Linus Pauling died at age 93 of prostate cancer, a disease that affects nearly 100 percent of North American men over age 90. He was one of the most influential chemists of all time, and also a peace activist, author, and educator. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his campaign against nuclear weapons testing. He also could have won a third Nobel Prize for determining the structure of the alpha helix of DNA (Proc of the Nat Acad of Scienc USA, 1951;37(11):729–40). Instead, the Nobel Prize for this discovery was awarded to James Watson and Francis Crick in 1962.
Pauling had more than 1200 scientific papers published, including:
• research on sickle cell anemia that helped to create the field of molecular biology
• work on the crystal structure of complex minerals and compounds
• work on chemical bonding that makes him a founder of modern quantum chemistry
Childhood and Education
Pauling was born in 1901 in Portland, Oregon, to Herman and Lucy Pauling. His father was a druggist who struggled to make a living and died of a perforated stomach ulcer when Linus was nine years old. Linus then helped to support his mother and two sisters by delivering milk, washing dishes and working in a machine shop. At age 15, he had enough credits to get into college but not enough to finish high school, so he left without a diploma and went to Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State University). From there he went to Caltech, where he received his PhD in physical chemistry and mathematical physics, summa cum laude, in 1925. At age 26 he was appointed assistant professor at Caltech, where he made an incredible number of discoveries in science. After he had won two Nobel Prizes, his high school awarded him a diploma.
Marriage and Wartime Work
During his senior year in college, Pauling taught a chemistry course and at age 24, he married one of his students, Ava Miller. It was a good marriage as she was a strong participant in his many activities and a major part of his efforts against nuclear weapons and war. The marriage lasted 56 years, until she died in 1981.
While at Caltech, Pauling worked with theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer to explain how chemicals bind together. One day when Pauling was at the university, Oppenheimer came to his home and asked Ava to join him for romance in Mexico. She refused and told her husband about Oppenheimer’s advances, and that was the end of the collaboration between two of the world’s leading scientists. At the start of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer asked Pauling to head the chemistry division, but he refused.
Although not involved in creating the atomic bomb, Pauling did contribute to the war effort in many ways:
• He created an oxygen meter that saved the lives of many American pilots and submariners. After the war, these oxygen analyzers saved the lives of premature babies in incubators.
• He developed Oxypolygelatin, a replacement for human blood in transfusions.
• He helped to develop explosives, rocket propellants and armor-piercing bullets.
Pauling received a Presidential Medal for Merit from President Truman for his wartime contributions.
World Peace Efforts
In 1946, Pauling joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists chaired by Albert Einstein. In 1947, he started to include remarks about “world peace” in every lecture he gave. In 1958 he presented a petition at the United Nations to end atomic testing and published a book, No More War, to show the dangers of further nuclear explosions. Many politicians disagreed with him and in 1952 the U.S. State Department denied him passports three times so he was unable to attend scientific conventions abroad. My report on Rosalind Franklin tells how she and Pauling should have been included in the 1962 Nobel Prize that went to Watson and Crick for the work on DNA done by all of these scientists (Nature, April 25, 1953).
In 1954, his passport was restored so he could go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. In 1958, the Caltech Board of Trustees forced this brilliant and courageous tenured professor to resign as chairman of their Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division because of his anti-war activism. In 1960 he was called before the Internal Security Committee of the U.S. Senate which said he was “the number one scientific name in virtually every major activity of the Communist peace offensive in this country.” In 1963, Pauling was awarded the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize after President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Even the Most Brilliant Scientists Can be Wrong
In 1941, at age 40, Pauling developed kidney disease, characterized by swollen legs, high blood pressure, and protein in his urine. A Stanford researcher, Dr. Thomas Addis, treated him with a low-protein, low-salt diet and vitamin supplements. The calorie restriction helped him to lose weight and protect his kidneys, the low-salt diet helped to prevent the fluid retention, and most likely, the vitamin pills did nothing for him. However, this experience influenced Pauling to develop the widely-discredited theory of orthomolecular medicine: that large doses of chemicals that exist normally in the body, such as vitamin C, can be used to prevent disease and illness.
In 1968, his paper on “Orthomolecular Psychiatry” was published in Science (April 1968;160(3825):265-71). He stated that large doses of vitamins could cure mental illness, a theory that was never supported by scientific data. In 1973, he founded the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine in Menlo Park, California, which is now called the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. He published case reports on vitamin C and lysine preventing atherosclerosis and heart pain, but virtually all subsequent well controlled, blinded scientific studies show no benefits or prevention whatever. He personally took large doses of vitamin C every day in the belief that it would prevent colds. In 1971, he collaborated with British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in treating terminal cancer patients with massive doses of vitamin C, but studies from the Mayo Clinic showed that 10,000 mg of vitamin C (100 times the Recommended Dietary Allowance) is no more effective than a placebo in treating cancer (Science, Dec 11, 2015;350(6266):1317-1318). After several studies failed to show health benefits from massive doses of vitamin C, Pauling called them “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation”.
He Died of Prostate Cancer
In 1994, at age 93, Pauling died of prostate cancer. In North America, prostate cancer affects:
• 35 percent of men 70-80 years old,
• 70 percent of men over 80, and
• nearly 100 percent of men over 90.
Most older men live for many years with their prostate cancer and then die from something else such as a heart attack or diabetes. Virtually every risk factor for a heart attack is also a risk factor for prostate cancer (Circulation, Mar 15, 2016;133(11):1104-1114).
More than 95 percent of prostate cancers are slow-growing and do not harm the men who have them. Prostate cancer screening (PSA tests) did not become common until the 1980s, so it is likely that Pauling had lived with his prostate cancer for two or three decades or more without even knowing he had it. Life expectancy for a male born in 1901 was 47.6 years, and even today it is only 76 years. For Linus Pauling to have lived long enough to die of prostate cancer at 93, he probably had a fairly healthful lifestyle, good genes or both.
Lifestyle Factors and Prostate Cancer
In rural China, fewer than four percent of men over 90 have prostate cancer, while Chinese men who adopt the Western diet and lifestyle have the same high rates as North American men. The rural Chinese habits of a plant-based diet, low calorie intake and daily manual labor probably account for much of the difference. Most North American men eat the typical Western diet loaded with red meat and processed meats, sugared drinks, sugar-added foods and fried foods, do not exercise, and gain an average of five pounds every decade. The typical Western diet appears to put us at increased risk for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and various cancers including prostate cancer (Ann Epidemiol, 2008;18(5):364–70). Lack of exercise (Prostate, Jun 2018;78(9):639-645) and being overweight (Rev Urol, 2004 Spring;6(2):73–81) are also associated with increased risk for the aggressive type of prostate cancer that kills.
We do not know what causes prostate cancer, but it often occurs in men who have many heart attack risk factors, and men with prostate cancer who correct their heart attack risk factors live longer than those who do not change their lifestyles. I think the data is strong enough to recommend that you follow a prostate-healthy (and heart-healthy) lifestyle as much as you can:
• Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts
• Restrict sugared drinks and sugar-added foods, red meat, processed meats and fried foods
• Exercise and maintain a healthful weight
See Prostate Cancer, Diet and Lifestyle
Linus Carl Pauling
February 28, 1901 – August 19, 1994