Interviewer: The work on hemoglobin I believe is related to the disease, sickle cell anemia. Could
you tell me how you became interested in the oddly shaped blood cells which lent the
disease its name, sickle cell anemia?.
Linus Pauling: Yes, I've been interested in chemistry in relation to the human being and to health
and disease for a long time. In the 1930's already, I began work on the question of
the nature of antibodies, antitoxins, how the human body protects itself against invasion
by infection. There is a very interesting natural mechanism that is involved here.
Dr. Karl Landsteiner of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research who is the
man who discovered the blood groups and made it possible to give transfusions of blood
from one human being to another, is the man who got me interested in this field of
But, after some years, at the end of the war, in connection with my interest in the
application of chemistry to medicine, I learned about the disease, sickle cell anemia.
As soon as I learned about this disease, the very evening, it was at a dinner in New
York where a medical research committee, of which I was a member, a committee that
had been appointed by President Roosevelt to study medical research in the United
States, was holding a meeting. At this dinner I learned about the disease, sickle
cell anemia, and immediately I thought, "could it be possible that this disease, which
seems to be a disease of the red cell because the red cells in the patients are twisted
out of shape, could really be a disease of the hemoglobin molecule?" Nobody had ever
suggested that there could be molecular diseases before, but this idea popped into
my head. I thought, "could it be that these patients can manufacture a special kind
of hemoglobin such that the molecules are sticky and clamp on to one another to form
long rods, which then line up side by side to form a long needle-like crystal, which
as it grows inside of the red cell becomes longer than the diameter of the cell and
thus twists the red cell out of shape?"
Well, I said to the man who was talking about the disease, Dr. Castle, "has anyone
ever suggested that this might be a disease of the hemoglobin molecule?" And he said,
"not so far as [he'd] ever heard." And I said, "do you think it would be alright if
I were to look at this hemoglobin from these patients and see?" And he said, "I don't
see why not."
So when I got back to Pasadena it turned out that a young M.D., a young medical man,
wanted to come to work with me in chemistry and get his Ph.D. degree. I said to him,
his name is Harvey Itano, I said to him, "why don't you work on the hemoglobin that
you get from patients with the disease sickle cell anemia, and see whether it is the
same as hemoglobin in other human beings or it's different." Nobody had ever found
any difference between the hemoglobin of one person and another before that time.
Well, Dr. Itano did that together with two other young men in our laboratory, Dr.
Singer and Dr. Wells.
Pretty soon - it wasn't an easy job, these proteins are hard substances to work with
- but after a while Dr. Itano and Dr. Singer and Dr. Wells were able to show that
if they put a drop of hemoglobin solution from a patient with this disease in a little
trough containing salt solution and applied an electric field putting electrodes into
this trough, the hemoglobin from the sickle cell anemia patients would move in one
direction in this trough and that from ordinary individuals would move in the other
direction. This was the proof that these patients have a different kind of hemoglobin,
they manufacture a special kind of hemoglobin molecule, which is the cause of their
disease. This was the first molecular disease to be identified. That is, the first
disease to be shown to be due to the manufacture by the patient of an abnormal molecule.