LATE in his life the famous chemist Linus Pauling devoted himself to curing the common cold. Perhaps, lying in bed one day filling paper bags with used tissues, he calculated just how much suffering this run-of-the-mill virus inflicts on humanity. Using statistics from standard medical texts, he would have concluded that over a lifetime the average person is subjected to some 24,000 hours of coughing, throat pain, congestion, and headache from colds. Though each cold is, of course, a relatively minor illness, most people's total accumulation of suffering from colds is immense. If he could cure the common cold, Pauling must have thought, or even alleviate its symptoms, he would be doing humanity a great service. At the age of seventy he claimed to have the answer: in his book (1970) he argued that large doses of vitamin C could prevent the onset of colds or help to minimize their symptoms.
But there was a problem: Pauling had no real evidence to support his claim. On the contrary, at least sixteen studies, carried out before and since, have shown that vitamin C does not prevent colds; at best it may slightly reduce a cold's symptoms, but even this is widely disputed. Pauling's own laboratory came up with only the anemic finding that high doses of the vitamin could reduce the average number of symptomatic days per cold from 7.8 to 7.1.
Pauling's colleagues tried to be respectful to the man once considered the world's greatest scientist, but in private many snickered. Pauling must be senile. It was a shame to end such a brilliant career on a false note.
My brother, a doctor who also has a Ph.D. in neurophysiology, offers an alternative explanation. Perhaps Pauling was neither senile nor misguided. What if he was using psychology, instead of chemistry, in a culminating act to alleviate human suffering? He may have been counting on the drug that Steve Martin touted in one of his early stand-up routines, a pill that made Martin feel ecstatic. "It's called," Martin would intone in a dramatic voice, "Plah-Cee-Bo."