How They Found Your Vitamins
THE sailor’s legs were so swollen that he could not walk. His captain, hoping to stop the spread of the dreaded ‘scurvy infection,’ put the man ashore on a desolate Atlantic island. The poor wretch was bound to die, the captain felt, but perhaps the rest of the crew could thus be saved.
The deserted man chewed on fresh grass that he found in tufts here and there on the island. To his amazement, in a few days he could walk a little! His strength soon returned and eventually he managed to get picked up by a passing ship and he returned to his London home. Imagine the shock of his former shipmates when they first saw him—it was as if he had been resurrected!
The story of the sailor who ‘ate grass like a beast and lived’ was of great interest to a Scottish surgeon, Dr. James Lind. Having been with the British fleet, he was aware of the thousands of seamen who died yearly with scurvy. Lind’s question was, Did the grass contain something that the man’s normal diet did not? Was there a connection between scurvy and diet? Deciding to experiment, Lind became responsible for an important chapter in the story of ‘how they found your vitamins.’
Not that Dr. Lind was looking for a vitamin. The word was unheard of before 1911. The discovery of most vitamins was really accidental in that the researchers were attacking specific diseases, not studying foods or nutrition.
Further, this story has no one hero, but involves the efforts of men from many countries. These pioneers frequently did not benefit from one another’s discoveries, as they lacked the benefits of modern communications. Yet, sometimes, despite the scorn of contemporary doctors and scientists, the efforts of these men constitute a story of courage, perseverance and eventual success.
The Vitamin C Story
“On 20th May, 1747, I took twelve patients in the scurvy . . . Their cases were as similar as I could have them,” begins Dr. Lind’s report. His conclusions showed “that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of the oranges and lemons; of those who had taken them being at the end of the six days fit for duty.”
Did the medical world of his day rejoice? No. Rather, the idea that diet causes scurvy was scorned and repudiated. Did not the crews of some ships drink lemon juice and still have scurvy? Unfortunately, this was true, but they had boiled the lemon juice, destroying what we now know as vitamin C.
Finally, some forty-seven years later, the British Admiralty allowed Lind to repeat his experiment. A whole fleet of ships was supplied with enough raw lemon juice for a twenty-three-week voyage. The results were so spectacular that a year later, in 1795, lemon juice (later replaced by lime juice) was made part of the regulation diet of British seamen. Scurvy was no longer ‘master of the waves,’ and even today British sailors are nicknamed “limeys”!
However, progress in isolating the reason for the effectiveness of lemons, and other fruits and vegetables, came very slowly. In 1905 a Dutchman, Professor Pekelharing, following his experiments upon mice, wrote: “There is an unknown substance contained in the milk, which even when the intake is extremely small, is of the utmost importance for nutrition.” He showed that even in the seeming midst of plenty of food (fats, proteins, carbohydrates), if this “unknown substance” was missing, the mice would die. Unfortunately, his report was published only in Dutch and was not widely circulated.
Despite such setbacks, the idea of necessary ‘mysterious elements’ eventually was published and believed. You could eat great quantities of ‘good foods’ and still not get the ‘necessary elements.’ They were not fuel for the body but were somehow needed by it chemically. Could one of these be isolated?
By the early 1900’s several teams of scientists were ‘hot on the trail’ of the mysterious anti-scurvy substance. In 1931, a concentrate was made from lemon juice that was 20,000 times as potent as the original juice! Now came an intensive effort to discern the exact nature of this vital compound. Once its molecular “chain” or structure was determined, it could be synthesized and mass-produced. And so it happened that by 1935 vitamin C (also properly named ascorbic acid) became the first “pure” vitamin made available to the public through large-scale production.
But more than a vitamin was discovered in the search of a cure for scurvy. Man learned that illness is not always caused by the attack of some infection or bacteria. It is sometimes caused by a deficiency in diet.
That Complex B Family
The first clues to the existence of the B vitamins came in the fight against the dreaded disease beriberi, which attacks the nerves and heart. Beriberi also affects the digestive system. Our story again takes us out to sea.
In the early 1880’s, at the direction of a young Japanese medical officer, Kanehiro Takaki, two ships left Japan on similar voyages, but with different diets. The first ship served the usual fare of rice, with some vegetables and fish. The second, however, also served the crew wheat and milk, in addition to more meat than was served on the first ship. The results were convincing. Beriberi ravaged the first ship, causing twenty-five deaths. There were no deaths on the second ship. Takaki soon succeeded in persuading the Japanese Admiralty to adopt a new diet for the entire navy.
When news of this was published in England, you might have expected deep interest to be shown, but that was not the case. Rather, it remained for a young Dutchman, Christiaan Eijkman, to convince the Western world of nutrition’s value against beriberi.
Working on Java, where beriberi then was rampant, Eijkman made an observation that changed his whole approach to the problem. Some chickens kept for experimental purposes had been exposed to what was then thought to be the beriberi “infection.” Yet, instead of dying, in time they all recovered. How could this be, pondered Eijkman? He checked every possible variable and found only one clue. For a time the chickens had been on the polished ‘white’ rice, but then they had been put back on their usual fare, the native, unpolished ‘brown’ rice.
With tests made upon humans, Eijkman soon established that those who ate the unrefined rice did not get beriberi, while those who ate the supposedly better, polished rice did. Initially, this seemingly ‘too simple to believe’ answer was rejected, but Eijkman doggedly supported his claims with more and more research.
The full vindication of his approach, however, was left to others. The “vital substance” in rice hulls finally was isolated by a Polish chemist, Casimir Funk. Then, R. R. Williams, an American chemist, spent years determining the molecular structure and synthesizing the vitamin that was named Thiamine.
Still, much about the size and function of that complex B family was not appreciated with the discovery of thiamine. But the battle against pellagra would unlock that door.
In Italian “pellagra” means “rough skin.” But this malady brings much more. It eventually leads to insanity and death. As is often true in the vitamin story, many individual pioneers linked the disease with nutrition. However, even in the mid-1800’s, since pellagra was found mostly among poor rural folk who lived chiefly on corn, popular theories attributed it to “corn poison” and “infection.”
In 1915 more than 10,000 people died of pellagra in the United States alone. With its rapid spread, the United States Health Department sent Dr. Joseph Goldberger to the deep South, where this plague had reached epidemic proportions.
What Goldberger found was appalling—the victims were listless, slumped, covered with blotches. In view of the poor hygiene among many, with flies crawling everywhere, he easily could have been misled as to the real cause. But Goldberger suspected that the answer lay in faulty diet. He had noted that in state asylums the patients developed pellagra but the staff did not. Why? There was frequent contact between the two groups. But the staff had a diet of milk, meat and eggs, whereas the patients lived mostly on cereals.
Yet, even while newspapers printed the results of his studies as to the need for protein, a commission published the view that pellagra was an infectious disease caused by the sting of the stable fly! Goldberger was horrified. He firmly believed that until nutrition was recognized as the cause, people would continue to die by the thousands. What could he do to prove that infection was not the cause?
He announced that, under medical supervision, he and fifteen other volunteers would “infect” themselves by taking mucus from pellagra victims into their bodies. To the great surprise of many, none of the volunteers developed pellagra. From that time forward, Goldberger’s conclusion that a diet consisting mainly of cornmeal, rice and pork fat leads to pellagra was accepted.
Yet Goldberger never found the exact substance that prevented the sickness he fought. Time after time it eluded him. We can recognize his difficulties when we appreciate that the B vitamin is really a family of complex substances, not easily separated from one another. It was not until 1937 that another researcher, Dr. Conrad Elvehjem, working with liver concentrates, isolated nicotinic acid, better known as niacin.
Today niacin is considered a “dietary essential.” Without niacin, other B vitamins cannot function properly in the body. And the vitamin B complex or family still is under intense investigation, with some fifteen distinct members presently being recognized. It is generally agreed that, as in preventing pellagra, they work best as a “team.”
Vitamin K—The Instant Success
But not all vitamins were discovered as a “cure” for a plague. In recent years, vitamin research has taken a new direction. It has been pursued in terms of nutrition—how any newly detected vitamin might assist in fighting several different diseases or health hazards.
Vitamin K is a good example of this. Its existence first suspected in 1929, soon it was “isolated” and it has been used widely since 1939. That took only ten years. Considering the history of vitamins, we might call vitamin K an instant success!
Vitamin K was discovered in experiments on chickens. It was found that on certain diets they lost their blood-clotting ability. Then it was observed that the blood of chickens coagulated faster on diets that contained sprouted soybeans. Eventually, the role of vitamin K as an essential for normal clotting came to light. This vitamin, among other uses, has helped many newborn infants, often low in blood-clotting ability, to have a healthy start in life.
More to Come?
When the chemist Funk first coined the word “vitamine,” he based it on the idea that the substance he had found was an amine (containing nitrogen) and vita (necessary to life). While not all vitamins contain nitrogen, time has proved him correct on the more important aspect. Although a typical vitamin, such as thiamine, may comprise only .001 percent of an adequate diet, it is vital.
However, recognizing this does not mean that all vitamin controversy becomes mere history; the debate continues. Today the differences revolve around recommended dosage and diversity of application. For example, you may have read in your local newspaper conflicting reports on the merits of megavitamin therapy (large amounts of vitamins for specific health conditions).
Generally, though, it is agreed that the men who found your vitamins found a “friend.” And scientists readily admit that the list of about twenty-five “recognized” vitamins probably will grow. But, they caution, there is no basis for believing that vitamins are the panacea for all our health problems. In fact, overdosages of some can be detrimental.
So we find ourselves to be much like that deserted British sailor. He did not find the ‘fountain of youth’ on his desolate island. Yet, how grateful he must have been for the renewed strength provided by that vitamin-rich grass! Likewise, we too should be grateful for our limited knowledge of those minute compounds necessary to life—our vitamins.