The True Story of Vitamin C and The Common Cold

Brace yourselves, readers, we’re about to tell you a fact. It is a simple fact, sure, but one that may blow the minds of some. It may leave a considerable number of you in a state of shock, reflecting on all of the times you’ve wasted partaking in the subject of the aforementioned fact. If you find yourselves in this state in a few moments, simply take a deep breath- we’ll get through this together. Are you ready? Here it is: There is no scientific evidence that taking Vitamin C supplements will benefit your immune system or help you avoid getting sick.

It’s true, there’s no medical basis for the belief that we share as a culture that you should immediately drink a big glass of OJ when you feel the sniffles coming on. Well if there’s no scientific basis for this belief, then where does it come from?

Linus Pauling

In 1931, Linus Pauling published a paper called “The Nature of the Chemical Bond” in the Journal of American Chemical Society. Prior to this publication, chemists only knew of two types of chemical bonds- ionic and covalent. He suggested that electron sharing was somewhere between ionic and covalent. This single paper caused Pauling to receive the Langmuir Prize as the most outstanding young chemist in the US. He went on to write several other papers, earning him additional accommodations including Nobel prizes, and doing charitable work as well. So Linus sounds like a pretty OK guy, right? Well…

The Turning Point

In 1966, when Linus was 65 years old, a man named Irwin Stone wrote him stating that taking 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day will help him “live not only 25 years longer, but probably more.” Though Irwin Stone, who referred to himself as Dr. Stone, had only spent two years studying medicine in college, Linus took his advice. Linus felt healthier and livelier upon taking Vitamin C so he continued to up his daily dose until it was roughly 18,000 milligrams per day.

Linus wrote a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold urging the public to follow his lead and, because he had already cemented himself as an award-winning chemist, many people followed suit. This is despite the fact that there was absolutely no evidence that Vitamin C affects the common cold. In 1942, a study was done on roughly 980 people and published in the Journal of American Medical Association. This study concluded, “Under the conditions of this controlled study, in which 980 colds were treated . . . there is no indication that vitamin C alone, an antihistamine alone, or vitamin C plus an antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of infections of the upper respiratory tract.”

In addition, once Linus began pushing for Vitamin C, additional studies were being conducted. Researchers at the University of Maryland conducted a study where they gave 3,000 milligrams of Vitamin C every day for three weeks to eleven volunteers and a sugar pill to ten others. When infected with the cold virus, they all developed symptoms at similar rates. This is one of several studies done at the time in an attempt to cure the public’s new fascination with vitamins.

Media Circus

The new studies being done with Vitamin C did nothing to quell Linus’s enthusiasm and blind trust in its power. In fact, Linus went even further claiming that Vitamin C could not only cure the common cold- it could also cure cancer. That’s right… cancer. A surgeon named Ewan Cameron wrote to Linus claiming that cancer patients who were given ten grams of Vitamin C per day fared better than those that weren’t. Linus ran with this and attempted to publish the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, only to be rejected. How was he to get out this groundbreaking information? Well, because Linus had built up his reputation as a scientist, he still had a lot of clout with the media.

Linus became essentially a sort of celebrity scientist, going on shows, writing articles, doing public lectures- anything he could do to get his information out to the public in the least-vetted manner possible (similarly to Instagram influencers today). As predicted, because he had built up some credibility with the public previously, people ate it up. According to The Atlantic, Doctors saw a rise in cancer patients asking for Vitamin C, “For about seven or eight years, we were getting a lot of requests from our families to use high-dose vitamin C,” stated John Maris, chief of oncology and director of the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We struggled with that. They would say, ‘Doctor, do you have a Nobel Prize?'”

Facts Are No Match For Fiction

Researchers and the scientific community at large became increasingly frustrated with Pauling. They continued to publish studies proving there was no connection between Vitamin C and the common cold or cancer, but Linus continued to push his ideas to the public despite the facts set out before him. To this day, there is still no proven link between Vitamin C and curing the common cold (or cancer, obviously). This didn’t stop Linus from continuing to advertise for its fictionalized benefits all the way up until 1994 when he died of cancer.

Now, as a result of Linus Pauling’s media and public influence, the idea that taking doses of Vitamin C will benefit our immune system is cemented into our culture forever. We walk down the drug store aisle at our local grocery store and just see the words Vitamin C in bold letters smacked across every container as far as the eye can see. Can you imagine if Linus were around now, probably hosting Instagram Lives about Sugar Bear Hair supplements?