Fundamentals of Human Nutrition/History of Vitamins and Minerals

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1.3 History of Vitamins and MineralsEdit

1.3.1 Early Epidemiological FindingsEdit

Disease TheoriesEdit

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.
Unlike the multifactorial causation theory of disease, the germ theory doesn’t account for factors that were essential in early understandings of health and disease like diet, ventilation and climate.

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 It eventually superseded existing miasma and contagion theories of disease and in so doing radically changed the practice of medicine.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]

3. The supernatural theory of disease holds that obtaining a disease is a cause of punishment casted upon a person by various gods, ghosts, demons and evil spirits. Since the causative agents of these diseases were in fact supernatural, different forms of magic were a big factor and maybe even the only factor in diagnosis and treatment or cure. Depending on the culture, there are different members of society (usually men), who people look to as the ones who can heal them from their disease. These members are called shamans, medicine men, diviners and priests and they are thought of so highly because of their perceived special relationship to these supernatural agents. These healers used various methods in ridding these diseases; magic spells, exorcism, divination and drugs that would nauseate the person. Modern medicine has proven some of these theories wrong or lacking in one way or another, but there are still many people whose beliefs of the supernatural world persist with modern medicine. Still though, in a lot of modern vocabulary, when we speak of illness and disease we say things that reflect the very ideas and actions of the supernatural world. A person might say that they were “attacked” by a disease, of that they have to “fight off” infection until it is “expelled” or “out of” their bodies; things that those healers in different cultures would say that they were doing. Until the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, traces of older. Supernatural explanations for disease coexisted with the speculations about miasma or “bad air” and contagion.

4. The multifactorial causation theory holds the idea that all diseases have multiple factors and causes. It states that disease is a result of an agent, the host and the surrounding environment. This theory helps us to identify causative factors and suggest ways to prevent the diseases by modifying the factors that influence the exposure if it. In contrast to agents in the supernatural theory of disease, agents here are biological, chemical and physical factors and also need to be present for any kind of disease to occur. As for the host, factors that come into play are personal characteristics and behaviors, genetic endowment and predisposition, the status if your immune system and anything else that influences susceptibility. As for the environmental factors, they are any other external conditions besides the agent that influences the onset of a disease.

Food CuresEdit

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 DiscoveryEdit

Two major barriers to the discovery of vitamins and minerals were the assumptions made about food, and the lack of basic research into challenging these assumptions. These assumptions included the ideas that all kinds of protein were considered equally effective, and that fat also was interchangeable.[2] Before the importance of vitamins and minerals was widely known, afflictions such as beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy were assumed to be infections. The primary theory to the cause of what we now know as vitamin deficiencies was germ theory, where “diseases [are] caused by infectious organisms or toxins produced by these organisms.[3] Another assumption that needed to be challenged was the idea that there were “four essential elements of nutrition: proteins, carbohydrates, fat, and minerals”.[4]

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, scientists started research into these deficiencies. The earliest study took place in 1881, with Nikolai Lunin investigating the components of milk. He noticed that when mice were fed on the individual components, they died, and when they were fed whole milk they survived. Lunin declared that “mice […] are unable to live on proteins, fats, carbohydrates, salts, and water, it follows that other substances indispensable for nutrition must be present in milk”.[5]

In 1897, Christiaan Eijkman discovered the cause of beriberi was not bacterial in nature, as previously assumed, but instead the natural result of a thiamin deficiency from the consumption of polished white rice. He found this while working with chickens that were becoming ill from a diet of polished rice. By eliminating other suspects, such as contamination, infection, and toxins, he was able to narrow down the cause to the polishing of the rice itself, which removed valuable nutrients.[6] Therefore, beriberi could be reversed by the consumption of unpolished brown rice, which contains thiamin.[7] Today, most white rice is enriched with thiamin to prevent thiamin deficiency.

An investigation into pellagra was conducted in 1914 by Joseph Goldberger. Assumed to be an infection, Goldberger doubted this theory as none of the medical workers had caught the disease from their patients. He discovered that pellagra was cured when diets were supplemented with eggs and milk, which are high in niacin.[8]

Scurvy is caused by the deficiency of vitamin C, and can be treated by consuming citrus fruits. This was initially discovered by James Lind in the mid-1700s. However, vitamin C crystals weren’t isolated from lemon juice until 1932 by Charles Glen King, with the modern technology he had available.[9]

1.3.3 Economics of Nutritional DeficiencyEdit

Over 1/3 of the world population has a vitamin and mineral deficiency of some sort. Studies have shown that deficiencies in both macronutrients and micronutrients effect work output. So when a country has a population with a high nutrient deficiency it affects their economic prosperity. This is due to deficiencies causing reduced intellectual development and weakened immune systems. There is a positive correlation between one’s nutrition and economic outcome. If we think about it, those countries with higher incomes are more likely to have richer diets. They have the income to buy foods that meet all their dietary needs. Any nutrients they are deficient in are due to poor choices. Developing countries who have higher malnutrition rates have more health issues, which sets back their economic progress. The healthier a person is the more energy they will have. This allows them to be more productive in their daily lives and have a higher economic output. Also by not having any nutritional deficiencies you are less likely to get diseases and mortality rates will decrease[10]. As previously mentioned, both macronutrients and micronutrients have a major influence on one’s work output. So deficiencies in either can decrease their work output, affecting their economic prosperity. An example of this is when people are deficient in protein. This affects transport of other essential nutrients around the body; this leads to a series of effects throughout the body. The deficiency of protein can cause your body to become deficient in various nutrients since your body cannot transport them effectively[11]. Iron deficiencies also have major impacts on work capacity. Iron plays a role in transporting oxygen throughout the body. So when you have low iron levels , oxygen levels decrease because they cannot be transported throughout the body. This causes the body to feel fatigued and one will not be as productive in their work. Studies have shown that once give supplements, those deficient in iron were given supplements their work productivity increased by 20%. [12] There are inexpensive and effective solutions to decrease nutrient deficiencies around the world. According to UNICEF 4 easy solutions are food fortification, supplements, education, and disease control. For food fortification, nutrients that countries have high rates of deficiency in can be added into certain foods like flour and sugar. For supplements, those people who are highly in need of certain nutrients can be given tablets or capsules with essential vitamins and minerals. Disease control can be met by treating diseases that affect the body’s absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. All these possible solutions would cost only a few cents a year per person. The benefits of these solutions outweigh the costs. If nutrient deficiencies decrease there would be less diseases and mortality rates, especially among the children. This allows people to have higher work outputs, ultimately helping their economic prosperity. [13]

1.3.4 Discovery of VitaminsEdit

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).[14] 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. [15]

Key researchersEdit

  • 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”). [16]
  • 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. [17]
  • 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. [18]
  • Sir Edward Bellanby and Vitamin D: Vitamin D is thought of as the “sunshine vitamin” because various materials synthesize it when they are exposed to sufficient sunlight (McDowell, 2000, p.91). During the early 1900s, a British doctor known as Sir Edward Mellanby was conducting a research to find a cure for rickets. Rickets is the weakening of bones in children due to vitamin D deficiency. Mellanby began his experiment by producing rickets in dogs. He basically fed the dogs with oatmeal and kept them indoors. Oatmeal was a common diet from the people that encountered rickets. In 1922 he succeeded in producing the disease in the dogs which was similar to the human disease (McDowell, 2000, p.92). Then he provided the dogs with cod liver oil and had an assumption that vitamin A is the cure for rickets. Elmer McCollum, an American researcher who was one of the people that was responsible for the discovery of the fat-soluble vitamin A decided to test Mellanby assumption. McCollum bubbled oxygen through cod liver oil and heated it to destroy the vitamin A activity, but the properties of cod liver oil in prevention and cure of rickets remained (McDowell, 2000, p.92-93). In 1922, he came to a conclusion that this vitamin is a new fat-soluble vitamin and he called it vitamin D.
  • Elmer McCollum and Vitamin A: In human nutrition, vitamin A is one of the few vitamins of which both deficiency and excess constitute a serious health hazard (McDowell, 2000, p.15). People have suffered from a lack of vitamin A for a very long time. Due to vitamin A deficiency, people would go through conditions like night blindness and dry eyes. Before the discovery of vitamin A, this condition was unknown. In 1912, a biochemist named Frederick Gowland Hopkins found unknown factors present in milk that were not protein, fat, or carbohydrate (Vitamin A History, 2015). A few years later, an American researcher, Elmer McCollum and his college graduate volunteer, Marguerite Davis did a test on rats by feeding them milk, olive oil, and lard. They notice that the rats that were fed with milk are showing growth while the rats that were fed with olive oil and lard started to show no growth after a nice start. At that point, McCollum and Davis knew that they had discovered a phenomenon and the secret is in the milk. To prove their discovery McCollum and Davis extracted the fat-soluble from the milk. After that they would add the stuff that they extracted into the olive oil and lard, which is then fed to the rats. The rats that consumed the new olive oil and lard had the same growth rate as the rats that drank the milk. McCollum would name it as fat-soluble factor A, which is now known as vitamin A.


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. [19]


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. [20]



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.
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  4. Semba, R. (2012). The Discovery of the Vitamins. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82(5), 310-315. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000124
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  6. Carpenter, K., & Sutherland, B. (1995). Eijkman's Contribution to the Discovery of Vitamins. The Journal of Nutrition, 125(2), 155-163.
  7. Rosenfeld, L. (1997). Vitamine—vitamin. The Early Years of Discovery. Clinical Chemistry, 43(4), 680-685. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from html
  8. Carpenter, K. (2004, June 22). The Nobel Prize and the Discovery of Vitamins. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from
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  10. Darton-Hill, I., Webb, P., Harvey, P., Hunt, J., Dalmiya, N., Chopra, M., . . . Benoist, B. (2015). Micronutrient deficiencies and gender: Social and economic costs. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(5), 1198S-1205S. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from
  11. Uauy, R., & Hertrampf, E. (n.d.). Nutritional deficiency and imbalances. In Encyclopedia of life support systems (Vol. 4).
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Please use this HELP:EDITING link for information about contributing and editing the book.

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.

12. Prengaman, Kate. "The Birth of Vitamin A | On Wisconsin." On Wisconsin. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.

13. DeLuca, H. (2014). Retrieved December 2, 2015, from

14. McDowell, L. (2000). Vitamins in animal and human nutrition (2nd ed.). Ames: Iowa state university press.

15. Mandal, A. (2010, March 22). Vitamin A History. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from