Albert Szent-Györgyi, born 1893, isolated ascorbic acid, the agent in citrus juice that helped combat the deadly disease scurvy.
Those sitting down to nutritious meals usually do not consider what would happen if fresh vegetables and fruit or vitamin-supplemented juices and cereals were not routinely available. Centuries ago, sailors experienced such a lack first-hand: swollen and bleeding gums, loose teeth, hemorrhaging under the skin, and slowed healing of wounds. Because what we now call vitamin C was in short supply on most ships, human bodies reacted by developing the condition known as scurvy. Death could, and often did, quickly follow, thousands of miles away from otherwise life-sustaining provisions.
Scurvy had long been the scourge of those who sailed for extended distances far from fresh stores and supplies, with the first clear-cut descriptions of the malady appearing in the medieval records of the European Crusades. Toward the end of the 15th century, scurvy was cited as the major cause of disability and mortality among sailors on long sea voyages. Although Danish mariners were long acquainted with the condition, and included lemons and oranges in their marine stores, it was not until 1753 that scurvy was recognized in the British medical community at large as directly related to dietary deficiency.
But it would take even longer to pinpoint the scurvy-prevention substance responsible for maintaining the body’s connective tissues. That would take the meticulous work of a brilliant Hungarian-born researcher named Albert Szent-Györgyi, whose isolation and identification of vitamin C and discovery of the metabolic mechanism that enables its use within cells would be recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program