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Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7039.1170 (Published 04 May 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1170
  1. Mikulas Teich

    Ted Goertzel, Ben Goertzel Basic Books (Harper Collins) £18.99, pp 300 ISBN 0 465 00672 8

    Among 20th century scientists Linus Pauling (1901-94) occupies a conspicuous position. For one thing, he was a recipient of two Nobel prizes, for chemistry (1954) and peace (1962), and the authors of this highly readable, unauthorised, biography tell us that “he felt he deserved a third.”

    It is also a useful book for understanding the politics—in the broadest sense of the word—of the Nobel prize awards. Pauling was given the Nobel prize in chemistry for “research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the structure of complex substances” which, seminally entered into in the 1920s, culminated with the celebrated book The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals in 1939. So it took a while before the highest scientific accolade was bestowed on Pauling who, in 1954, was a controversial figure both in the Soviet Union and the United States. In the former his name was associated with the theory of resonance, deemed to be antimaterialist by some vigilante scientists and philosophers. In the latter the State Department decided that it was not in the interest of the United States for Pauling to go abroad. On the basis of information from McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee his passport was not renewed. Within this context the authors write: “In making the award when they did, the Swedes asserted their neutrality by defying both the Soviet Stalinists and the American McCarthyists.” As to the Nobel prize for peace, its award was announced on “the same day [10 October 1963] the partial nuclear test ban treaty was signed by the three nuclear powers.”

    From 1966 until his death Pauling became involved in what he called “orthomolecular medicine”—that is, “the maintenance of health and cure of disease by regulating the concentration in the body of substances naturally found there.” He became an advocate of megavitamin treatments and believed that vitamin C offers the best cure against the common cold—he himself took about 10 g a day, increasing the dosage to as much as 50 g when he felt a cold coming on. “The issue of vitamins and health,” we read, “continues to be controversial….There is no compelling experimental evidence that megadoses of water-soluble vitamins are useful….The jury is still out.”

    In addition to Pauling's engagement in megavitamin treatments, readers of the BMJ might find it of interest that he participated, in 1953 and 1962, in two psychological studies of the personalities of scientists, relying in part on the Rorschach test. The results of the testing, in which Pauling was “an enthusiastic participant,” are discussed by the authors in the appendix.

    According to the distinguished American scientist Martin Kamen (he discovered carbon-14 and was falsely accused of espionage activities by the McCarthy committee), the biography of Pauling under review “may well become the definitive treatment of this remarkable man.” It certainly offers a pleasurable introduction to him and should prove a valuable beginning for future historical work on his life.—MIKULAS TEICH, Robinson College, Cambridge

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