2016-3-1 UPDATE

Chickens and vitamins
The story of the discovery of the vitamins

The original dietary supplements?
The disease beriberi seemed to be caused by some sort of deficiency – But what was the “mystery ingredient”?
The hint came from differences in chicken feed…

Have you ever heard of beriberi, a nasty disease that cripples the peripheral nerves and causes numbness of the limbs? Fortunately rare nowadays, it was once widespread, but no one knew neither the cause of the disease, nor any effective remedy. In the late 19th century, there was an outbreak of beriberi in the Dutch East Indies (what is now Indonesia), and the Dutch government sent a special team to investigate. At the time, beriberi was believed to be epidemic and caused by some sort of bacteria, but despite long and hard effort, the research team failed to find any such bacterium. (After all, there isn’t any.)
One of the members was the military physician Christiaan Eijkman. After several years of research he began to suspect that the bacterium theory was mistaken. Using samples from chickens that had died of beriberi, he had been trying to infect healthy chickens, but without any great results. Other chickens unrelated to the experiments were catching beriberi instead, but he still couldn’t find any pathogen or parasite.

Then one day, Eijkman noticed something quite by accident. The chickens that caught beriberi did so between mid-July and the end of November; after that, they got well again. But why would they get sick only during that period?
When Eijkman investigated this, he discovered that during the period when the chickens fell ill, they had been fed polished rice, while during the rest of the time they were fed unpolished rice. He promptly set up an experiment where one group of chickens were fed polished rice and another group unpolished rice, and sure enough, the unpolished rice group did not get beriberi. Eijkman’s first thought was that “something in the unpolished rice neutralizes the pathogen,” but it was when he later revised his reasoning that he made his ground-breaking discovery.

The cause of beriberi was that something was lacking in the diet. As opposed to diseases were a healthy person is infected by some pathogen, there were also diseases caused by a healthy person not getting some certain substance that the body needs.
This idea sounds quite familiar to us living now, doesn’t it? Indeed, it should. Eijkman’s “lacking substance” became known as “vitamin B,” and today we know that beriberi is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1.

In 1911, the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk succeeded in isolating vitamin B. However, already the year before, the Japanese scientist Umetaro Suzuki had extracted a beriberi-curing constituent of rice bran that he patented under the name oryzanin, and which was none other than vitamin B. Unfortunately, his discovery failed to gain the publicity it deserved in the wider world.