Birthday in 1884 of Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, who realized that certain substances in food were essential to good health, and named tham “vitamines,” with “vita” meaning vitality and “amines” meaning chemical compounds containing nitrogen.
The discovery and synthesis of vitamins by U.S. and European chemists in the early years of the 20th century played an important role in transforming the pharmaceutical industry from one based on extracts and simple chemical compounds to one that was firmly rooted in complex synthetic organic chemistry.
The idea that certain elements in food could be essential to health emerged in the seafaring era launched by Christopher Columbus. Doctors determined that sailors who came down with scurvy could easily be cured with citrus fruits, although they didn’t understand why. Beriberi, a disease prevalent in Asia, was found to be treatable by feeding patients whole-grain brown rice rather than white rice, which has its vitamin-rich husk removed.
In 1912, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk was investigating beriberi by soaking brown rice in water and capturing the substance that dissolved. Funk determined that this substance contained an amine group. He went on to posit the existence of a whole range of amine-containing substances that were vital for good health, naming them vitamines. The “e” was dropped later when scientists realized that not all of these substances were amines.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2005 American Chemical Society