooing of phenotype information on people’s foreheads] enforced genetic testing and abortions…even though dietary and other treatments for sickle cell anemia were known and effective. Eventually he stopped raising this issue. We don’t know why for sure, but we can assume he realized it was not a popular approach to the problem of genetic disease.

Gray also submitted Pauling’s interest in vitamin C, especially as a possible treatment for cancer, as another example in which his evolutionary thinking went astray.

The reasoning behind Pauling’s belief that humans did not consume enough Vitamin C was based on evolutionary science. Roughly half the primates, including humans and our closest cousins, cannot synthesize vitamin C, an ability that all plants and almost all animals have. His theory was that the ancestral primate lost the ability to synthesize C when in an environment with plentiful dietary C. Then, as humans moved into other environments with less dietary C, deficiency diseases and conditions, such as a degraded immune system…resulted – and not just scurvy, but long term conditions and even cancer.

While Gray conceded that there is some validity to this argument, he found Pauling’s larger thesis to be “less than convincing.”

…numerous studies have failed to show that all, or even most, humans have a massive Vitamin C deficit. It is true that C can help limit the severity of colds, that it helps in some healing, and has other benefits. But the massive positive effects of massive doses of C have not proven to be as helpful as Pauling claimed.

Gray concluded that

we have to be more careful that Pauling in applying evolutionary thinking to ethics….if we take evolution seriously we have to let go of totalizing schemes for perfecting humanity, as much as the dream of perfection appeals to young chemistry students and profoundly moral famous scientists alike. But evolutionary science can be useful in our quest for a better, more moral, world.

Because of the great diversity of humans…especially as evolved culture allows for such a wide range of variation, and “conscious” evolution, no totalistic ethical system based on human altruism or any other quality is viable. Altruism has certainly evolved in humans, as has selfishness, cruelty, and social pathology. Inherited traits are often not universal, which makes sense in that variation is the key to evolution’s power. But this also means that any ethical system will have to be imposed on some people, even if it is a “biological” fit for the majority. And since all of us have many layers of moral reasoning and ethical impulses, often contradictory, and that humans continue to evolve and a very fast rate thanks to the Lamarkian power of culture, we will never have a perfect ethics.

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, please visit this page, which, among other details, includes links to the profiles that we have written of all past scholarship recipients.

Mastering Genetics: Pauling and Eugenics

Illustration from Medical World News article,

Illustration from Medical World News article, “Sickle Cell Anemia” December 3, 1971.

“I have suggested that the time might come in the future when information about heterozygosity in such serious genes as the sickle cell anemia gene would be tattooed on the forehead of the carriers, so that young men and women would at once be warned not to fall in love with each other.”
-Linus Pauling, August 15, 1966

After declaring sickle-cell anemia to be a “molecular disease” in the late 1940s, Pauling spent more than a decade describing the cause of the disease and the significance of its unique origins to his fellow academics. Unfortunately, though interested, his colleagues seemed more concerned with the concept of a molecular disease than its real world application in genetics and medicine. Beginning in 1958, Pauling became a vocal advocate of genetic counseling, focusing especially on sickle-cell anemia among the African American population. His efforts went largely unnoticed by both researchers and the general public alike.

Frustrated with his unsuccessful endorsement of genetic counseling, Pauling chose to take his ideas a step further. In 1962, Pauling began a public campaign in support of negative eugenics – the restriction of human breeding and childbirth as a means of minimizing the sharing of hereditary diseases. He advocated genetic testing as a requirement for obtaining a marriage license. Perhaps even more controversial, Pauling recommended placing legal restrictions on marriage and childbirth between carriers of hereditary diseases.

Listen: Pauling on Marriage Tests and the Disclosure of Genotype Information

Pauling recognized the difficulty of controlling and monitoring a program of this magnitude. Without being able to easily identify carriers of various diseases, the public could not effectively choose sexual partners, thus lessening the potential effectiveness of employed eugenics. As a solution, in the late 1960s, Pauling began suggesting a means of visibly marking disease carriers – a tattoo on the forehead, clearly marking the individual as the carrier of a specific disease. Not surprisingly, this suggestion engendered a great deal of criticism. He was compared with the likes of Hitler by his critics who drew parallels between the proposed tattoo and the yellow star worn by Eastern European Jews during the reign of the Nazi party.

In reflecting upon Pauling’s stance, it is important to note that he was not interested in positive eugenics – the manipulation of genetic combinations as a means of developing a superior human. Rather, he intended only to minimize human suffering and found the idea of building a “super race” highly undesirable. Pauling was also a critic of the concept of genetic purity. He was concerned with purifying the human gene pool of harmful diseases, but he was not motivated by the desire to manipulate intelligence, appearance, strength, etc.

Pauling insisted that his ideas, though extreme, were meant to decrease human suffering rather than to segregate and belittle. Though Pauling faced many critics, he did have supporters as well. Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar agreed with Pauling, famously stating,

It is humbug to say that such a policy violates an elementary right of human beings. No one has conferred upon human beings the right knowingly to bring maimed or biochemically crippled children in the world.

During the 1960s, Pauling’s critics began discussing the effect that negative eugenics could have on evolution. Roderic Gorney, a psychiatrist, argued that over a long enough period of time, eugenics could redirect and even supersede the process of natural selection.

For example, consider the effect of negative eugenics in relation to sickle-cell anemia. An individual with sickle-cell anemia has two sickle-cell alleles. Typically, sufferers of sickle-cell anemia are plagued by a host of related health problems, often leading to an early death. Some individuals, however, possess only one sickle-cell allele. These individuals exhibit some sickling of the blood cells, but are otherwise able to live normal, healthy lives. Because sickle-cell anemia is a hereditary disease, it is passed on in Mendelian fashion. As a result, a person with a single sickle-cell allele, when paired with a healthy individual, has a 25% chance of giving birth to a child with one sickle-cell allele. When paired with another single-trait individual, there exists a 50% chance that a child will have one sickle-cell trait, and a 25% chance that the child will be afflicted with full sickle-cell anemia.

Gorney argued that sickle-cell anemia, if left alone, would eventually be removed from the human gene pool. He explained that, because individuals suffering from sickle-cell anemia rarely live to procreate, few instances of sickle-cell anemia are added to the collective gene pool. Similarly, a single-allele individual has a statistical opportunity to produce children with sickle-cell anemia when paired with another carrier. These offspring will die at a young age, further reducing the number of carriers present in the next generation. As a result, over a period of time, the number of sickle-cell carriers would decrease to nothing.

Negative eugenics, however, allows sickle-cell carriers to identify other carriers and instead mate with healthy individuals, producing more children with a single sickle-cell allele. If this process were to continue indefinitely, more and more humans would be heterozygous for sickle-cell anemia, rendering it virtually impossible for natural selection to remove the disease from the human gene pool. This argument could, in fact, be applied to any similar hereditary disease.

“Bad Genes and Marriage,” New York Post, October 21, 1968.

Pauling acknowledged Gorney’s concerns but countered that, without eugenics, preventative medicine would have a much more damaging effect. Pauling felt that modern medicine (antibiotics, chemotherapy, prescription drugs, etc.) helped prolong the lifespan of sick or diseased individuals, sometimes allowing them to procreate and pass along hereditary diseases. As such, modern medicine was effectively undoing natural selection, leaving negative eugenics as the best hope for maintaining a balanced, healthy population.

In the early 1970s, Pauling began to run into trouble. His main focus throughout his eugenics campaign was the elimination of sickle-cell anemia, a disease that had originated in Africa where it became common among the native population because of its ability to prevent malaria. When slave traders brought African captives to North America, sickle-cell anemia was introduced to the United States. Due to racial segregation and the social mores that developed in the U.S. over the intervening 300 years, very few individuals outside of the African American population were afflicted with sickle-cell disease. For these reasons, Pauling advocated blood testing among the African American population. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Pauling’s suggestions were seen as racist, and even as an attempt to cast African Americans as genetically inferior and meriting legal restrictions on their rights to marriage and procreation.

Frustrated and embarrassed by the criticism that he was receiving, Pauling fell silent on the topic of eugenics. In the past, when faced with heavy opposition, Pauling had always held his ground. But this episode was different. By the end of 1972, Pauling had given up his negative eugenics campaign and turned to other means of improving the human condition.

For more information on Pauling and his work with genetics, visit “It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia” or Linus Pauling Online.