Fundamentals of Human Nutrition/History of Vitamins and Minerals

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1.3 History of Vitamins and Minerals[edit]

1.3.1 Early Epidemiological Findings[edit]

Disease Theories[edit]

Some disease theories:
1. The miasma theory (also called the miasmatic theory) held that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia or the Black Death were caused by a miasma (Μίασμα, ancient Greek: "pollution"), a noxious form of "bad air". The theory held that the origin of epidemics was due to a miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter. The miasma theory was accepted from ancient times in Europe, India and China. The theory was eventually displaced in the 19th century by the discovery of germs and the germ theory of disease.
2. Germ theory states that many diseases are caused by the presence and actions of specific micro-organisms within the body. The theory was developed and gained gradual acceptance in Europe and the United States from the middle 1800s. It eventually superseded existing miasma and contagion theories of disease and in so doing radically changed the practice of medicine. It remains a guiding theory that underlies contemporary biomedicine. [1]

Food Cures[edit]

The pattern of the discovery of vitamins over time consisted of different food sources being found to cure certain diseases, and a closer analysis of those food sources in order to figure out what component of them was doing the actual curing. In fact, the actual term “vitamin” didn’t come into existence until 1910 when a Polish biochemist by the name of Casimir Funk made the discovery that there were certain vital amines that were needed by the body and only supplied by certain foods. Without these vital amines, people and animals would suffer from diseases of deficiency. By combining the terms “vital” and “amine,” he created the term “vitamin” (Carpenter). There are many diseases of deficiency of a certain vitamin, and the foods that were first found to cure them are discussed in the writing below.

One example of this pattern of discovery was with scurvy, which was the first disease ever identified to have a direct association with a food deficiency (Rosenfeld). Scurvy is a disease characterized by weakness, blood spots on the body, joint pain, loosened teeth, and can potentially lead to death. In the 19th century, many sailors developed scurvy when they went on twelve week long trips at sea and only had access to dry foods for nourishment in that whole duration of time. Upon arrival back on land, they were usually able to be cured of the disease within a week or so by consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was later discovered that vitamin C was the curing component of the fruits and vegetables (Carpenter). Another example of this is beriberi, a disease that was found to be quite common among people who consumed a diet of milled rice and not much of anything else. In the 1890s, a physician by the name of Christian Eijkman began taking a closer look at the issue in Java. He found that non-milled brown rice didn’t seem to cause nearly as many instances of beriberi, and it was later discovered that this was due to the fact that brown rice contained the vitamin thiamin (Carpenter). In 1914, Joseph Goldberg sought to figure out the deficiency that caused pellagra, which was originally thought to be caused by an infection rather than a diet issue (Semba). Upon figuring out that yeast supplements were able to cure the disease. It was later discovered in 1933 that the yeast supplements contained the vitamin niacin, which was the curing component of them (Carpenter). Then, in 1934, three men by the names of George Whipple, George Minot, and William Murphy discovered that people suffering from pernicious anemia were able to be cured from the disease by consuming very large amounts of liver on a daily basis. Twelve years later, in 1948, it was then found that vitamin B12 was the component of liver that was curing the pernicious anemia (Carpenter). Then again in 1943, two scientists by the names of Henrik Dam and Edward Doisy wanted to figure out how to cure many birds of a certain population that were experiencing severe internal hemorrhages and lacking a blood clotting mechanism to help the issue. The scientists found that the birds were cured when they consumed green leaves, as well as liver. It was later discovered that these foods were great sources of vitamin K, which was actually curing the issues (Carpenter).

1.3.2 Barriers to Discovery[edit]

This section is being updated by CRM.

1.3.3 Economics of Nutritional Deficiency[edit]

This section is being updated by CME

1.3.4 Discovery of Vitamins[edit]

Carimir Funk first created the term “vitamine” in 1912, not too long after he discovered the first vitamin. Funk was able to isolate and concentrate a substance from bran that had the ability to cure beriberi, specifically in pigeons. He found that this substance was considered an amine and that it was important for a healthy diet; this substance was later termed “thiamine” (also known as Vitamin B).[2] His discovery allowed physicians to realize that many diseases thought to be the result of infection (including beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, and rickets) were instead arising due to vitamin deficiencies. [3]

Key researchers[edit]

  • Joseph Goldberger and Niacin: Between 1914 and 1929 Goldberger investigated the true cause of pellagra, which is a disease that results in severe skin eruptions, diarrhea, and mental changes thought to be caused by an infection possibly from insects. Goldberger believed that the cause of these symptoms was not due to an infection; he even ate miniscule amounts of skin from people suffering from pellagra to prove that the infection theory was false. After his death in 1929, the group that was working with him continued his research and by 1935 it was discovered that pellagra was due to a deficiency in nicotinic acid (also known as “niacin”). [4]
  • Albert Szent-Györgyi and Vitamin C: He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine due to his discovery of Vitamin C. Ironically, Szent-Györgyi discovered what he called “hexuronic acid” in 1928 and did not realize that he had isolated Vitamin C. By 1932, when Charles Glen King reported his discovery of Vitamin C, it ended up having the same chemical formula of Szent-Györgyi’s hexuronic acid; Szent-Györgyi was acknowledged for the discovery, even though he did not necessarily realize what he had discovered initially. [5]
  • Henrik Dam and Vitamin K: He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Edward Doisy, for his discovery of Vitamin K. After studying internal hemorrhaging in chicks caused by a faulty clotting mechanism, he discovered that adding a factor found in the liver and green leaves would resolve the problem and the component was named Vitamin K. [6]


Vitamins can be removed from oils through a process called molecular distillation; as the temperature increases fractions containing high levels of the vitamin are removed and reach their maximum point. The ideal elimination curve is easily recognizable due to its slightly skewed shape. Whenever there are deviations from the shape, this indicates either the presence of multiple forms of the vitamin or imperfect conditions of distillation, which allows for the specific identification of the vitamin. [7]


The isolation of vitamins is important when dealing with a vitamin that may come in multiple forms. Specifically the isolation of Vitamin K is necessary because it is found in two forms (K1 and K2). The isolation of these two forms was found through multiple techniques including the recovery of crystals after various factors were added, comparing the UV absorption spectra, and preparing several different batches to compare melting point and potency. It was discovered that Vitamin K1 comes from alfalfa and changes from light yellow oil into a crystalline condition after the cooling of an acetone solution. Vitamin K2 is a light yellow crystalline solid that comes from putrefied sardine meal. It is important to isolate Vitamin K because of its various effects on coagulation. [8]


Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2015.

  1. Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  2. Carter, J. (2014). Vitamins. Retrieved from
  3. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (2012). The Discovery of the Vitamins. Retrieved from
  4. Carpenter, K. (2004). The Nobel Prize and the Discovery of Vitamins. Retrieved from
  5. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (2012). The Discovery of the Vitamins. Retrieved from
  6. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (2012). The Discovery of the Vitamins. Retrieved from
  7. Hickman, K. (1936). Identification of Vitamins by Molecular Distillation. Doi:10.1038/138881a0
  8. McKee, R., Binkley, S., MacCorquodale, D., Thayer, S., & Doisy, E. (1939). The Isolation of Vitamins K1 and K2. Doi:10.1021/ja01874a507

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9. Carpenter, Kenneth. (2004, June 22). The Nobel Prize and the Discovery of Vitamins. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from

10. Rosenfeld, L. (1997). Vitamine—vitamin. The early years of discovery. Clinical Chemistry, 43(4), 680.

11. Semba, R. D. (2012). The discovery of the vitamins. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Internationale Zeitschrift Für Vitamin- Und Ernährungsforschung. Journal International De Vitaminologie Et De Nutrition, 82(5), 310.