First Do No Harm

Linus Pauling, Vitamin C, and Rock & Roll (and Science)

Linus Pauling was a once in a lifetime genius and the only person ever to be awarded two Nobel prizes.

Being in such high regard by society, Pauling became the first modern Rock Star of Science.

Louis Pasteur was once a Rock Star, long before the term “Rock Star” existed. And as we’ve discussed at this site previously, (see Louis Pasteur And the Myth of Pasteurization), Pasteur, like most geniuses, had his faults.

Pauling, too, had his faults. Idiosyncratic behavior is not just the domain of genius. Idiots and crazy people also have idiosyncratic behaviors. But we don’t worship idiots and crazy people (except during elections, apparently) and we did once worship Pauling.

When Pauling said something, everyone listened, and furthermore, they believed every word.

He (and Mathias Rath) proved that Cardiovascular Disease was a pre-scurvy disease; that lack of vitamin C caused pitting in the arteries which lead to a buildup of cholesterol, and lacking the antioxidant vitamin C also caused the cholesterol to oxidize and eventually calcify. The paper is called “A Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease Leading the Way to the Abolition of This Disease as a Cause for Human Mortality.”

Genius is a strange realm. Hitler was genius. Marilyn Monroe was a genius. How genius reveals itself, what it accomplishes, and how it is received by the world is unpredictable, and oftentimes genius doesn’t look like genius. It looks crazy.

When Pauling spoke, we listened, we applauded, and we believed. The problem is, he was often just plain wrong.

To start, he claimed that vitamin C was simply ascorbic acid. In fact, according to a physician by the name of Dr. Thomas Levy:

The Nobel laureate who discovered vitamin C, Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, asserted that what he discovered was ascorbic acid and nothing more.

It had been years earlier that scurvy had been cured on British ships by giving the sailors “limes;” hence, they got the nickname Limeys. And then, soon after Szent-Gyorgi discovered Vitamin C in the thirties, the world put two and two together and realized that it was Vitamin C that had cured scurvy. In fact, Pauling’s theory that cardiovascular disease was a pre-scurvy condition concluded that it was vitamin C that could prevent cardiovascular disease.

There’s only one problem: ascorbic acid does not cure scurvy.

Limes will cure scurvy, and ascorbic acid is part of the lime and definitely assists in the cure of scurvy. Thus, if we are going to say that Vitamin C cures scurvy, then we must admit that Vitamin C is not just its most reducible part (ascorbic acid) but that it is a complex consisting of a few other things found in that damn lime.

There is something about the entire lime that works\ while the “active ingredient” doesn’t, and we’ve seen this time and time again. We’ve even posted an article called An Herb is More Than its Active Ingredient.

Pauling was a reductionist. He reduced vitamin C to its active ingredient, as did Szent-Gyorgy who discovered it. That is not genius; that’s reductionism.

Geniuses often do stupid things. And Pauling’s genius turned out to be dangerous, and could have been what killed him.

You see, Pauling kept touting that megadoses of ascorbic acid cured cancer. One of his researchers discovered that megadoses of ascorbic acid caused cancer. Pauling fired him. Pauling died from cancer.

I should tell you that there is some evidence that extremely high doses of vitamin C will kill cancer cells, but the amount of vitamin C needed is right near the toxic point, and the studies don’t show overwhelming proof at all. In fact, the best results seem to come from studies in which the patients are undergoing both chemo and high dose IV C.


Vitamin C is a complex. It consists of many bioflavonoids, and rather than working like a sweet violin, it works like an entire orchestra. And the best way to get your vitamin C is through your food, but there are times you need to supplement. Red peppers and currents are among the two best foods for vitamin C.

And though people like Dr Levy will always tell you that charlatans on the internet will try to convince you to pay more for a “natural” form of vitamin C, even he admits that when it comes to “antioxidants” in the bioflavonoids found in a “complex,” “the more the merrier.”

If Dr Levy wants to call me a charlatan, fine. He’s a reductionist. And this charlatan has never taken a dime for his work; we do great research to get at the truth.

And Now A Word About Studies

As we’ve pointed out here often enough (this article, Studies Show, was written in the late nineties, and is being been rewritten [12/04/16]), anyone can make a study that proves just about anything, as long as you can manipulate the methodology or the statistical analysis.

One thing about studies on vitamin C is hundreds have shown that megadoses of vitamin C don’t shorten the course of a cold, nor do they ward off colds.

Take this study: Mega-dose vitamin C in treatment of the common cold: a randomised controlled trial.

Here is the conclusion: Doses of vitamin C in excess of 1 g daily taken shortly after onset of a cold did not reduce the duration or severity of cold symptoms in healthy adult volunteers when compared with a vitamin C dose less than the minimum recommended daily intake.

Okay, now here’s another study: The effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing and relieving the symptoms of virus-induced respiratory infections.

Here is this one’s conclusion: Vitamin C in megadoses administered before or after the appearance of cold and flu symptoms relieved and prevented the symptoms in the test population compared with the control group.

How about that?

So let’s take a look at the actual studies, we will refer to them as A (the first study above) and B.

A consisted of 400 students recruited to take either .03 g of vitamin C (the placebo group), or in the experimental group, 1 g, 3g, or 3g of a c complex called “Bio-C” (consisting of ascorbic acid, citrus bioflavonoids extract, rutin, hesperidin, rosehips, and acerola). “Participants were instructed to commence medication when they had experienced early symptoms of a cold for four hours, and to record daily their symptoms, severity, doctor visits and use of other medications.”

The results are interesting. Only 149, way less than half, finished the study. They returned records for 184 cold episodes. So in this 18 month period, some of them caught more than one cold. The study also points out that the placebo group “had the shortest duration of nasal, systemic and overall symptoms, and the lowest mean severity score at 14 days . . . .”
In B, a “total of 463 students ranging in age from 18 to 32 years made up the control group. A total of 252 students ranging in age from 18 to 30 years made up the experimental or test group.”

Here is their method: “Investigators tracked the number of reports of cold and flu symptoms among the 1991 test population of the facility compared with the reports of like symptoms among the 1990 control population. Those in the control population reporting symptoms were treated with pain relievers and decongestants, whereas those in the test population reporting symptoms were treated with hourly doses of 1000 mg of Vitamin C for the first 6 hours and then 3 times daily thereafter. Those not reporting symptoms in the test group were also administered 1000-mg doses 3 times daily.”

CONCLUSION: Vitamin C in megadoses administered before or after the appearance of cold and flu symptoms relieved and prevented the symptoms in the test population compared with the control group.

So, which study had better methodology? Which had better statistics?

This is hard to tell from the information given at PubMed. So, we’ll never know why the opposite conclusions.

We do know one thing, though. Their definition of “megadose vitamin C” is not my definition of “megadose vitamin C.”

During the bird flu outbreak, naturopaths and functional physicians were calling for daily dosing of vitamin C upwards of 250 thousand milligrams (250 grams). Now that's a megadose of vitamin C. 

You see, there’s this little thing that will tell you if you’ve taken too much vitamin C called the bowel tolerance level. When you’ve passed that, you’ll get a quick onset of diarrhea. This is the body telling you you’ve taken too much.
Now, one really has to wonder why this limit exists, why it changes when we are sick, and if our bodies are trying to tell us something.

Asking these questions is not science, but again, science will never discover if our bodies are trying to tell us something until they actually test “megadosing” with vitamin C in levels approaching these higher, more significant numbers.

I went to the VA with the flu once, not because I thought they could do anything about it, but wondering if I’d actually had something else, like pneumonia. I was taking 100 grams of vitamin C daily with no discomfort in my bowels. My doctor was amazed at my blood work because the flu does a number on your liver and kidneys and all my tests came back normal.
I was sick, but I wasn’t as sick as I’ve gotten without the vitamin C; this I knew from experience. I was well enough to drive 50 miles to the VA hospital.

Our Conclusion

Linus Pauling was a rock star, and everyone believed what he said because he was a rock star; but in truth, Pauling was fallible and went way off the deep end.

Vitamin C, like vitamin E, is a complex consisting of many other antioxidants (or bioflavonoids).

The studies on vitamin C are inconsistent with mixed results and no real conclusions. The studies use a term megadose which must be defined for each study. And, in our minds, there have never been studies on megadoses administered in “true” megadose fashion, where by larger and larger doses are administered until bowel tolerance is reached. These larger doses, upwards of 100 grams, or even 300 grams must be studied.

A Little Story

I cannot vouch for this story. It could be a myth, but a very learned professor told it to me while I was first researching this stuff back in the early nineties.

Two fellows from the CDC, along with a police officer, knocked at this guy’s place and he opened the door. They asked, “Mr Soandso?” and he replied


“How are you feeling?” they asked.

He said, “Horrible. Why do you ask?”

“Because we expected to find you dead,” they said. 

They asked him if he’d eaten lunch at a specific place at a specific time with his old navy buddies. He replied in the affirmative.

And that’s when he found out they’d all died from Legionnaires' disease.

Before the three left, they asked him if he was doing anything special to combat the illness, and he said, “Yeah, I’m taking 90,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily.”

Again, we must reiterate that studies are needed for “true” megadoses of vitamin C because there is just too much anecdotal evidence to ignore.


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