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The Discovery of Vitamins


Near the beginning of the 2Oth century, biologists discovered that trace amounts of specific organic molecules must be present in the diet of animals if they were to remain healthy and active. In I905, Cornelius Andreus found that animals fed a diet consisting of purified fats, carbohydrates, proteins, inor­ganic salts and water would thrive only if small amounts of milk were added to their diet. He concluded that milk contained some unrecognized substance that in very small quantities was necessary for growth and maintenance.

In 1911, a Polish biochemist named Casimir Funk, isolated a concentrate from rice polishings that cured polyneuritis in pigeons. This lead to the discovery of the first vitamin thiamine (B1) which he classified as an amine (containing nitrogen). That same year, Funk published his theory of vitamins based on the relationship between disease and faulty nutrition. He suggested that four such substances were present in natural foods and that they were responsible for preventing scurvy (vitamin C), beriberi (thiamine), pel­lagra (niacin) arid rickets (vitamin D).

Funk coined the term “vitamine” from the Latin word vita (life) and the chemical term amine. As other vitamins were discovered, it became apparent that they were not all amines, so the “e” was dropped and vitamine was changed to vitamin.

In 1913, two research teams discovered a fat-soluble food substance initially thought to be a single vit­amin, but two separate factors were involved. The first was vitamin A or retinol, which was effective against xerophthalmia, the greatest cause of blindness in the world. The second was vitamin D or chole­calciferol, which was effective against rickets. The factor which cured scurvy, known as ascorbic acid or vitamin C, was identified in 1928.

As time progressed, each essential nutrient was discovered one by one. B-I2 deficiency correlated with pernicious anemia. Goldberger’s work related niacin (B3) to pellagrous dementia, dermatitis and diar­rhea. Kwasiorkor, a syndrome produced by severe protein deficiency, was classified and remedied with essential amino acids and a balanced diet. Food was now considered more than just a source of fuel energy. It contained dozens of micronutrients essential to life, and a whole range of diseases could now be explained.

When looking back at the last century, what single event or discovery stands out in your mind as the most significant? Was it Orville Wright’s first controlled flight or Ford’s model T? Who could forget the Beatles phenomenon? How important was landing the first man on the moon or the invention of radio, television and the first computer? What of Banting’s discovery of insulin, Watson & Crick’s determination of DNA or Fleming’s contribution to medicine through the discovery of penicillin? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have happened without vitamins, because without them, we can’t think straight, function right or propagate anything, period!