February 28, 2014
To scientists, LINUS PAULING (1901–94) is both inspiring role model and cautionary tale. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of his contributions to chemistry. He recognized the commonality between ionic bonds (as in salt, NaCl) and covalent bonds (as in diamond, pure C), and established them as two ends of a continuum, described by the Pauling Electronegativity Scale; he went on to explain chemical bonding as a hybridization of the quantum mechanical structures (electron orbitals) of the participating atoms. These are the fundamentals of chemistry, learned by high school students around the globe. On top of this, Pauling helped to create the field of molecular genetics. He and his collaborators demonstrated that sickle cell anemia was caused by a single abnormal protein (hemoglobin), which in turn was related to an inherited genetic mutation. And his work on nuclear disarmament garnered him a second Nobel, in Peace, making him one of only four people to win two Nobel Prizes in different fields. But Pauling’s best-known contribution might be the widely held belief that large doses of vitamin C can head off or reduce the severity of a cold. His research in the field he named “orthomolecular medicine” led him to advocate megadoses of vitamin C as a treatment for cancer, including through several books aimed at the public. The reception of this work among other scientists was mixed, to say the least, and Pauling became involved in acrimonious disputes. To date, there is little evidence that vitamin C can alter the course of a cold (beyond the placebo effect) or of cancer. It’s saddening that, together with his towering scientific legacy, Pauling leaves behind this crumb of popularly believed misinformation.
READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).