The value of eating a certain food to maintain health was recognized long before vitamins were identified. The ancient Egyptians knew that feeding liver to a person would help cure night blindness, an illness now known to be caused by a vitamin A deficiency. The advancement of ocean voyages during the Renaissance resulted in prolonged periods without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and made illnesses from vitamin deficiency common among ships’ crews.
In 1747, the Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered that citrus foods helped prevent scurvy, a particularly deadly disease in which collagen is not properly formed, causing poor wound healing, bleeding of the gums, severe pain, and death. In 1753, Lind published his Treatise on the Scurvy, which recommended using lemons and limes to avoid scurvy, which was adopted by the British Royal Navy. This led to the nickname Limey for sailors of that organization. Lind’s discovery, however, was not widely accepted by individuals in the Royal Navy’s Arctic expeditions in the 19th century, where it was widely believed that scurvy could be prevented by practicing good hygiene, regular exercise, and maintaining the morale of the crew while on board, rather than by a diet of fresh food. As a result, Arctic expeditions continued to be plagued by scurvy and other deficiency diseases. In the early 20th century, when Robert Falcon Scott made his two expeditions to the Antarctic, the prevailing medical theory at the time was that scurvy was caused by “tainted” canned food.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the use of deprivation studies allowed scientists to isolate and identify a number of vitamins. Lipid from fish oil was used to cure rickets in rats, and the fat-soluble nutrient was called “antirachitic A”. Thus, the first “vitamin” bioactivity ever isolated, which cured rickets, was initially called “vitamin A”; however, the bioactivity of this compound is now called vitamin D. In 1881, Russian surgeon Nikolai Lunin studied the effects of scurvy while at the University of Tartu in present-day Estonia. He fed mice an artificial mixture of all the separate constituents of milk known at that time, namely the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and salts. The mice that received only the individual constituents died, while the mice fed by milk itself developed normally. He made a conclusion that “a natural food such as milk must therefore contain, besides these known principal ingredients, small quantities of unknown substances essential to life.”However, his conclusions were rejected by other researchers when they were unable to reproduce his results. One difference was that he had used table sugar (sucrose), while other researchers had used milk sugar (lactose) that still contained small amounts of vitamin B.
In east Asia, where polished white rice was the common staple food of the middle class, beriberi resulting from lack of vitamin B1 was endemic. In 1884, Takaki Kanehiro, a British trained medical doctor of the Imperial Japanese Navy, observed that beriberi was endemic among low-ranking crew who often ate nothing but rice, but not among officers who consumed a Western-style diet. With the support of the Japanese navy, he experimented using crews of two battleships; one crew was fed only white rice, while the other was fed a diet of meat, fish, barley, rice, and beans. The group that ate only white rice documented 161 crew members with beriberi and 25 deaths, while the latter group had only 14 cases of beriberi and no deaths. This convinced Takaki and the Japanese Navy that diet was the cause of beriberi, but mistakenly believed that sufficient amounts of protein prevented it. That diseases could result from some dietary deficiencies was further investigated by Christiaan Eijkman, who in 1897 discovered that feeding unpolished rice instead of the polished variety to chickens helped to prevent beriberi in the chickens. The following year, Frederick Hopkins postulated that some foods contained “accessory factors” — in addition to proteins, carbohydrates, fats etc. — that are necessary for the functions of the human body. Hopkins and Eijkman were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1929 for their discovery of several vitamins.
In 1910, the first vitamin complex was isolated by Japanese scientist Umetaro Suzuki, who succeeded in extracting a water-soluble complex of micronutrients from rice bran and named it aberic acid (later Orizanin). He published this discovery in a Japanese scientific journal. When the article was translated into German, the translation failed to state that it was a newly discovered nutrient, a claim made in the original Japanese article, and hence his discovery failed to gain publicity. In 1912 Polish biochemist Casimir Funk isolated the same complex of micronutrients and proposed the complex be named “vitamine” (from “vital amine”, reportedly suggested by Max Nierenstein a friend and reader of Biochemistry at Bristol University). The name soon became synonymous with Hopkins’ “accessory factors”, and, by the time it was shown that not all vitamins are amines, the word was already ubiquitous. In 1920, Jack Cecil Drummond proposed that the final “e” be dropped to deemphasize the “amine” reference, after researchers began to suspect that not all “vitamines” (in particular, vitamin A) have an amine component.
In 1930, Paul Karrer elucidated the correct structure for beta-carotene, the main precursor of vitamin A, and identified other carotenoids. Karrer and Norman Haworth confirmed Albert Szent-Györgyi’s discovery of ascorbic acid and made significant contributions to the chemistry of flavins, which led to the identification of lactoflavin. For their investigations on carotenoids, flavins and vitamins A and B2, they both received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1937.
In 1931, Albert Szent-Györgyi and a fellow researcher Joseph Svirbely suspected that “hexuronic acid” was actually vitamin C, and gave a sample to Charles Glen King, who proved its anti-scorbutic activity in his long-established guinea pig scorbutic assay. In 1937, Szent-Györgyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery. In 1943, Edward Adelbert Doisy and Henrik Dam were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of vitamin K and its chemical structure. In 1967, George Wald was awarded the Nobel Prize (along with Ragnar Granit and Haldan Keffer Hartline) for his discovery that vitamin A could participate directly in a physiological process.