And he’s not the only one. Did you know that 16 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists who have found links between vitamins and good health? Take American scientist George Wald, who discovered the link between vitamin A and night blindness, or Henrik Dam: the Danish biochemist who made the connection between vitamin K and blood clotting.
If you’re as fascinated as we are by the beginnings of vitamins, here’s a timeline to satisfy your inquisitive side.
1890s – Christiaan Eijkman’s remarkable work in Java
This Dutch military physician was assigned the task of growing the microbe thought to cause the disease ‘beriberi’ by injecting blood from diseased soldiers into animals. Some of the animals developed symptoms of the disease, but only if they were surviving on a diet of cooked white rice, which told Eijkman it was something their diet was lacking that was the root of the problem. The de-husking of the brown rice to turn it into white rice was stripping it of important nutrients.
1895 – Christian Eijkman meets Adolphe Vordeman
As the medical inspector for 100 small prisons scattered across the island of Java, Vordeman discovered that in prisons using mostly brown rice, less than 1 in 10,000 inmates had obtained beriberi, whilst in prisons using mostly white rice, the proportion was 1 in 39. This was no coincidence and provided ample support for Eijkman’s research.
1896 – Gerrit Grijn takes over the research
And so it began. Grijn took over Eijkman’s research, confirmed it and further realised that substances could be found in natural foods and that without them the ‘peripheral nervous system’ would suffer serious damage. This was the beginning of the vitamin concept.
1911 – The legend that is Dr. Funk
Dr Casimir Funk was a biochemist born in Poland and moved to London in 1910. He coined the term ‘vitamine’ which was later shortened to ‘vitamin’.
1914 – Goldberger and Pellagra
Pellegra was a disease with a high death rate and was often associated with the consumption of maize. Though some thought mouldy maize or an infection carried by insects was the problem, Joseph Goldberger highly doubted these theories, mainly because there were no records of doctors or nurses catching the disease from patients. What he did find, though, was that supplementing children’s diets at orphanages with eggs and milk resulted in fewer cases of the disease appearing.
1912 – Gowland Hopkins and his rats & mice
Hopkins fed young rats a diet of casein, lard, sucrose, starch and minerals and half of them he gave a small amount of milk to, too. Only the rats that were given milk grew properly which Hopkins said could only be as a result of a diet deficient in a specific nutrient.
1917 – Elmer V. McCollum discovers the sunshine vitamin
Well, strictly speaking vitamin D was born out of McCollum’s research on fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. But it’s synthesis solely as a result of contact between sunshine and live skin was what gives it the sunshine vitamin nickname that it has today.
1928 – Adolph Windaus receives the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
He received it for his studies on vitamin D and its connection with sunlight. In fact, he was awarded for a relatively small step on the vitamin concept that was a result of extensive studies by numerous individuals.
…It’s all a bit scandalous (Discovering vitamins was a pretty big deal, after all)
The committee responsible for gifting Windaus for his Nobel Prize had been receiving nominations for all of the important people listed above, but had chosen not to pay too much attention. It’s rumored that this was down to sceptics who mistrusted the idea of vitamins due to no one having ever ‘seen one’. This was no longer true after 1926 thanks to B.C.P. Jansen and W.F. Donath, two more Dutch scientists working in Java.
1929 – Eijkman & Hopkins prevail!
After much deliberation, it was decided that Hopkins and Eijkman would be jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. Their hard work would finally be rewarded!