A History of Vitamins: How They Were Discovered and Why We Need Them
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A History of Vitamins: How They Were Discovered and Why We Need Them

November 03, 2020

It is common knowledge that vitamins play a critical role in one’s overall health and nutrition. Working together with other important substances including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and minerals, vitamins are necessary for sustaining life. We frequently take for granted that we are well-informed and easily supplied with these necessary organic substances. Until relatively recently we did not even have a basic understanding of what vitamins truly are, let alone how they influenced one’s health. The understanding and discovery of vitamins over time has ultimately lead to the present where we have greater knowledge and accessibility to these crucial nutrients.

Vitamin Deficiency in the Past

Even though nutrition in its most basic form was recognized centuries ago, there was a severe lack of understanding regarding the elements involved. Through the ages, people have been able to associate better health with certain foods and follow a diet that provided better than average nutrition. Unfortunately, it was not until much later that vitamins were discovered and recognized as a critical part of one’s diet and health. The impact of this can be seen in a variety of ways.

Different cultures and peoples throughout history experienced different health conditions due in great part to specific vitamin deficiencies. For example, research shows that ancient Egyptians frequently had reduced ability to see in low light likely because of a deficiency in vitamin A. This substance is usually found in the liver and was likely not a primary part of their diet.

Scurvy is a condition that many may recognize as being caused by vitamin C deficiency. This condition causes bleeding of the gums, reduced healing ability, extreme pain, and even death. There was a period where scurvy was a significant concern among many people. It wasn’t until 1749 that Dr. James Lind discovered that eating citrus such as lemons and limes, both of which contain high levels of vitamin C, prevented the condition. Although it was not recognized at the time, we know that this treatment was effective because it helped resolve vitamin C deficiency.

The Long Road to Discovery

Major movements and progress in the discovery and synthesis of vitamins began in the early 1800s. Impressive discoveries and different means of implementation occurred from then, all the way through the mid 1900s. Even though there have not been any earthshattering breakthroughs regarding vitamins since then, there are still more discoveries being made.

Because the exploration of vitamins has been happening over multiple centuries it is not surprising that various medical professionals including epidemiologists, physicians, physiologists, chemists, and numerous notable scientists have contributed to our modern understanding of these critical nutrients.

Clinicians have been credited with uncovering and appropriately identifying diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, rickets, and pellagra, as being caused by vitamin deficiency as opposed to originating from toxins, germs, or other nutritional issues. Chemists also deserve recognition as they effectively isolated individual vitamins and comprehended their chemical structure allowing for synthesis of supplements. These steps have allowed for significant benchmarks in history regarding the discovery and usage of vitamins.

Recognizing the Impact of Vitamins

François Magendie, a leader of experimental physiology during the early 19th century also played a pivotal role in the discovery of vitamins. Malnutrition of the poor was a primary concern during his time and Magendie wanted to discover if foods containing nitrogen were nutritious. Magendie conducted experiments wherein he provided animals a restricted diet that did not contain nitrogen (proteins). The result was weight loss, corneal ulcers, and ultimately death. These symptoms are like those seen in humans experiencing vitamin A deficiency. Interestingly, symptoms like these were also found in orphans and abandoned children during the same era. Magendie’s association between food and health showed that current nutrition available to the poor was not sufficient. Although Magendie’s experiments did not directly isolate vitamin deficiency as the primary issue, his work did narrow the possible causes of malnutrition.

Until the early 1900s, it was presumed that all disease was caused by germs or the toxins they produced. Some were not satisfied with this hypothesis, especially due to the significant occurrence of scurvy and rickets. In 1906, Frederick Gowland Hopkins, an English biochemist, promoted the concept of “vitamin theory,” which posited that neither man nor animal could live on a diet composed solely of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Although Gowland was likely not the first person to have this idea, he did pave the way for further investigation and analysis of the active properties of different food.

Casimer Funk was the first person to use the term “vitamines” regarding specific food qualities. The original statement in 1912 was made about the active properties found in food. Although Funk’s hypothesis that all active substances or “vitamines” were nitrogen-containing amines was eventually disproved, he assisted in pushing the study of vitamins and nutrition forward.

A Boom of Innovation and Discovery

After we acquired a greater understanding of nutrition and the impact that vitamins have on it, significant leaps in comprehension, synthesis, and implementation were made.

  • Between 1912 and 1916 vitamins A, B, and B1 were discovered in different foods.
  • During the 1920s it was found that vitamin C was the antiscorbutic factor in foods.
  • It was discovered that vitamin D could be used to treat rickets.
  • Vitamin E was found in vegetable oils.
  • In a study involving high cholesterol diets in chickens it was discovered that vitamin K was highly prevalent.
  • In 1926, D.T. Smith and E.G. Hendrick discovered vitamin B2. Soon after, Max Tishler discovered the process for synthesizing this critical vitamin.
  • In the 1930s artificially synthesized vitamin C was produced as a supplement named Redoxon.
  • In 1933, Lucy Wills discovered folic acid (vitamin B9) and later in 1937, Niacin (vitamin B3) was discovered by Conrad Elvehjem.
  • In 1947 vitamin A was effectively synthesized.

This period marked an explosion of research and discoveries regarding vitamins and how to effectively acquire them. Further discoveries have occurred since then and are still happening today.

Our Modern Understanding of Vitamins

After centuries of study and exploration, we are now able to better optimize our health through vitamin supplementation. Most vitamins cannot be produced by animals or humans meaning that they must be acquired through diet or supplementation. Fortunately, improved and widespread knowledge regarding vitamins has led to improved health practices such as buying and eating more organic foods, utilizing supplements, and balancing diet. Even though it took multiple centuries of hard and slow-moving research, we now have a greater appreciation for and understanding of vitamins.


1. http://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/pdf/10.1024/0300-9831/a000124

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