Two Years on the Pauling Beat

Today marks the second anniversary of the launching of the Pauling Blog.  In two years we have generated 214 posts, garnered over 63,000 views (not counting those accruing from syndication, which WordPress doesn’t include in its total statistics) and been graced with nearly 7,400 spam comments, most of which, thankfully, have been kept at bay by the good folks at Akismet.

We’re a bit less philosophical today than was the case one year ago, but we do want to take this moment to reflect back a bit.  Our readership has grown substantially over the past year and, as we enter our terrible twos, we figure this is a good opportunity to take another quick look at some writing that many of our readers may have never seen.  Here then, are ten worthwhile posts from the early days of the blog.

  1. Visiting Albert Schweitzer:  a review of the Paulings’ trip to Schweitzer’s medical compound in central Africa – in Linus Pauling’s estimation, “one of the most inaccessible areas of the world.”
  2. Pauling and the Presidents: the first in a series of three posts on Pauling’s relationship with this nation’s Commanders in Chief and with the office of the Presidency itself.  The other two posts focus on Pauling’s complicated interactions with John F. Kennedy, and with his own brief flirtation with the idea of running for the office himself.
  3. Pauling’s Rules: among Pauling’s major early contributions to science was his formation of a set of rules used to guide one’s analysis of x-ray diffraction data in the determination of crystal structures.
  4. The Guggenheim Trip: a three-part series detailing Linus and Ava Helen’s adventures as they toured through Europe for a year, meeting major scientific figures and absorbing the fledgling discipline of quantum mechanics.
  5. The Darlings: Maternal Ancestors of Linus Pauling:  an entertaining look at the colorful characters residing further down Pauling’s family tree.  We also featured Pauling’s paternal ancestry as well as Ava Helen’s lineage in separate posts.
  6. A Halloween Tale of Ice Cream and Ethanol:  Pauling’s typically detailed and ultra-rational recollection of a hallucination experienced late one November night.
  7. Clarifying Three Widespread Quotes:  three quotes attributed to Linus Pauling are scattered across the Internet.  This post investigates whether or not Pauling actually authored them.
  8. Pauling in the ROTC:  often accused of anti-Americanism due to his pacifist beliefs, few people know that Pauling actually served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, ultimately rising to the rank of Major.  This post was among the first in our lengthy Oregon 150 series, celebrating Pauling’s relationship with his home state.
  9. Mastering Genetics: Pauling and Eugenics:  a post that delves into what was among the more controversial stances that Pauling ever took.
  10. Linus Pauling Baseball:  we can’t help it – the video is priceless.

As always, thanks for reading!

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Clarifying Three Widespread Quotes

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

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

Yes: On Having Good Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

Listen: Pauling recounts the circumstances of this quote:

Maybe: On Cancer Research

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

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

pg. 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably Not: On the Importance of Minerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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