We’re told that we need to take our vitamins, which are the micronutrients that are required by the body to complete many essential functions. They come from the food we eat but can be supplemented in other forms. But why are these things called vitamins?
The complex of micronutrients called vitamins originated from the term “vitamine” and came from the words “vita,” which means life, and “amine,” which referred to the nitrogenous component needed to sustain life.
The term was coined by a biochemist named Casimir Funk in 1912 and came from his work trying to isolate the component of rice polishings, the husk of brown rice that is removed to become white rice. It was later discovered that some vitamins don’t have an amine component, and the word was then shortened to “vitamin.”
The research on rice polishings, or more simply, rice husks, is what essentially led to the discovery of vitamins. A Dutch military physician in Java named Christiaan Eijkman was the first to see a connection between brown and white rice in the 1890s while studying beriberi. This disease affects the cardiovascular or central nervous systems and was believed to be caused by a nutrient deficiency.
Eijkman realized that some component in rice that had been removed when brown rice was converted to white rice caused beriberi in chickens to be reversed. His explanation was that the high level of starch in white rice was toxic, and a component in brown rice acted as a buffer to this toxicity.
Eijkman was unable to continue his work due to health issues, and he passed on his findings to Adolphe Vorderman, a medical inspector of the prisons across Java, in 1895. Vorderman discovered that prisons that fed prisoners brown rice had a significantly lower incidence of beriberi than those prisons that fed white rice to the prisoners.
This research was passed on to Gerrit Grijns, another Dutch doctor, in 1896. He confirmed the findings of Eijkman and then discovered that by adding the rice polishing to the diet of chickens, the disease was prevented. This showed that starch wasn’t the culprit, and there was some other substance in food acting to offset the onset of disease.
Grijns actually developed the concept that some type of compound was lost during rice milling that couldn’t be replaced by other means. He had come up with the idea of the vitamin, but since his work had only been done in Dutch, it didn’t catch on for 25 years.
After that time, many other scientists furthered the study of rice polishing and vitamins and their relation to disease. Then Casimir Funk was able to isolate the active component that scientists had been searching for. He is credited with the term “vitamins,” but it was the collective work of many scientists building on each other’s work that led to this discovery and many other scientists after who continued the study of vitamins. And to think it all started with a humble piece of rice.
Sources: Nobel Prize, Harvard, Trust Transparency Center