Causes of Disease - 9

Eijkman’s research indicated that there is a vital substance in the pericarpium (silver skin) of rice that prevents the onset of beriberi. Later, this substance became known as a “vital-amine”, or vitamin. Although the specific chemical was not yet identified, the concept of vitamins was introduced for the first time. The Inspector-General of Public Health in the Dutch East-Indies ordered that all prisoners receive unhusked rice, and within a very short time beriberi disappeared from the prison system. It was later shown that this same vital substance could be found in barley, prompting the Japanese navy to include barley with polished rice in the food given to sailors, thereby eliminating beriberi from their navy.

Eijkman originally set out to find the germ responsible for beriberi, but instead discovered that the disease was caused by the absence of a “vital substance” (vitamin). In 1929, Christiaan Eijkman was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for the discovery of vitamins, a group of organic substances essential in small quantities for animal nutrition and metabolism. Years later, Casimir Funk, a Polish emigrant to the United States, identified Eijkman’s vital material as thiamine, or vitamin B-1. \

Eijkman’s research can be used to help us understand other historical occurrences as well. As early as the 5th century BC, Hippocrates described a condition now known as scurvy, characterized by bleeding gums, hemorrhaging, and death. Scurvy became a dreaded disease among all who embarked on long voyages. On one of Christopher Columbus's voyages some Portuguese sailors developed scurvy and requested to be dropped off on one of the newly discovered islands so they could die on land, rather than at sea. On a later voyage, Columbus returned to the island and found the men alive and healthy, and named the island Curacao, meaning “cure”. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Scottish physician James Lind noted that sailors given a diet rich in citrus fruit rapidly recovered from the dreaded scourge. In response to Lind’s work, the British navy soon required crews to carry citrus such as lime on all voyages, and the British sailors thus acquired the nickname “limeys”.

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