CORVALLIS - It does cutting-edge research on the use of vitamins and other micronutrients to improve human health and fight disease, but apparently it was a small kindness of the Linus Pauling Institute almost two decades ago which inspired a person 3,000 miles away to give it $1.2 million.
The surprise gift came recently from L.Orlo Williams of Springvale, Maine, a small-town lawyer who died in 1990 and whose trust was dissolved following the death of his wife, Frances.
The Pauling Institute, now based at Oregon State University, was created by and named after OSU alumnus and two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling. The institute had heard personally from Williams for about the first and only time in the early 1980s.
"Please send me help for a friend," he said in a short note asking for more information about the research institute's work on vitamin C and other micronutrients.
"We sent Mr. Williams some information and put him on the mailing list for our newsletter, which we use to keep interested people informed about the latest findings in our nutrition research," said Ober Tyus, development director for the Pauling Institute. "And after that he continued to contribute regular small amounts to our work, maybe $100 or $200 a year during the 1980s."
But when Tyus recently came back from a holiday break, he found an unexpected surprise.
"There was a letter from a bank in Maine sitting on my desk, telling us that the Pauling Institute would get about $1.2 million as a one-sixth interest in the remainder of the Williams Trust," Tyus said. "This was a total surprise. Although we're quite grateful, we had no idea that a gift of this size was out there for us."
The institute will finalize plans this year on what to do with the unexpected generosity, said Balz Frei, director of the institute. Under consideration are an endowment for another faculty position, specialized laboratory equipment such as an electron spin resonance machine, architectural work on a new research facility for the institute on OSU's campus, and updating and re-publishing the most popular book Pauling ever wrote, "How to Live Longer and Feel Better."
According to Frei, private donations traditionally were the lifeblood of the Pauling Institute and continue to be the principal funding source.
"Modern medicine and the federal science agencies are now starting to take far more seriously the role that vitamins and other micronutrients can play in the prevention and treatment of disease," Frei said. "But that wasn't always the case. Linus Pauling was a pioneer in this field, and when he first began some of this work in the 1960s and 1970s it was viewed quite suspiciously, and it was very difficult to get research support."
Private support by individuals then allowed such work to go forward, Frei said, and those gifts are still quite important. For instance, thousands of small and large individual donations recently allowed the Pauling Institute to create a Pilot Project Program to provide initial research funding to scientists with promising studies - a "get the ball rolling" concept the institute hopes to expand.
Four such grants have just been made for studies in immunology, cancer and other areas, while the Pauling Institute itself continues to grow rapidly since moving to OSU in 1996.
The institute now has 12 principal researchers and staff, a number which may double to about 25 people by the end of 1998, Frei said. "We have all the people in place now for our planned research programs on heart disease, cancer, aging, immune dysfunction, and vitamins C and E," he said.
But the concerned donors who helped support nutrition research during the lean years are still making the difference in this work, Tyus said.
"The other day we got a check for $3 from an elderly woman who was living off her social security check, but wanted to do what she could to help," he said. "A California donor recently sent us $160 and added a note saying she 'wished it could be a million, God bless Dr. Pauling's research team as they carry on his work.'"
"It's great to get a surprise gift for $1.2 million in the mail, and we can and will put it to good use," Tyus said. "But on another level we think of everyone's support as equally important when it comes from the heart."