Gladys L. A. Emerson
Good Nutrition Month: Nutritionist and biochemist Gladys L. A. Emerson, isolated vitamin E in the 1930s. She then went on to work on the whole B complex of vitamins.
Gladys Emerson received her doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley’s school in animal nutrition and biochemistry. After a postdoctoral year abroad at the University of Göttingen, Emerson returned to Berkeley, joining the lab of Herbert M. Evans, director of the University of California’s Institute of Experimental Biology. Evans had successfully identified and named vitamin E in 1922 but had so far been unsuccessful in isolating it.
For three years Emerson worked with Evans on the isolation of vitamin E from its natural sources. Finally, in 1936, the team successfully isolated from wheat germ oil a pure form of vitamin E, which they named tocopherol. Emerson and Evans went on to identify two more forms in which the vitamin could be isolated, alpha tocopherol and beta tocopherol. Their research paved the way for the subsequent determination of the chemical structure of tocopherol, which made artificial synthesis of vitamin E possible.
That vitamin E deficiency affected levels of fertility in laboratory animals had been known for years before Emerson began her research. While at Berkeley, she conducted studies further strengthening the connection between vitamin E and fertility. Emerson also demonstrated that a controlled dietary deprivation of vitamin E could cause a reaction akin to muscular dystrophy in lab rabbits.
Emerson was invited to join the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Nutrition in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1942. There she began investigating the whole B complex of vitamins. Emerson proved the link between vitamin B–deficient diets and abnormalities of growth and posture, the eyes, skin, liver, kidneys, and other internal organs. She also worked toward more effective methods of administering the vitamins.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation