History Magazine

Pauling at UC-San Diego

By Scarc

Pauling at UC-San Diego

[Part 1 of 3]

We have written previously about Linus Pauling’s affiliation with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), and also of the difficulties that he encountered in what ultimately proved to be a doomed attempt at securing a position at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1964. Over the next three weeks, we will focus on the years that Pauling spent at the University of California, San Diego, the institution where he began his experimental work in orthomolecular medicine. As we will see, Pauling’s tenure at UCSD, though short-lived, offered him the opportunity to pursue a mission that he had initially sought out, and failed to obtain, at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions: the application of scientific and medical research to political and social issues.

In 1966, UCSD Vice Chancellor for Research Fred Wall, an accomplished chemist who was eager to rectify the disappointment that Pauling had experienced with UC-Santa Barbara, invited Pauling to join the faculty at UC-San Diego. Pauling was initially hesitant. He remembered all too well the hostility that informed University of California Chancellor Vernon Cheadle’s refusal to consider his appointment at UCSB, a position that was fully supported by the UC regents. This history fresh in mind, Pauling saw no reason why he would be permitted to teach at UCSD; afterall, his political views hadn’t changed over the past two years and he’d become, if anything, even more vocal about them.

This time, however, Pauling’s case received far more support. For one, UCSD’s chancellor, John Galbraith, fought hard to garner faculty endorsement of a petition that aimed to

urge that every effort be made not only to induce him to accept the present appointment assured for one year, but also to press with all means possible for its renewal for whatever periods Dr. Pauling and the faculty involved agree to be appropriate.

Galbraith likewise went out of his way to praise Pauling’s excellent lecturing ability as being a potential asset to faculty and students alike. Similarly, he affirmed that Pauling’s appointment would prove valuable not only to the chemistry department, but to the physics and biology departments as well. In due course, faculty in all three departments signed the petition and the chemistry department unanimously voted in favor of Pauling’s appointment.

Pauling, buoyed by this strong show of support, accepted a one-year appointment with the university, a contract that carried with it the understanding that a tenured position might be offered in the coming years, so long as the UC regents didn’t interfere.

A letter from Ava Helen Pauling to her son Peter, as well as a statement made by Pauling in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Newsletter, indicate that his initial take on UCSD was a positive one. Perhaps most importantly, the university offered him the means to return to scientific research, a clear source of invigoration following two years at the CSDI, which was not capable of providing him with adequate lab space. In her letter to Peter, Ava Helen confirmed this new feeling of enthusiasm, particularly as it was coupled with exciting, if nascent, investigations on orthomolecular topics. Pauling himself called UCSD a “first-rate” institution and expressed his satisfaction with the top scientific and medical researchers who had made it their academic home.

It didn’t take long for Ava Helen to find a house to rent in La Jolla and shortly thereafter, in September 1967, Pauling arrived at his new office on the UCSD campus. In their initial meetings, Bruno Zimm, the chemistry department chairman at the time, encouraged Pauling to develop customized coursework that might explore specialized subjects of Pauling’s choosing over the upcoming terms. Pauling replied that it was his preference to focus predominantly on research, as his salary was coming entirely from research funds. He remained active on campus however, participating enthusiastically in a lecture series targeting first year students.

Pauling at UC-San Diego

Linus Pauling, 1967.

Shortly after settling in, Pauling began partnering with Arthur Robinson, a former student at Caltech, and now an assistant professor in the UCSD biology department. Together, the duo would tackle Pauling’s latest research quest: an exploration of orthomolecular medicine. This fruitful collaboration eventually led to their co-founding of the Institute for Orthomolecular Medicine, now known as the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

Pauling’s research was being supported by UCSD as well as lingering funds from CSDI, but soon it became clear that his team would need additional resources. As he delved further into his orthomolecular program, Pauling estimated that the work that he had in mind would take at least five years, a length of time that was extended, in part, by the small size of his research team. In addition to Pauling and Robinson, the UCSD group consisted of two lab technicians (Sue Oxley and Maida Bergeson), a post-graduate resident (Ian Keaveny), and two graduate students (John and Margaret Blethen).

When applying for grants, Pauling described his research as seeking to discover better diagnostic and treatment methods for mental illness. In his applications, Pauling asked mainly for equipment funds, and he usually received what he wanted. Pretty quickly, his team found that vapor-phase chromatography – a process that had been suggested by Robinson at the outset of the project – was the most effective technique for engaging in quantitative analysis, and the grant applications that followed sought to enhance these capabilities in the laboratory.

Pauling’s goal during these first years was to uncover and establish a link between mental illness and deficiencies of various vitamins. At the outset, the team specifically planned to look at the correlation between fluctuations in mental health and variations in intake of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), nicotinic acid (B3), cyanocobalamin (B12), and pyridoxine (B6). Pauling believed that the brain and nervous system were especially sensitive to molecular composition and structure, and that certain mental illnesses were actually a problem of localized cerebral deficiency. This was, in essence, the guiding principle behind much of the team’s work.

Pauling also felt that schizophrenia had not received adequate scientific study, and so the group decided to focus their primary research on schizophrenics. If all went according to plan, the following three years would be devoted to developing diagnostic tools to identify deficiencies as well as effective therapies for correcting the deficiencies. The researchers would also use this time to explore the impact and consequences of other vitamin deficiencies. Though enthusiastic about this program, in several of his publications and speeches on the topic Pauling took pains to present orthomolecular therapy as being an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, traditional methods such as psychoanalysis, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

During the CSDI years, Pauling’s grant funding from the National Science Foundation had been continuously delayed, largely because he didn’t have a lab in which to conduct the work. Once he was established at UCSD however, the NSF was quick to award him the grant money that he’d long ago requested. Pauling also received funding from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and additional monies from the CSDI were likewise set aside, should he need them.

The group began working in earnest in late 1967, focusing on measurements of vitamin absorption, and by April 1968, Pauling had published his introductory paper, “Orthomolecular Psychiatry,” in Science. The article, which proved influential, drew from the existing literature, focusing especially on a study by Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, who had reported improvement in mentally ill patients treated with a regimen of nicotinic acid and nicotinamide.

In short order, Pauling began to receive a growing volume of letters from community members who had been directly or indirectly affected by mental illness. Pauling took care in replying to these correspondents, often pointing them toward additional resources for more information and encouraging them to write again if they had further questions. The response from medical researchers and physicians to Pauling’s paper was mixed; on the whole, they remained largely unimpressed with Pauling’s work. Nonetheless, Pauling never failed to emphasize the importance of his research, and the general public responded favorably to this confidence.


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