Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the 20th century’s truly great scientists, Linus Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994). Beyond being a world leading chemist and biochemist, he was also a famous and outspoken peace activist.
Pauling holds the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded for research into the nature of the chemical bond and its use in elucidating molecular structure) and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons).
As a scientist, Pauling was one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. He did groundbreaking research on the analysis of molecular structures using the experimental technique of x-ray diffraction, complimented by quantum mechanical theory.
During the later part of his career, Pauling’s interest moved to molecular medicine and medical research. It is during this period that he started promoting the controversial idea of high dosage vitamin C as a treatment for various illnesses, notably cancer. Research conducted by Pauling and the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron was reported to show a significantly increased survival rate among terminal cancer patients who were treated with high doses of Vitamin C. These results were, however, later questioned by researchers at the Mayo Institute, who claimed the test group and control group in Pauling’s trial were too dissimilar, with the test group alleged to be less ill than the control group. The Mayo Institute repeated the experiment and found that the Vitamin C had no greater effect than the placebo given to the control group. Pauling, in turn, criticised the Mayo experiment for using oral rather than intravenous Vitamin C, and for not continuing the treatment long enough.
The Mayo results were widely publicised and reduced public interest in the value of high dosage Vitamin C. Pauling, however, continued to study the subject, and kept promoting the treatment as an adjunctive cancer therapy. He also investigated the potential for vitamin C to treat the common cold, to prevent atherosclerosis and to relieve angina pectoris.
Acknowledging his contribution to science, Pauling was included in a list of the 20 greatest scientists of all time by the magazine New Scientist, with Albert Einstein being the only other scientist from the 20th century on the list.