Vitamins have an extremely long history, though until relatively recently it was not one that had been recognized. In ancient times, when mankind gave up the nomadic lifestyle of the hunter gatherer and formed early cities and developed the beginnings of fixed and sustainable agriculture; it was soon realized and noted by the ancient scribes of Sumeria (in present day Iraq) that food could affect health in more subtle ways than to simply keep people alive.
This had probably already been known by the shaman priests of even earlier tribes, but in Sumeria, the city states of Mesopotamia and ancient Babylon, it was studied in greater detail, and the results recorded on clay tablets. Sadly, now most of these have either been destroyed over the centuries or lie undiscovered beneath desert sands. Though it is known that in ancient Egypt, certain foods were recommended for the improvement of night vision.
So the science of nutrition had been born, and unfortunately did not improve on these original insights for a considerable time. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and later the Arabs made advances in medicine, but not particularly in preventing health problems and diseases from occurring in the first place. Instead they concentrated on the curing process once the symptoms of the illness were observable.
Early herbalists with their preventative potions, were often dismissed (sometimes violently so) as witches or wizards, and their works was treated with extreme suspicion. Later, in Europe, it got even worse with the Church not being fond of discussion of any sciences, most of which were classified as dangerous blasphemy. And so millions continued to suffer from terrible afflictions which could have been prevented by the light of knowledge.
The change began to come about in the eighteenth century within the British Empire. Because of its global spread, the ships on the seas were of prime importance, and it appalled some caring souls in the government that the cruel disease of scurvy, which by now had a three hundred odd year history, and includes amongst its’ delights: dizziness, listlessness (a lack of energy), teeth loss, swollen gums and randomly spontaneous heavy bleeding which is difficult or impossible to stop; was killing far more British sailors than were being lost due to enemy action. Scurvy was a serious problem to ships of all nations of course, but the British were more determined to do something about its horrors.
A few years before 1750 a Scottish naval doctor and surgeon called James Lind, who was one of those angered and upset by what he saw aboard ship, was to discover that an unknown property found in citrus fruit (what we now know as Vitamin C) could completely prevent the scurvy from taking hold. He published his findings in 1753 in a “Treatise on the Scurvy,” but incredibly his breakthrough was ignored by most of the Admiralty and his findings remained not enacted upon until near to the year 1800. During this gap of years, it is estimated by some authorities that nearly 100,000 British sailors died because of the scurvy.
When finally the Lords of the Admiralty roused themselves, the disease was rapidly stamped out, with other nation’s navies following suit. A side note here is the creation of the nickname ’Limeys’ as applied to British people, it coming from the limes collected by British ships to give to their crew. Although in actuality, it was more often lemons than limes which were used.
So nutrition in diet had triumphantly returned, but still had a fight on its hands to be accepted fully.
The 1880’s saw Dutch scientist Christiaan Eijkman do much pioneering work with animals, by altering their diets to produce vitamin deficient conditions and then reversing this ill-health by re-altering the content rather than the amount of their feeding.
Also, in 1906, Britain’s Frederick Hopkins (later to be knighted) was also convinced of critical ’growth factors’ within the food we eat. He said that, these “factors” were essential for life and health and not otherwise contained in our own makeup or physiology. Neither could they be produced without chemical additions from nutrition in diet. Both these men were to win Nobel prizes for medicine in 1929, but at the time what was needed for more doctors to pay attention was provable results on people.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the tropical wasting and paralyzing disease known as beriberi (the name of which comes from the Singhalese, a language of Sri Lanka, word ’beri’ which means ’weakness’ and is now known to be caused by a lack of Vitamin B was rampant throughout southern Asia. No-one had fully considered it might be treatable through nutrition like scurvy just over a century earlier until an English doctor by the name of William Fletcher began his work in Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of the then British colony of Malaysia.
In 1905, he carried out nutritional experiments on the inmates of an asylum, instructing them to be fed with different types of rice (either polished or unpolished). All else in their diet being the same, he saw that after a short time, a quarter of those eating polished rice began to suffer from the effects of beriberi, whilst only around two percent of those fed on the unpolished rice exhibited the symptoms associated with this disease.
Seven years later, a doctor called Casimir Funk, who had been born in Poland, and now worked at the Lister Institute in London, England; read Dr. Fletcher’s findings and developed them further. He examined the unpolished rice husks in fine detail, and discovered the active properties that were at work in the prevention of beriberi. He was to name these as ‘vitamines’.
This word was derived from the Latin ‘vitalis’ meaning ‘vitally important’ and, ‘amines’ which are a group of chemical compounds of ammonia. Dr. Funk initially theorized that all dietary additions were related to ammonia, but this was proved not to be the case a few years later, and the ‘e’ was dropped to turn ‘vitamines’ into ‘vitamins’.
The next year (1913) found scientists Lafayette Mendel and Thomas Osbourne of Yale University, discovering a growth promoter in butters which improved the bodily development of rats in the laboratory. This promoter was coined as ‘fat-soluble Vitamin A’. ‘A’ because it was the first to be isolated as a vitamine or vitamin. All were known by letters to start with as the chemical characteristics of each would not fully be known until the thirties.
Vitamins were now here to stay but many scientists still did not appreciate them or their diverse sources and uses. Most still thought (of those who took notice) that diseases like scurvy or pellagra (a skin disease) were the beginnings of vitamin deficiencies, rather than the signs of long term deficiency and the approach of death. Other discoveries would help to inform them better.
Another growth-promoter was discovered in cow’s milk and named ‘water-soluble Vitamin B’ (vitamins are all either fat or water soluble); and this was the first of the many Vitamin B’s. A group of vitamins that are sourced in similar foodstuffs have closely related functions in the body, and work better when each are present.
In 1922 what was to be known as Vitamin D was discovered by Edward Mellanby and the subsequent enriching of milk with this substance in the United States, played a major part in the battle against rickets (which is a disease of bone softening in children, especially in the legs).
In the same year it was seen at the University of California by Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop that rats raised on whole milk were apparently healthy, but time showed that none could breed. Their further studies showed what was missing, the fat-soluble Vitamin E, which was found by them at first in wheat and green leaves.
What we now know as Vitamin C (the champion in preventing the scurvy), which was also the first of the vitamins to be synthesized (made artificially) was isolated and identified thanks to the independent efforts of Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who found it stored in our adrenal glands and won a Nobel prize; C. King and W. A. Waugh, who worked with lemons to find the exact same chemical; and Harriet Chick of the Lister Institute, who also isolated this vitamin in various other fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin K and its wonderful blood clotting properties were discovered in the late 1920’s by the Dane Henrik Dam, who would win a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1943. In this year also, the same prize was awarded to American Edward Doisy, for taking Henrik Dam’s discovery and increasing the understanding of how it worked chemically.
So the discoveries continued and there are now a total of 13 vitamins that are considered to be indispensable for our health and well-being, with nine that are water-soluble and four fat-soluble. There were more, but it became known that many were vitamin like substances without actually being vitamins. That is, they were organic compounds responsible for similar tasks in our bodies, but could be produced by us ourselves.
Then during the thirties it was found how to artificially produce the vitamins, thus allowing for the pharmaceutical companies to begin the large scale production of purer forms, which in turn enabled the commercialization of the 'vitamin pill' now familiar to us all, and the great profits it could make.
But that was not the end of the historical story. Knowledge of vitamins and how they worked would continue to grow in the forties, fifties and beyond. How and where they all could be stored in and used by our body metabolism, whether in the blood stream, glands or organs, muscles or bones, skin, or body cells; and what else they were capable of in addition to preventing known diseases and conditions from history.
Like Canadian doctor Evan. V. Shute who, with his colleagues, prescribed extra doses of Vitamin E for his patients which were suffering from various heart maladies, so proving vitamins could act like a medicine for complaints other than those caused by their own non-presence.
They were also, in later decades thought to slow the signs of aging and proved to affect how genes work, and have multiple effects when used in combination or with extra quantities of minerals that are also vital for human health.
It was further discovered that different people, depending on age, gender, or general health or condition could be more helped by different doses or combinations and that there was not a ‘one size fits all’ reality, but that the pressing needs of an individual’s nutrition can differ comparatively widely, and that excess alcohol or tobacco use can render vitamins far less effective.
It was also later found that vitamins themselves can cause illness or counteract the beneficial effects of their kin when taken to excess in mega dosage, which can produce toxins because of the body’s inability to quickly use up the fat-soluble branch of the vitamin family. Too much of a good thing being almost as dangerous as not enough.
And doctors today continue to learn many more new facts about vitamins; for use in therapy and to possibly better combat the scourge of cancer, and to aid the work of other medicines in our blood.
So the story of vitamins and their use is an ongoing one, and our lives continue to be improved daily by our friend the vitamin!
Melissa Cameron is a writer providing tips and advice for consumers on anti-aging skin care products. Her numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on "what is Zeolite" and other typically confusing topics.