The History of Vitamins

The value of eating a certain food to maintain health was recognized long before vitamins were identified. The ancient Egyptians knew that feeding a patient liver would help cure night blindness, an illness now known to be caused by a vitamin A deficiency. The advancement of ocean voyage during the Renaissance resulted in prolonged periods without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and made illnesses from vitamin deficiency common among ship's crew.

In 1749, the Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered that citrus foods helped prevent scurvy, a particularly deadly disease in which collagen is not properly formed, causing poor wound healing, bleeding of the gums, severe pain, and death. In 1753, Lind published his Treatise on the Scurvy, which recommended using lemons and limes to avoid scurvy, which was adopted by the British Royal Navy. This led to the nickname Limey for sailors of that organization. Lind's discovery, however, was not widely accepted by individuals in the Royal Navy's Arctic expeditions in the 19th century, where it was widely believed that scurvy could be prevented by practicing good hygiene, regular exercise, and by maintaining the morale of the crew while on board, rather than by a diet of fresh food. As a result, Arctic expeditions continued to be plagued by scurvy and other deficiency diseases. In the early 20th century, when Robert Falcon Scott made his two expeditions to the Antarctic, the prevailing medical theory was that scurvy was caused by "tainted" canned food.

In 1881, Russian surgeon Nikolai Lunin studied the effects of scurvy while at the University of Tartu in present-day Estonia. He fed mice an artificial mixture of all the separate constituents of milk known at that time, namely the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and salts. The mice that received only the individual constituents died, while the mice fed by milk itself developed normally. He made a conclusion that "a natural food such as milk must therefore contain, besides these known principal ingredients, small quantities of unknown substances essential to life." However, his conclusions were rejected by other researchers when they were unable to reproduce his results. One difference was that he had used table sugar (sucrose), while other researchers had used milk sugar (lactose) that still contained small amounts of vitamin B.

In 1910, Japanese scientist Umetaro Suzuki succeeded in extracting a water-soluble complex of micronutrients from rice bran and named it aberic acid. He published this discovery in a Japanese scientific journal. When the article was translated into German, the translation failed to state that it was a newly discovered nutrient, a claim made in the original Japanese article, and hence his discovery failed to gain publicity. Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk isolated the same complex of micronutrients and proposed the complex be named "Vitamine" (a portmanteau of "vital amine") in 1912. The name soon became synonymous with Hopkins' "accessory factors", and by the time it was shown that not all vitamins were amines, word was already ubiquitous. In 1920, Jack Cecil Drummond proposed that the final "e" be dropped to deemphasize the "amine" reference after the discovery that vitamin C had no amine component.

Throughout the early 1900s, the use of deprivation studies allowed scientists to isolate and identify a number of vitamins. Initially, lipid from fish oil was used to cure rickets in rats, and the fat-soluble nutrient was called "antirachitic A". The irony here is that the first "vitamin" bioactivity ever isolated, which cured rickets, was initially called "vitamin A", the bioactivity of which is now called vitamin D. What we now call "vitamin A" was identified in fish oil because it was inactivated by ultraviolet light. In 1931, Albert Szent-Györgyi and a fellow researcher Joseph Svirbely determined that "hexuronic acid" was actually vitamin C and noted its anti-scorbutic activity. In 1937, Szent-Györgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery. In 1943 Edward Adelbert Doisy and Henrik Dam were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of vitamin K and its chemical structure.


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