How chicken feed lead to the discovery of vitamins

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Ever wonder why old-timey health treatments involved eating incredibly weird foods? It's because few people knew exactly what parts of food were nutritious. Until one cook inadvertently cured her chickens of a disease, and started a chain of research that lead to the discovery of vitamins.

If you've read some of adventure novels set in the 1800s, you've probably heard of beriberi. It was a mysterious disease in Southeast Asia. It started with a weakness in the legs. As the syndrome continued, there was inflammation of the tissues, followed by massive accumulations of fluid around the body. Slowly the victim stopped being able to move, and at last, their heart stopped. It was long, painful illness, that seemed to strike wide swaths of the population at one time, but no one could figure out what caused it.


When Pasteur discovered microbes, scientists thought that they must be the cause of every illness, including, the Dutch East India Company concluded, this beriberi. They sent a team out to Java to examine the food and the bodily fluids of beriberi victims for microbes, but found nothing. Most of them left. One of the team, Christiaan Eijkman, stayed behind. Eijkman was studying soldiers with the disease, and using lab animals - chickens - to search for the cause of the sickness. He used a typical method for finding the microbes. He took blood from the soldiers, and injected it into the chickens. He was delighted to find that soon many of the chickens began weakening, but his happiness was short-lived. The cook at the hospital who was in charge of feeding the chickens had upset his carefully controlled experiment by messing around with their food. The shipment of brown rice hadn't arrived that month, and the cook had given the some of the chickens white rice left over from the soldiers meals.


Rice comes in a husk. Remove the husk, and the rice is brown, but the brown color is only skin deep. The brown on rice is a relatively tough outer coat of bran. "Polish" the rice kernels a little and the bran comes off. The process makes the rice more smooth and soft, and adds to its shelf life, but it also makes the rice more expensive.

There are multiple versions of the story after the discovery of the change in food. Some say it was the supervisor of the hospital that noticed the cook's switcheroo and was angry that relatively expensive food was wasted on poultry. Others say that Eijkman discovered the change and carefully added the polishings - the bits of husk leftover from the polishing process - back to the white rice that chickens were fed. Either way, the chickens made a miraculous recovery.


Eijkman did carefully research the different minerals present in the polishings, and ascertained that none of them were responsible for the chicken recovery. He also made inquiries and discovered that prisons that served brown rice had very few cases of beriberi, while prisons that served white rice saw their beriberi cases skyrocket. Unfortunately, Eijkman fell sick himself, and left Java before he could do more research.


From here the work fragments. Eijkman had made the first discovery, but everyone had a different notion of what this mysterious component of rice casings might be. Casimir Funk caused a stir when he announced that he had found the component - although he turned out to be wrong. He said it contained an "amine group," a certain chemical structure that contained nitrogen and a lone pair of outer valence electrons. Since the component was vital and contained an amine group, he called it a vitamine.

Joseph Goldberger noticed that a supplement of yeast could cure dogs of pellagra - what's now known to be a vitamin B deficiency. Gowland Hopkins noticed that separating out the different known components of milk and feeding them to young rats would leave them stunted, while a small complement of milk, which he knew contained the amino acid tryptophan, would allow them to grow. Elmer McCollum noticed the same thing happening with rats that ate different components of butter. He separated butter into its fat and non-fat liquids. Rats that were given the fat did well. Those that were given the same calories, but only the non-fat components of butter, got sick. This proved that at least some of these mysterious vitamins were only fat-soluble.


In fact there were so many researchers, making different progress on different fronts, that when the Nobel Prize committee finally decided to dole out the honors, no one knew quite who to give them to. Hopkins and Eijkman ended up sharing the prize in 1929. Afterwards, different researchers slowly teased out the other vitamins essential to life.

And all because of some chickens.

Top Image: Markus Koljonen

Via NCBI, Jewish Virtual Library, UH, Nobel Prize.