The History of Vitamins: Vitamins Are Vital, But the Proof Is Modern

The History of Vitamins - Everybody knows that vitamins are vital. After all, Nobel prize-winning research confirmed their existence. The necessity of vitamins is an incontrovertible fact of human nutrition, isn't it?

Well, yes, but the story isn't straightforward. The century-old history of vitamins offers insights into controversies today.

The Nobel laureate Christiaan Eijkman (pronounced ike-man) is credited with the first identification of a vitamin. When this contributing editor was studying the history of vitamins at the European Institute for Food and Nutrition Science, my mentor instructed me to read not the historical accounts of Dr. Eijkman but rather his laboratory notes in the original Dutch.

Reading Eijkman's diaries set me on a voyage of discovery literally around the world to track down the missing links in the history of nutrition (and also gave me a good vocabulary in medical Dutch, mostly now forgotten). Historically, to unravel the history of vitamins I had to look several hundred years before Eijkman to the time of the samurai.

Beriberi was once a plague in Asia. Literally "sheep-sheep" disease, beriberi appeared in Japan about 1600.

The beriberi syndrome consisted of a series of symptoms that were particularly noxious in samurai Japan: sheepishness, that is, inattention or stupor (not a desired quality in samurai), outbursts of anger (themselves potentially fatal if directed to a member of a higher class), lethargy, loss of appetite, tingling in the fingers and toes, labored breathing, quickened pulse, and, finally, death.

Healthy soldiers in fighting form could fall ill and die in as little as two hours. Death usually occurred two hours after the midday meal, and it was gruesome. An anonymous chronicle of samurai Japan noted:

"As the extensors of the foot are paralyzed the patient has to raise the knee up and wing the foot forward in order to avoid stumbling over the down-hanging toes. It is mostly young men in full vigor who are stricken by the acute form of the disease; they not infrequently die suddenly in terrible distress through inability to breathe."

Beriberi appeared in Japan about the same time the Japanese began their cities, Edo (later Tokyo), Osaka, and Yokohama. To feed the throngs in the young cities the merchant class had been created to establish rice exchanges.

What the merchant class did not establish was a set of standards for keeping rice dry and clean.

About 50 years after the establishment of the rice brokerages, about 1625, a visiting Dutch East India Company botanist, Rumphius (himself a German), visited Japan. He recommended substituting lentils for rice to cure beriberi.

Rumphius was a lentils salesman.

The suggestion, however, worked. Lentils had to be kept dry to keep them from sprouting, whereas rice sprouts were considered acceptable in foods.

Whatever was in the rice that caused beriberi was not in the lentils, and eating lentils protected against the disease. No longer losing samurai to beriberi, Japanese was militarily enabled to close its doors to the outside world for the next 200 years.

Unfortunately, nations, like people, forget the lessons learned in history, including the lessons of the history of vitamins. By 1860, Japan was once again faced with a beriberi crisis. One-third of the Japanese Navy was stricken with the disease. This was only six years after the ignominious arrival of Commodore Perry. The national prestige was at stake.

What was the Navy to do? It took a while, twenty-two years to be precise, but the Japanese navy's Surgeon General Takaki hit on a solution. Take white rice off sailing vessels. Feed the sailors beans. In 1885, Dr. Takaki was made Lord Takaki by the Emperor.

By this time, however, beriberi was a problem in more places than Japan.

In the 1870's, this disease reared its head as the source of disease and death in Dutch Batavia, now known as Java.

In 1878 alone, the Dutch lost 690 native laborers, and the Dutch colonial health officer on Sumatra recorded, "On average, transport by ship to Java...has taken ten lives per ship." In 1879 so many had died of beriberi there was a shortage of gravediggers to bury them.

The government in The Hague sent a young bacteriologist, Christiaan Eijkman, to solve the problem. For eleven years he did the things bacteriologist do, trying to find the germ that caused the disease.

For eleven years he had no success. He was about ready to give and retire back home when he had a moment of insight.

One day Dr. Eijkman passed by the hen house and noticed he had wobbly chickens.

They could hardly stand on their curled-up toes. When the doctor sacrificed and perform autopsies on the birds, he learned they had died when congestive heart failure built up so much fluid on the heart that they could no longer breathe.

White rice was considered a better food than brown rice in Eijkman's time, and brown rice was usually fed to the chickens. Recently, however, Dr. Eijkman's servants had had too much white rice and fed it to the poultry. Dr. Eijkman quickly concluded he had seen the first-ever case of beriberi in chickens.

The cure for beriberi, Dr. Eijkman was sure, was as simple as finding what the poison was in white rice. Not aware that he was writing the first chapter in the history of vitamins, for the next five years Eijkman experimented with every conceivable variation of rice as chicken feed.

He served the chicken rice in stone pots. Then he tried wooden pots, metal pots, and coconut shells.

He boiled the rice in well water, in stream water, and in distilled water.

He gave the chickens white rice, brown rice, red rice, blue rice, and black rice, husked rice and unhusked rice, and every possible combination thereof.

He gave some of the chickens milk of magnesia just in case the symptoms were really caused by constipation. He even tried feeding chickens chicken, and gave them tapioca and schnapps for dessert.

What did five years of experiments find?

Roosters were more likely to die of avian beriberi than hens, just as human men were more likely to die of beriberi than human women.

The common connection between deaths in chickens and deaths in people was feeding them white rice.

In the sixth year of the experiments, Dr. Eijkman began to go blind from the vapors from the solution he used to make slides of chicken parts for microscopic examination. He was desperate to go home.

Unfortunately, the Dutch East Indies Company insisted he stay in Indonesia until he found a cure for the disease. The experiments went into a sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth year. Finally, in 1899, the doctor announced:

"There is present in rice polishing a substance different from protein, and salts, which is indispensable to health and the lack of which causes nutritional polyneuritis."

It was vitamin B!

(From a history of vitamins perspective it was not called vitamin A, because letters weren't assigned to vitamins by a committee of scientists until about 30 years later, and Dr. Eijkman's vitamin wasn't first on the list.)

This would have been an amazing discovery to the scientists of his day, most of whom ran studies on (no kidding) the healing properties of lard. Lard, until the 1950s, was considered a miraculously healing food. Even in the first 50 years of the history of vitamins, lard was prescribed for a multitude of conditions and healed them.

It wasn't an amazing discovery to the scientists of the day because they didn't get a chance to read about it. Dr. Eijkman published his results in a paper in Dutch read all across Dutch Batavia, by perhaps a dozen persons, and was allowed to go home. His claims to fame in the history of vitamins, however, came via an even more remote Dutch colony, New Guinea.

An intrepid explorer named Mars Mozkowski found a copy of Dr. Eijkman's paper in a government office in New Guinea. Mozkowski himself had had beriberi but recovered after he ate brown rice. Mozkowski realized that Dr. Eijkman's finding would be a great way to begin the new history of vitamins and at the same time to demonstrate the superiority of Dutch science over the work of their neighbors, the Germans.

In 1910, German Kaiser Wilhelm the Second organized a congress on nutritional science in Berlin. Mozkowski, uninvited, burst into the Emperor's reception hall with a dying, or at least anesthetized, pigeon. He announced to the crowd that placing a single grain of brown rice in the pigeon's stomach would bring it back to health in an instant.

He put the grain of rice in the "dead" bird's crop. In a few minutes, it was flying over (and, the account mentions, relieving itself on) the gathering of German scientists. Vitamins had brought the bird back to life!

The gathering of scientists in top hats and tails was amazed, and, amazingly, apparently no one inquired whether Dr. Mozkowski had access to a supply of chloroform With this conference, vitamins, rather than lard, became the new focus of nutritional science. This was the real beginning of the history of vitamins.

The dramatic display of the miraculously healed pigeon so disturbed German physiologists that it was even cited as a defeat of the German people, in books published in 1935 in Germany (where I first read the story in a collection of propaganda pieces in Baden-Baden).

If this doesn't seem to speak well of the early standards of nutritional science in the first decade of the history of vitamins, well, it doesn't. Christiaan Eijkman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1928 - but he returned it.

He knew he hadn't actually discovered vitamins any more than the pigeon in Berlin had been healed by a grain of rice. The real research on vitamins came much later. And a review of Eijkman's work eventually showed that his chickens had an infection with a relative of Candida, but this study was almost lost to the history of vitamins because it was published in Japanese in 1945 in Hiroshima.

At least Eijkman was honest. The lesson of the history of vitamins is that there are "natural cures they don't want you to know about" on both sides of any issue.

Amazingly, nutritional science survived the early experiences of the history of vitamins to become a vital contributor to everyday health. Just avoid the hype and stick with the tried and true benefits of a balanced daily nutritional routine as talked about throughout this site.

More vitamin information besides the history of vitamins, at the home page.

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