Linus Pauling and Vitamin C, a lesson

Every morning, waiting for the delicious sweet and sour fizzy orange vitamin C tab to dissolve in the glass of water was part of the breakfast ritual. Maybe I should emphasize that this 1000mg Vitamin C was given in addition to a fresh squeezed orange juice, bananas and whatever other fruits of the season that the Carribbean island I am from had to offer. Having our daily quota of vitamins growing up was a must for my parents. Today, I seldom skip my “Emergen-C drink” before starting my day, attributing to vitamin C my capacity  to balance social life with long work-study days. Praising to others the importance of vitamin C in my every day diet, and stating from my own observations that it even reduces the chances for cold sores to occur, I tried to find in literature some support for my claims. After all, it could simply be a placebo for me, especially given the psychological dimension of  it given its link to my childhood…
Even though I could not find much data in renowned journals about vitamin C and Herpex Simplex (a.k.a. cold sore), I was a little comforted to see that somehow, somewhere on the planet, it had been researched. However, the one thing that made me feel happily satisfied was to discover that the person who would had given the strongest support to my beliefs (aside from my own father), was none other than Dr. Linus Pauling.
Yes, the same Pauling whose principle will inevitably be learned by anyone taking a General Chemistry class. The same Linus Pauling who set the path for Watson and Crick in their discovery of the double helix (actually named after Pauling’s α-helix protein structure!). Pauling, who on top of being one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century, was also a great humanitarian and earned not only one but two unshared Nobel Prizes! One for Chemistry (at 30 years old), and one for Peace (he was a fearless peace activist)… Well, here it is! Pauling has also pioneered research on  vitamins!
Sadly, reading further, I also learned that it was this same research on vitamin C that caused his reputation as scientist to go down the drain, as he became considered more like a mad man, blinded by his obsession. Recent findings have undermined the widespread beliefs in the benefits of vitamins.
Many questions since then remain in my mind. First of all, isn’t obsession needed for research? My answer is yes. In fact, whole communities of researchers are needed to question results to not only weed out bias, but also further a cause. On the other hand, where is the line between criticism and ridicule? How much more objective is the other party that wants to prove the scientist wrong? It seems that Pauling went a little far with his claims regarding Vitamin C, even arguing that it was the cure to cancer and could prolong lifespans to 150 years. Could his age (70 years old at the time) be to blame for such a great thinker to loose rationality? It is hard to believe that a person who relied for most of his life on proven facts, would not have some rational basis to consider that deficiency in diet is linked to diseases.

One might reply that, despite his  achievements, Pauling was not invincible. After all, he was convinced that genetic material was made of protein and not nucleic acid. Nevertheless, his conclusions were based on facts and even though his research did not lead to the final result on the discovery of DNA, it has certainly highly contributed to it.
Pauling’s contemporaries from the research field have deconstructed his beliefs through leading studies. Results have even shown that high doses of vitamin C can increase mortality and disease occurrence (the “antioxidant-paradox”). However, some of Pauling’s followers argue that many of theses studies have been poorly designed and do not properly assess the effects of vitamins on individuals…

Although I wish I had the time and skills to go through all these pro or against vitamins papers and evaluate how each study was conducted to build my own opinion, what I believe there is to learn from this is that critical thinking in whatever we read and the actions we take are essential; no matter how great our achievements can be in a lifetime, our views and beliefs are never infallible.

Reference:

Offit, Paul. “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 19 July 2013. Web. 21 July 2014.

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