Happy Birthday Vitamines!

Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought. - Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Image Vitamin B1In 1912, a century-ago this year, a concept and a chemical - "vitamine" - was "discovered".  

Biochemistry, up until the advent of vitamine's discovery, was a theoretical, often philosophical sector of chemistry. Vitamins provided biochemistry with a real-world direction, giving the field credibility.

While there was reason to celebrate, discovery also brings about change - taking some people longer than others to move in the same direction.  The discovery of vitamins was as revolutionary, and sometimes threatening, as Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Scientists, as well as the common man, were challenged to adjust and change their view of the physical world. For the late 19th-century, early 20th-century scientist, living and non-living organic substances could no longer be kept in separate research categories. Instead, the discovery of "vitamine" verified centuries of observations, that food and life (of humans and animals) were interactive.

Even the concept of "nutrition" was abstract, something intuitively known, but not understood.  Benjamin Thompson wrote in 1795, "...our knowledge in regard to the science of nutrition is still very imperfect".  In 1803, physician Thomas Christie, speculated that the cause of beriberi might be the "want of stimulating and nourishing diet" with the difference between disease and health dependent on "...some nice chemical combination".  

Nutrition-as-a-cure was on-track until Pasteur's germ theory side-tracked scientists. Microbes, living-matter, trumped vitamins, a non-living organic compound. 

It took another fifty or so years for biochemists to get back to the business of contemplating centuries of observations which pointed toward nutrition as the cure, and not modern pasteurization.

Beriberi, a thiamine nutritional disease, is a great example of how nutrition as our medicine, trumps Pasteur's germ theory.


Beriberi ravaged 19th-century colonial Asia, resulting in over 2 million deaths.  In 1886, the Dutch East India Company sent a research team to discover its cause. Following Pasteur's Germ Theory, their fruitless search was abandoned less than a year later.

All but one member of the team, Christian Eijkman, a biochemist, was dismissed.  Eijkman continued the germ-search for another decade, until answers to beriberi's cause came from an unexpected source. His flock of chickens had developed beriberi!

Eijkman's cook, a wise money and resource manager, switched the flock's diet from polished white rice to inexpensive brown rice. Why feed expensive polished rice to a dying flock, when inexpensive brown rice will do?

Instead of dying, the chickens were healed, restored to good health by the brown rice. There was no doubt in Eijkman's mind that poison, and not germs, created beriberi. He reasoned that white polished-rice contained a poison, while brown rice offered the antidote.

"Vitamines" Discovered

In 1912, a little over a decade after Eijkman's poison-antidote theory, chemist Kazimierz Funk continued Eijkman's experiment, duplicating the feeding of polished white rice and brown rice to pigeons - a common test-animal, later replaced by guinea pigs.

Funk, like Eijkman, saw a decline in the flock's health when fed polished white rice, and restored health when fed brown rice or brown rice bran. 

The study led Funk to realize that there were substances in food essential to good health. He found that diseases such as beriberi, rickets, and scurvy could be cured by introducing into the diet organic compounds that contained certain chemical substances. Funk also maintained that certain diseases could be prevented by making sure the chemical substances were present in the diet.  - Casamir Funk Bio

Eijkman's poison-antidote was Funk's "chemical" -  thiamine (vitamin B1) - the real power behind berberi's prevention and cure.  Funk published an article on the subject titled "On the Chemical Nature of the Substance which Cures Polyneuritis in Birds Induced by a Diet of Polished Rice."

While there were many predecesors who could lay claim to having suspected the existence of vitamins, there's no dispute when it comes to crediting Funk with coining the word "vitamine".  Combining "vita" - "because clearly", Funk explained, "thiamine was vital" -with thiamine's "amine", "vitamine" was born.

"Vitamine" was changed to vitamin in the 1920s, its "e" dropped. 

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The History of Vitamins 

The History of Nutrition - http://www.healthaliciousness.com/articles/history-of-nutrition-timeline.php

The Study of Vitamins - http://books.google.com/books?id=Whu_zOWPaTQC&pg=PA15&lpg=PA15&dq=funk+concept+vitamin&source=bl&ots=pTwXzvi5_y&sig=xw9Hl7Hclg_pTVAzsNRzs5drq0s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=9NSeT5f3OKKY0QHBnOGmDw&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=funk%20concept%20vitamin&f=false