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The Deeply Personal War of Linus Pauling : Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist Still Battles for His Controversial Vitamin Theory

June 02, 1985|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

BIG SUR — From a windswept point along California's most spectacular shoreline, an old professor who holds the world's most prestigious award for peace plans his next moves in a deeply personal war.

Many have said that for Linus Pauling, the war should have ended a long time ago when the medical profession refused to embrace his theory of Vitamin C as a panacea for all sorts of afflictions, including cancer.

But the only person in history to win two unshared Nobel prizes would have none of that. Pauling calls those who attack his work on Vitamin C 'scoundrels.' Instead, he has directed his energies toward proving the naysayers wrong. Now into the 85th year of his life, the old man hones his intellectual scalpel, ready to fight all who question his judgment on this, the most frustrating campaign in his long, sometimes stormy career.

If it turns out that Vitamin C does not help cure cancer, as the Mayo Clinic has concluded twice in recent studies, defeat in the last chapter of his life could overshadow the fact that for more than half a century Pauling was a major intellectual force in the world of science, producing a body of work that few in any field could match.

If it turns out that some of his other ideas about vitamins are correct, as recent evidence suggests, it will be another footnote in a long, illustrious career, forcing his critics to concede that Linus Pauling was at least partly right after all.

But no matter what the eventual result, those who know him well do not doubt that Pauling will fight to the very end.

"I thought it would have been ended several years ago," Pauling said recently as he sat in his rustic home on the rugged California coastline south of Big Sur. "By 1980, I had thought, doctors everywhere would be giving Vitamin C in large doses as an adjunct to conventional therapy for cancer patients. But because of the opposition, which is mainly from ignorance, it has gone more slowly."

A cherubic grin, his trademark for so many years, turns to a scowl.

"This delay," he added, "will do harm to thousands, or tens of thousands, of persons."

He gazes for a moment at the ocean at his doorstep, then turns back with his eyes flashing. Those who have attacked his work on Vitamin C, he says dramatically, are "scoundrels."

Linus Pauling today is known to millions of younger Americans as someone with vague scientific credentials who became a huckster for vitamins. Yet if he is aware that many do not know of the extraordinary imprint he has already left on a wide range of scientific disciplines, he doesn't show it.

Instead, there is his air of self-confidence that many people have perceived as arrogance.

This confidence that the path he has taken has been the correct one has been a factor throughout Pauling's long career. Indeed, many who have followed him think it explains why he could never sit still--why even becoming the most decorated chemist in history was not enough.

There were signs, even in his early days at Caltech in Pasadena, that Pauling's path would lead him to personal victories, but that he would pay a dear price in order to achieve them.

The son of an Oregon druggist, Pauling entered Caltech as a graduate student in 1922. By 1925, at the age of 24, he had earned his Ph.D in chemistry.

As a young chemist at the Pasadena institute, he soon began cutting his legendary swath across several fields of science. He was still in his early 30s when he published a series of papers that were to make up his masterpiece, "The Nature of the Chemical Bond," the work that would earn him the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1954.

Along the way he had learned that a little humor and a lot of dramatics can turn a dry lecture into a work of art, and Pauling embraced both of those tactics with gusto. Friends say he was always somewhat of a ham, and his flamboyant style served him well in the classroom.

"He was one of the finest chemical teachers ever," recalled Dr. Lee DuBridge, who was president of Caltech during Pauling's final tumultuous days there. "He was a brilliant lecturer. He still is. I heard him give a lecture a few months ago. He talked too long, but it was a marvelous lecture."

Pauling's flair also paved the way out of the classroom and into the world at large for a young scientist who had found his oratorical skills in great demand.

But it wasn't only the scientific issues he had to address. The end of World War II had seen the United States usher in the nuclear age with atomic bomb attacks on two Japanese cities. The devastation served as a dramatic warning that the world would never be the same again.

Pauling began to say as much.

"I could give talks about science that people could understand," he said. "So I gave talks, essentially about nuclear physics. But gradually I began saying, as Einstein was saying, that the fact that we could lob over a single bomb and destroy an entire city meant that, finally, we were forced to give up war."

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