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All Progress Is Heresy

By Christine Menapace

Maverick, genius, and two-time Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Linus Pauling celebrates his 90th birthday this year-a fitting achievement for a man whose many accomplishments include a book entitled "How to Live Longer and Feel Better." What is this great scientists secret to long life? Nutrients, he says, and plenty of them, with a special concentration on vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Sounds simple enough, but Pauling's ideas have caused quite a shakeup in the medical community and have earned this respected scientist the image of heretic who has "gone off the deep end."

Born in Condon, Oregon, Pauling was the only son of a traveling druggist who died when Linus was only 9 years old. Tragic as it was, the death of his father brought about a great maturity in Pauling at a young age and taught him early on that he had to stand alone. Being scientifically minded, he read everything he could find, collected insects and minerals, and played with a group of boys who all grew up to be chemists. Pauling went on to Oregon State College and then to the California Institute of Technology, where he received his PhD degree in 1925. Surpassing everyone at Cal Tech, Pauling became chairman of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering, where he remained for 36 years.


By combining his knowledge of the structure of atoms in crystals with theories of quantum mechanics, Pauling calculated the energies that bind atoms, the distances between the atoms, and the angles at which the bonds form. His breakthrough work on the nature of chemical bonds earned him the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954. Pauling's work also contributed to an understanding of the molecular structure of proteins and led to new knowledge about diseases like sickle cell anemia.

Firmly established as a leading scientist, Pauling's life changed in the mid 1960s when he received a letter from biochemist Irwin Stone. The letter described Stone's high-level vitamin C regimen for long life which he had been developing for the past three decades. The idea intrigued Pauling, and he and his wife went on the program. They soon noticed an increased feeling of well-being and a striking decrease in the frequency of colds.


Pauling was so impressed with the benefits of vitamin C that in 1970 he wrote his book "Vitamin C and the Common Cold", which caused an explosion in vitamin C use that continues to this day. Pauling's ideas split the medical/health community wide open. He has been praised as a genius and lifesaver by many and attacked and chastised by others, some of whom accused him of acting as a vitamin C salesman rather than an objective scientist. Both the journal Science and the prestigious National Academy of Sciences refused to publish his scientific papers on vitamin C. The Journal of the American Medical Association also refused to publish his collective data on vitamin C, saying it had appeared elsewhere, but they did publish two studies contradicting Pauling's claims.

Pauling, however, remained undaunted and went on to assert that vitamin C could also prolong the lives of cancer patients. Through an association with Dr. Ewan Cameron, Pauling became convinced that large amounts of vitamin C-at least 20 to 30 gm per day-could extend a terminally ill cancer patient's life an average of 300 days.

Not surprisingly, Pauling again ran into stern opposition. Dr. Charles Moertel of the Mayo Clinic conducted his own study and concluded that vitamin C had no therapeutic benefit for cancer patients. Pauling countered that the Mayo Clinic's method of study was erroneous, prompting more research on the issue, which is still being debated today.

"I have tried to stick close to nature, stick close to the facts, but not be constrained by conventional ideas."

Pauling's latest contention is that people who ingest 10 grams of vitamin C a day can expect to live an average of 16 years longer than those who only receive the RDA of 45 milligrams. "The discovery of vitamins during the first third of the twentieth century and the recognition that they are essential elements of a healthy diet was one of the most important contributions to health ever made," wrote Pauling. He contends that the officially recommended intakes of nutrients (RDA) and the amount we normally ingest with food are far below optimum levels. "The nutritional establishment has shown itself to be as sluggish in recognizing this discovery as the medical establishment was in its response to Holmes and Semmelweiss (pioneers in medicine who were persecuted for believing doctors should wash their hands between patients)," he wrote.


Pauling feels much of the criticism he receives is due to a shocking lack of knowledge by physicians on the subject of nutrients. He argues that many physicians today receive little instruction in proper nutrition and are subject to much misinformation both before and after graduation. For instance, he points out, many doctors stop a patient's nutritional supplements during hospitalization, just the time when the nutrients are needed most.

Pauling's devotion to truth in the face of overwhelming odds, his morality, perseverance, and stamina ultimately brought him into the political arena. In 1958, he wrote No More War!, which discussed the threat of nuclear war and testing. That same year he submitted an antinuclear petition to the United Nations including the signatures of over 11,000 fellow scientists from 49 countries. His efforts led to his second Nobel Prize in 1962, for Peace, and helped pave the way for the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty between the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States.

Only time will tell if the world will come to accept Pauling's views on nutrition and vitamin C, but if he's earned the image of heretic and maverick, he wears it as a badge of honor. In a 1981 interview with Science Digest Magazine, he stated, "All progress is heresy. My early work in chemistry was just as unconventional as my recent work in molecular medicine. Always, I have tried to stick close to nature, stick close to the facts, but not be constrained by conventional ideas."

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