Blog Post

The Sad Story of Linus Pauling and Orthomolecular Medicine

SK asks: "I have been researching natural and alternative medicine.  I've spent time reviewing your New Age Q/As.  I don't see any questions concerning Orthomolecular medicine/Dr Linus Pauling.   It doesn't seem to state any info on energy or chi,  etc.  It's mostly mega-vitamin therapies."

You are correct. Dr. Linus Pauling is not a New Age enthusiast. He is a brilliant biochemist and Nobel Prize winner who endured a truly humiliating fall from grace when he began to trumpet the use of massive doses of vitamins (aka orthomolecular medicine) that he claimed could cure everything from the common cold to cancer. Because of his enormous reputation, scientists scrambled to test his ideas in the laboratory, hoping to come up with a true miracle pill, but were never able to reproduce the astonishing results Pauling claimed.

According to the book, Do You Believe in Magic, by Paul Offit, M.D., it all started with a letter Pauling received from a biochemist named Irwin Stone who had attended one of his talks. During the presentation, Pauling said he hoped to live another 25 years. Stone suggested that if he were to ingest 3,000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day, he would not only live 25 more years, but much longer. Pauling tried it and was surprised to see that he felt "livelier" and was no longer suffering from colds. He decided to gradually increase the dosage until he was taking 18,000 milligrams a day.

Soon after, Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, then Vitamin C, The Common Cold and the Flu. Because he was so well-known, the public began buying Vitamin C by the boat-loads.

However, Pauling was a real scientist and knew his theories would have to be tested in the laboratory. They were, and they came up lacking every time. Large groups of people were tested in various labs, with some being given high doses of Vitamin C and others given a placebo. The groups taking the Vitamin C had the same number of colds as those who took the placebo.

Pauling refused to believe the evidence against his theory, and went a step further, claiming that Vitamin C could cure cancer. Again, his theory was tested and again, the groups taking high doses of Vitamin C failed to recover from their cancer.

From there, Pauling went off the rails and began claiming that vitamin C, when taken with massive doses of vitamin A and E, along with selenium and beta-carotene, could treat virtually every disease known to man.

"Although studies had failed to support him, Pauling believed that vitamins and supplements had one property that made them cure-alls, a property that continues to be hawked on everything from ketchup to pomegranate juice and that rivals worlds like natural and organic for sales impact - antioxidant," Offit writes.

To this day, Pauling's orthomolecular medicine survives even though unbiased scientific testing has never proven its efficacy and in spite of the fact that megadoses of some vitamins is actually lethal (B3, aka niacin; D and E).

A large collection of vitamin studies is available at the Cochrane Library for review.

The bottom line is that orthomolecular medicine is not New Age, but it's not scientifically supported either. Catholics should not use it to treat any serious or contagious condition.