Linus Pauling: A Champion for Vitamin C and Better Health

An early Plowboy Interview with Linus Pauling, a pioneer in alternative medicine and one of the first advocates of Vitamin C as a defense against disease.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
August/September 1992
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Linus Pauling, the recipient of two Nobel Prizes, pioneered the use of vitamin C to ward off disease.

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Dr. Pauling, most people, it seems, think of your name in connection with nutrition and medicine. Isn't it true, though, that you've had no formal training in these fields? 

Yes, that's true. I've never had a course in biology or biochemistry.

How did you get involved with nutrition? 

I was trained in chemistry, physics, and mathematics in the early 1920s at the California Institute of Technology. By 1940, I had a very active group of people working with me at Cal Tech on problems of immunology…that is, problems involving antibodies, antigens, antitoxins, allergies and things of that sort. Later, I began to study a variety of diseases with a molecular basis. I remember thinking too, that I might as well study some important diseases while I was at it.

It was during this period that I learned of the work of Hoffer and Osmond. These two researchers—working in Canada—had found in the early 1950s that very large doses of niacin (vitamin B12) were often beneficial to patients suffering from schizophrenia. Eventually, they began to administer massive does of vitamin C, which also proved helpful. In time, I came to realize that vitamin C has many other benefits.

Why do you believe that vitamin C will prevent colds? What leads you to this conclusion? 

I think it probably does this largely—though perhaps not entirely—by potentializing the body's natural protective mechanisms. There is much evidence for this. A National Cancer Institute study conducted by R. H. Yonemoto, P. B. Chretien, and T. H. Fehniger found that people who were given five grams of vitamin C a day for three days showed a doubling in their rate of lymphocyte production. (Lymphocytes are white blood cells which act to rid the body of infection.)

Is it your contention that no studies have been done disproving the idea that vitamin C helps prevent colds? Do no such studies exist? 

I discussed all of the controlled trials I could find in the literature in my last book, Vitamin C, the Common Cold, and the Flu. There were 14 controlled trials altogether. All involved two groups of subjects—a "vitamin C" group and a "placebo" group—and none of the subjects of either group knew whether he or she was receiving ascorbic acid tablets, or tablets of a harmless but indistinguishable placebo, such as citric acid. And every one of these 14 studies showed some protective effect by vitamin C greater than the placebo.

It sounds as if vitamin C could act to ward off many types of infections. 

Evidence I have seen suggests that it provides protection against all of the infectious diseases…that is, all bacterial and viral diseases. Obviously, a great deal more work and research needs to be done, but I'm very excited about the possibilities.

Do you believe that it might be possible to completely eradicate the common cold, with the aid of vitamin C, in the same way that, say, smallpox has been wiped out in most parts of the world? 

Well I should think that it would be possible, yes. Of course, it might take a very long time, because cold viruses from one part of the world are carried by travelers to other parts of the world, and we know, too, that in some countries, conditions are such that we can't expect the proper amount of vitamin C to be made available to everyone. But ultimately, it might be possible to have a country in which nobody has the common cold. You know, I think my interest in the vitamins has developed to the extent that it has partially because of the failure of the medical establishment to look at the facts.

It seems odd that researchers refer to amounts as small as 200 milligrams as a "large" dose. Isn't that really a fairly small amount of the vitamin to take? 

That's right. It's only a little more than four times the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) set down by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council (NRC). The RDA for vitamin C is now 45 milligrams. That's the amount that if taken daily, will prevent most people from dying of scurvy.

So the attitude of the NRC is simply that as long as you are not dying of scurvy, you're okay. 

That seems to be their attitude. And of course, that attitude is wrong. I think that enormous benefits could be obtained from taking considerably larger doses—benefits which could have a dramatic effect on lifespan and the quality of life.

How much vitamin C do you take every day? 

I take ten grams a day, myself.

Some people might ask whether it would be desirable to live an extra 20 or 25 years. In your opinion, would those extra years be productive and happy? 

I think that they would be pleasurable years. The process of aging is not well understood, but it has been observed that when people manage to live into their nineties, death is usually accompanied by a smaller amount of suffering than when people die at an earlier age.

On the other hand, one might well question whether the next 25 years in the history of the world will be pleasurable. The problem of overpopulation, which has a direct corollary effect all other environmental problems, including pollution and the destruction of wildlife habitats, must be addressed by the governments of the world.

Paul Erlich has pointed out that a global crisis could take many forms—the complete loss of oceanic fisheries, for instance, through overfishing. Or severe weather changes brought about by governments to improve the yield of crops. Or the rapid destruction of the ozone layer.

Do you agree with Erlich? Are we in as much trouble as he suggests? 

I am forced—as I observe governments in their process of decision-making—to conclude that the amount of suffering in the world will reach a critical point sometime in the next century. Unless we are wiser than we have shown ourselves to be, we shall encounter catastrophic problems in the years ahead. I have hope that in time, humanity will unify and solve these problems. If nations can simply agree that the earth is fragile, we may then have a world in which every human being will have the opportunity to lead a healthy, long and pleasurable life.  

Linus Pauling is 91 years old and still working with the Linus Pauling Institute of California (currently shifting its focus to medical problems related to heart disease). He has won two Nobel prizes.  

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