Monday, September 8, 2008

The father of all vitamins: Casimir Funk

Vitamins are so much a part of modern life you may have a hard time believing they were first discovered less than a century ago. Of course, people have long known that certain foods contain something special. For example, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed liver for night-blindness (the inability to see well in dim light). By the end of the 18th century (1795), British Navy ships carried a mandatory supply of limes or lime juice to prevent scurvy among the men, thus earning the Brits once and forever the nickname limeys. Later on, the Japanese Navy gave its sailors whole grain barley to ward off beriberi.
Everyone knew these prescriptions worked, but nobody knew why — until 1912, when Casimir Funk (1884–1967), a Polish biochemist working first in England and then in the United States, identified “somethings” in food that he called vitamines (vita = life; amines = nitrogen compounds).
The following year, Funk and a fellow biochemist, Briton Frederick Hopkins, suggested that some medical conditions such as scurvy and beriberi were simply deficiency diseases caused by the absence of a specific nutrient in the body. Adding a food with the missing nutrient to one’s diet would prevent or cure the deficiency disease.

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