The Fascinating History of Vitamin Discovery

In 1911, Casimir Funk made a remarkable discovery when he isolated a concentrate of rice polishing products that cured polyneuritis in pigeons. He called the concentrate a “vitamin”, as it seemed to be vital to life and was likely an amine. This was the beginning of the journey to understand the importance of vitamins in our diets. In 1912, scientists began to explore the idea that foods contained more than three nutrients.

Initially, these substances were referred to as “accessory substances”, but this was later changed to “vitamins” in scientific articles. Casimir Funk proposed that several diseases could be cured if these nutrients were present in foods. Vitamin B was one of the first recognized vitamins, but it wasn't until the mid-1930s that numerous components were isolated and synthesized, such as thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, B6 and calcium pentotenate. It was chemists who isolated the various vitamins, deduced their chemical structure, and developed methods for their synthesis.

The first vitamin pill approved by the AMA was Oscodal, a sugar-coated tablet containing vitamin A and D made with cod liver oil through a process developed by Funk in the early 1920s. In 1922, multivitamine-type products were announced to relieve a variety of ailments such as pimples, blackheads, boils, constipation, malnutrition, nervous deficiency and physical crisis. Doctors soon realized that scurvy, beriberi, rickets, pellagra and xerophthalmia were caused by specific vitamin deficiencies rather than diseases due to infections or toxins. Mastin's yeast vitamin tablets were one of the main products of the time and likely resembled today's multivitamins with vitamins A, B and C, iron, calcium and Nux vomica.

Deformed, underweight and sickly rats (as well as other small experimental animals such as chicks, guinea pigs and pigeons) were juxtaposed with images of their “healthy and well-fed” before themselves. Flour enrichment began in the late 1930s when B vitamins (thiamine and niacin) became available in bulk through industrial synthesis. The vitamin pill was born at the beginning of the 20th century and came of age during the Second World War when people were worried about economic depression and war. It grew with the return to prosperity and subsequent consumer-oriented culture.

Throughout the 20th century, scientists were able to isolate and identify the various vitamins found in foods. Today we understand how important vitamins are for our health and wellbeing. We have Casimir Funk to thank for his pioneering work in discovering vitamins and for his dedication to understanding their role in our diets.

Ben Liebhardt
Ben Liebhardt

Amateur travel fanatic. General web buff. Certified travel junkie. Twitter nerd. Infuriatingly humble web practitioner. Certified beer nerd.

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