Linus Pauling, Vitamin C and the AIDS Crisis

Ewan Cameron, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling.  Glasgow, Scotland, October 1976.

Ewan Cameron, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. Glasgow, Scotland, October 1976.

Many orthomolecular substances are so free from toxicity that they show beneficial effects over a 10,000-fold range of concentrations. Yet if you take even ten times the amount of aspirin that many patients take, for example, you’d be dead; hundreds of people do die every year from aspirin poisoning. And all of the other major drugs are highly toxic as well.
– Linus Pauling, December 1986

Today, December 1, 2008, is World AIDS Day. In honor of the fight against AIDS, The Pauling Blog would like to discuss Pauling’s own attempts to find a cure.

Beginning in the early 1930s, stemming from early investigations into the chemical nature of hemoglobin, Linus Pauling became deeply interested in the application of chemistry to medical problems.  Once involved in a long-term study of the substance, he began to recognize the significance of hemoglobin to the health of individuals. In 1949, Pauling coined the term “molecular disease” in reference to a mutation in hemoglobin cells that caused sickle cell anemia.

His interest in medicine did not stop there, however. During World War II, Pauling designed a meter to measure oxygen levels aboard U.S. submarines. He later converted this meter to be used in incubators for premature babies with underdeveloped lungs, saving thousands of lives in the process.

In the early 1970s, Pauling developed an interest in the use of megadoses of vitamins as a means for both preventing and treating disease. He became particularly interested in vitamin C because, even in huge doses, it proved to be non-toxic.  Pauling began recommending its use to prevent colds and other illnesses, eventually suggesting that a high-dosage vitamin C regimen could help cancer patients by fortifying the immune system and potentially destroying carcinogens.

With the onset of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, Pauling saw potential for another area in which vitamin C could be put to good use. Though he did not officially endorse vitamin C as a treatment for AIDS until the early 1990s, he commonly noted its possible benefits and lack of side effects.

In 1988, Pauling headed a study on the effects of vitamin C in combating the AIDS virus, measuring the impact that ascorbic acid had on infected T-cells. The results, though not extraordinary, were promising.

In 1990, Pauling and his colleagues published the results of their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claiming that vitamin C appeared to suppress the growth of the AIDS virus. As was true of Pauling’s previous claims regarding vitamin C and orthomolecular medicine, the studies were at least a source of intrigue to many, though likewise dismissed by a wide cross-section of the medical community.

At the same time that Pauling was embarking on his AIDS research, Ewan Cameron, a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto, approached Pauling regarding a book he was writing entitled The AIDS Disaster. The book was meant to serve as a comprehensive study of the AIDS virus, describing its history, socio-political context, and related research.

Cameron requested that Pauling serve as co-author, editing the book and providing a chapter on vitamin C and AIDS. Pauling agreed and, in late 1988, the book was completed. Due to a variety of publishing issues, the text never reached bookstore shelves, but several complete versions of the manuscript are held in Cameron’s papers here at Oregon State University.

Until his death in 1994, Pauling continued to emphasize the responsibility of the scientific community to help cure diseases such as AIDS and cancer. He gave frequent lectures on the subject of orthomolecular medicine and continually worked to increase support for medical research.

For additional reading on Ewan Cameron’s AIDS work and research, check out the Cameron Papers finding aid, hosted online by the OSU Libraries Special Collections.  Please also note that a few more of Pauling’s thoughts on the treatment of AIDS with ascorbic acid are linked off of this index page from the Linus Pauling Research Notebooks website.