The Discovery of Vitamins
Taking vitamins have become second nature and rather common in today’s society. Naturally occurring nutrients in the body that sustain our systems and keep us healthy are now found on the shelves of our local pharmacies. From the days of antiquity, food and herbs were the only solutions to alleviating symptoms and addressing illnesses. Humanity has evolved tremendously and we now not only rely on the above, but are exposed to what we call vitamins, in capsules, liquids, tablets and powder form that yield the same results.
Have you ever wondered how vitamins were discovered? Who discovered them and how we have been able to fortify our cells and prevent disease with them? In this article we will explore the discovery of vitamins, the people involved and its evolution over time.
The Father of Vitamins
Let’s begin with who discovered vitamins, his name was Casimir Funk, a brilliant Polish biochemist. It all started when he read an article by Dutch Physician, Christiaan Eijkman who discovered that beriberi (a disease of the peripheral nerve that caused pain and paralysis) was happening specifically in the Orient where people consumed polished rice. Eijkman found that beriberi was less likely to happen in those who ate brown rice vs the processed, polished version. Funk was intrigued by these findings and went on a mission to isolate the substance responsible. His isolation was successful and vitamin B-1 was born. He published his first work on vitamins titled “Experiments on the Causation of beriberi”, in the British medical journal, The Lancet in 1912.
How the word “Vitamin” came about.
When Funk isolated this “active factor”, he thought it belonged to a class of amines, hence the word vital amines which was shortened to vitamines. A few years later, it was discovered that B-1 was not a part of that class but a name was still needed regardless to refer to these active factors, so vitamines was shortened to vitamin.
Discovery of Vitamins Timeline
Funk spent his years advancing societies understanding of Nutrition and concluded that disease like scurvy, anemia and pellagra were all caused by a specific nutrient deficiency in the body.
Many other physicians were also on the brink of discovery and followed suit with other vitamin discoveries.
In 1914 Elmer V. McCollum and Marguerite Davis were American biochemists that discovered vitamin A
Elmer V. McCollum was also an American biochemist, who discovered Vitamin B in 1916. Both vitamin A and B were discovered by experimenting with Rat diets.
In 1919, Edward Mellanby, an English Physiologist discovered Vitamin D and its role in preventing a disease called rickets.
In 1943, Carl Peter Henrick Dam, a Danish biochemist discovered vitamin K and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Other vitamins that came on the map during this time included vitamin C, B-1, B-2, B-3, B-6, folic acid, vitamin E and many others.
As it seems that Funk was the forerunner of the discovery of vitamins, he was definitely accredited for it but did not receive a Nobel prize. Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutch physician from the Netherlands, was a awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the antineuritic vitamin in 1929. The prize was split with Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, an English biochemist for his discovery of growth stimulating vitamins. It is not clear why Funk did not receive a Nobel Prize but despite this fact, his name and his work has maintained its relevancy in the discovery of vitamins.
The 20th century marked the discovery of a plethora of vitamins in relation to disease. This wave of breakthroughs opened the doors to a new market of synthetic vitamin makers as the Nutraceutical industry started booming.
That boom hasn’t slowed down in today’s age and scientists continue to add to the library of discoveries. Isolated hormones, homeopathic therapies, vitamin combinations like daily multivitamin and uses of active compounds found in plants just touch the surface of the continued progression of natural medicine.
All in all, the work of Casimir Funk and many other bio-chemists and physicians are to thank for their breakthrough in the discovery of vitamins. Lives have been saved and optimal health maintained because of the link found between vitamin deficiency and related diseases. We have evolved into a society where we now have a great deal of options and solutions to help keep our bodies healthy and strong. Next time you walk into your local pharmacist, never forget the dedicated work of the men and women who made it possible.