How Vitamins Were Discovered

Today, in some form or another, vitamins are found in almost every home. In fact, about half of the population of the United States takes vitamins daily.

Smiling dietician sitting at desk and holding an orange

But there was a time when no one knew what vitamins were. Because of this, people got sick with diseases such as scurvy and beriberi.


Scurvy was a painful disease that inflicted sailors with hemorrhages and skin lesions. Finally, in 1747, a Scottish naval surgeon named James Lynn found a remedy. He discovered that scurvy could be prevented by adding citrus to a sailor’s diet.


Another disease inflicted sailors was beriberi, a degenerative disease that attacks the nerves, heart, and digestive system. Toward the end of the 19th century, a Dutch physician named Christiaan Eijkman traced its cause to diets that included polished white rice rather than unpolished brown rice.

Frederick Gowland Hopkins

While both of these discoveries discovered a link to diseases and dietary deficiencies, it wasn’t until the work of British biochemist, Frederick Gowland Hopkins, that the connection became clear.

Hopkins suspected that our bodies need nutrients that can only be acquired by eating certain foods. To prove his point, he conducted a series of experiments. He fed mice a synthetic diet consisting of pure proteins, fats, carbohydrates and salts. The mice became sick and stopped growing. But when given a small amount of milk  the mice recovered.

Hopkins had discovered what he called “accessory food factors,” which later became known as “vitamins.”

Beriberi, it turned out, was caused by a deficiency in thiamine and vitamin B1, which was lost in polished rice but plentiful in the natural grain. Citrus prevented scurvy because it contained ascorbic acid, vitamin C.

In 1929, Eijkman and Hopkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discovery.

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