Nobel winner Linus Pauling, who believed mega doses of vitamic C would prevent… (Associated Press )
I can't really pinpoint when my dad first started bringing home the powdery mixture, as white as sugar and as fine as beach sand.
He'd step into the kitchen and sprinkle it -- three grams at a time -- into some orange juice and stir to the point it crested the edge of the glass. He'd serve it with breakfast. One glass for each of us. Drink up.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 23, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Nobel Prize: A column in the Feb. 21 Section A about following the vitamin C advice of Linus Pauling misspelled Nobel Prize as Noble. The same misspelling occurred in a Feb. 5 Calendar section article about Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica.
Had I been older, I might have protested. But I was just a kid, living in an era when the only things you were supposed to avoid eating were paper and dirt. Everything else was a go. So I tended to accept whatever came my way at the dinner table.
"This," my dad would tell us, "will keep you from ever getting a cold."
And so it went for years, the breakfast orange juice nothing more than a mere vehicle for delivering a massive shot of vitamin C.
My father was an early disciple of Dr. Linus Pauling, who was one of his Caltech colleagues. Pauling was a chemist; my dad a physicist. I don't know that their paths crossed regularly, but it is a small campus and a place where big ideas and extreme theories are discussed freely.
Pauling was convinced that vitamin C, taken in mega doses, would prevent the common cold. And for my dad, usually not one to go on blind faith, that was all the proof he needed.
I somehow imagined that this guy Pauling worked amid a battlefield of test tubes and beakers in some dank basement laboratory, cooking up this miracle drug and that folks like my dad would swoop by every so often to check out the progress and pick up a batch.
Pauling was already a deeply respected and widely known man of science, but vitamin C made him a bit of a rock star. He gave rise to a generation that embraced vitamin C as a mighty shield that would deflect a good many of the bad things in life, the common cold being at the top of the list.
When he wrote a book titled "Vitamin C and the Common Cold," my dad brought it home immediately. If you read one book this year, he said, thumping the orange-colored jacket of the book, make it this one.
I took a pass. Same with "Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu" and "Cancer and Vitamin C," as exhilarating as the titles sounded.
When I went off to college, my parents packed me up a supply of vitamin C to get me through the first half of my freshman year. I'm fairly certainly that, while I may have let a lot of things slide in college, I would have dutifully taken it. If just out of habit.
By then vitamin C was as universal as breakfast cereal, no more special than the fish oil, vitamin E and calcium tablets that served as its bunkmates on the shelves at Costco. So many ways to be healthy.
But there was a dark side to vitamin C, and I guess I didn't even realize it at the time.
Though Pauling won the Noble Prize twice -- once for chemistry, once for peace -- his vitamin C campaign was branded as bad science by some. Clinical trials conducted by the Mayo Clinic concluded that vitamin C was no more effective in fighting cancer than the placebos used in the testing. Claims that the vitamin successfully fought colds were brushed off as "quackery."
Pauling dismissed the findings. But after that, suspicions never seemed to rest.
Like fluoride and global warming, vitamin C -- hoax or cure-all -- is debated still in the far margins of the Internet.
"Vitamin C may enhance radiation therapy for aggressive brain tumors." That's the headline on a story posted on medicalxpress.com last week. "Straight to the veins: Vitamin C shot to fight work fatigue." That rather scary thought appeared in an article published last week in the Times of India.
"Can Vitamin C become Deadly?" Yet another uplifting read, this one from the Pakistan News Service.
The Noble Prize website devoted to Pauling doesn't even mention vitamin C, and when a postage stamp commemorating Pauling was made public, it featured red blood cells for his groundbreaking work on sickle-cell anemia -- not a single vitamin C tablet in sight.
All these years later, vitamin C is as intriguing and vexing as ever to academics.
Dr. Steven Clarke, a professor of biochemistry at UCLA, said data show that vitamin C does nothing to prevent catching a cold, but it does seem to reduce the duration and severity of a cold if taken before the infection settles in.
It remains a "pretty interesting molecule" that holds possibilities in science, such as the biochemistry of the aging process, which is Clarke's field.
It's entirely possible, Clarke said, that vitamin C may help some people while doing little or nothing for others.
"I think it works for me," he said.
Pauling died in 1994 of complications from prostate cancer, but even as he approached death, he claimed that heavy doses of vitamin C had held off the advancing disease and extended his life by years.
It tells you something about his sheer confidence that he publicly announced he was an atheist just before he died.
My father finally gave up on the powder years ago.
He'd had several minor episodes spilling the stuff in his briefcase or his pockets, and it seemed less and less like a smart idea to be walking around with a baggy filled with powder, so he switched to the tablets.
I stopped by the other day to help him with his taxes and asked him if he was still taking his vitamin C -- the stuff, the product, the magic.
"Oh, sure," he said. "Yeah, it's somewhere around here."
I still take it too, I told him. Though I'm not always sure why. I told him that too.
"Well," he said, drifting off for just a moment -- he is, after all, 93 -- "I'm not sure it does any good, either. But I guess I was always afraid what might happen if I stopped."
And maybe it's that -- a vague fear of what might happen -- that hooked an entire generation.