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Vitamins - How Were Vitamins Discovered?

What Are Vitamins?
The word "vitamin" was coined by Casmir Funk, a Polish scientist, in 1912. Vitamins are organic substances necessary to sustain life, but which are not made by the human body in sufficient amounts to allow for total vitality and well-being. All vitamins are organic in nature, meaning they contain carbon and come from other living materials (plants or animals) or substances such as petroleum or coal that are derived from once living materials.


The History of Vitamin Research
The importance of eating particular foods to maintain good health was known thousands of years ago. In fact, the ancient Egyptians discovered that night blindness, a disease now known to be caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A,
could be cured by feeding the patient liver - a good source of Vitamin A!

Documents of Renaissance ocean voyages show that sailors knew that certain diseases occurring on long voyages could be avoided by the ingestion of fresh fruits and vegetables. Finally, in 1749, Scottish surgeon James Lind proved that eating citrus fruits could help prevent scurvy - a deadly disease suffered by many sailors. The British Royal Navy adopted the findings of Lind's 1753 'Treatise on the Scurvy'and began supplying their ships with large quantities of lemons and limes. It is from this practice that resulted in British sailors being nicknamed "Limeys."


Vitamin Deprivation Studies
Through "deprivation studies" in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scientists were able to isolate and then identify a number of vitamins. "Deprivation studies" are much as their name implies - animals, primarily rats and mice" were deprived of various substances to see what, if any, illnesses resulted. The substances that had been deprived from the animals were then re-introduced, hopefully effecting a cure! It was through deprivation studies that physicians learned that the lipids from fish oil could cure rickets in rats.

Another benchmark deprivation study was conducted in east Asia. The disease 'beriberi', caused by a lack of Vitamin B1, was often found among the low-ranking crew of the Japanese Navy. In 1894, Takaki Hanehiro, a medical doctor, noted that the disease was not as common among the higher ranking officers. What would account for this difference? The Japanese navy assisted Hanehiro in running an experiment on its sailors. The experiment involved the crews of two different battleships. One crew was fed a white rice-only diet, while the other crew was fed a more balanced diet which included meat, fish, bans, barley and rice. When the experiment was completed the data showed a marked difference in the health of the crews.

The crew that ate only white rice had 161 crew members contract beriberi, and 25 of those men died. The crew that ate the more balanced diet reported only 14 cases of beriberi and zero fatalities! It seemed clear that the cause of beriberi was nutrition-based.

Three years later, in 1897, scientist Christiaan Eijkman also studied the causes of beriberi. Eijkman found a difference in the health of chickens depending on whether they were fed polished rice or unpolished rice. Chickens fed unpolished rice showed a decreased incidence of beriberi.

Award Winning Vitamin Research
These experiments led scientist Frederick Hopkins to theorize that some sort of "accessory factors" found in food, that is - in addition to carbohydrates, proteins, fats, etc., were necessary for maintaining the health of the body. In 1929 Eijkman and Hopkins shared the Nobel Prize for their discovery of several important vitamins.

Other benchmarks in the study of vitamins include:

1910 - Isolation of the first vitamin complex by Emetaro Suzuki, a Japanese scientist.

1937 - Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was awarded the Nobel prize for his discovery of Vitamin C.

1943 - Fellow scientists Edward Adelbert Doisy and Henrik Dam were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of Vitamin K.

1967 - George Walk, Ragnar Granit and Haldan Keffer Hartline were awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery that Vitamin A participated directly in Physiological processes.


Recommended Reading
Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail
From the earliest recorded appearance of the disease in the sixteenth century, to the eighteenth century, where a man had only half a chance of surviving the scourge, to the early nineteenth century, when the British conquered scurvy and successfully blockaded the French and defeated Napoleon, Scurvy is a medical detective story for the ages, the fascinating true story of how James Lind (the surgeon), James Cook (the mariner), and Gilbert Blane (the gentleman) worked separately to eliminate the dreaded affliction.

Vitamin Discoveries and Disasters: History, Science, and Controversies (The Praeger Series on Contemporary Health and Living)
Each chapter of Vitamin Discoveries and Disasters focuses on a specific vitamin, describing the researchers, the research, and the historic and scientific contexts for its discovery. Together, these chapters chart the ongoing conflict between physicians who saw illness as caused by organisms and those who saw illness as a result of dietary deficiency.

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