The first vitamin discovered was vitamin B1, also called thiamine.
In the 19th century, physicians noted that sailors were suffering from a constellation of neurological problems such as mood changes, edema, heart failure, limb pain, and even death.
They coined the term “beriberi” to describe the condition such sailors were suffering from.
In 1884, a Japanese physician, Dr. Takaki Kanehiro, observed that beriberi occurred in ordinary crewmen but was not common in officers. He also discovered that most crewmen could only afford to eat white rice, while the officers ate a more varied diet that included vegetables and meat.
Speculating that poor diet was the cause of beriberi, Dr. Kanehiro performed an experiment, feeding crewmen a more varied diet that included milk, meat, bread, and vegetables. Soon, the rate of beriberi among crewmen declined from 50 percent to just 5 percent.
After Dr. Kanehiro’s study, the Japanese government changed the diet for sailors, and beriberi was eliminated from the Japanese navy.
Fifteen years later, Dutch physician Dr. Christiaan Eijkman studied beriberi in Indonesia.
He noticed that the symptoms occurred in chickens when they were fed polished, refined, white rice. However, when the birds were fed unpolished, unrefined rice, the symptoms of beriberi disappeared.
Dr. Eijkman determined that the outer layers of grain contained an essential nutrient that prevented beriberi. That nutrient turned out to be thiamine.
Although many scientists deserved credit for the eventual discovery of thiamine, William Donath and Robert Williams were the first to isolate and identify its structure in 1934
Posts by David Brownstein, M.D.
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