Vitamins History

Datuk Dr. Rajen M.

A vitamin is a substance which the body cannot synthesise on its own, yet it is necessary for life. Therefore, by definition, it is necessary to obtain all vitamins from outside the body. If a molecule can be synthesised in the body, it is not a vitamin. The single exception to this rule is vitamin D can be synthesised in the skin but only when exposed to sunlight.

Though, our early journey into the history of vitamins started almost 3500 years ago, when the ancient Egyptians discovered that night blindness could be treated with certain foods. Nothing much has happened since.

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1747 - Vitamin C Discovered

One of the major milestone in nutritional medicine occurred in 1747, when Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered an unknown nutrient that we today call Vitamin C.

He found that scurvy, a widely reported disease characterised by spontaneous bleeding, loose teeth, aching joints and lack of energy, could be prevented by taking citrus foods.

Unfortunately, his discovery was largely ignored, and over the next 40 years, thousands of people died from scurvy.

In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur discovered that microscopic organisms caused many diseases. His discoveries prompted further research into the curative and preventative properties of vitamins.

In 1880 Christian Eijkman produced vitamin-deficiency conditions in animals on an experimental basis and then reversed the condition with an appropriate feeding regimen.

1905 - Kuala Lumpur Experiment

In Kuala Lumpur, the discoveries of which vitamins are present in food, and what effects those vitamins have upon human health, developed in about 1905 when an English doctor, William Fletcher, experimented on asylum inmates in Kuala Lumpur.

He showed that nearly 25% of those who received polished rice developed beriberi, while less than 2% of the 123 patients who received unpolished rice fell victim to beriberi. This disease was common in the rice cultures of Asia.

Beriberi is characterised by weakness in the legs, hands and arms. Later, weakening of the cardiac muscles leads to heart failure.

Frederick Hopkin's said in 1906 that foods contain a small amount of 'growth factors' needed to sustain growth and life itself. The general category of 'vitamins' was defined as substances found to be absolutely necessary for life.

1912 - Origin of the Word 'Vitamin'

In 1912, while working at the famed Lister Institute in London, Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk took Fletcher's thinking a few steps further.

Funk isolated the active substances in rice husks of the unpolished rice that were preventing beriberi. He named these missing dietary links 'vitamines' (vital amines) in the belief that they were 'amines' which were compounds derived from 'ammonia'.

Funk's original term 'vitamine' was changed to "vitamin" when many scientists identified, purified and synthesized all of the vitamins and discovered they did not all contain nitrogen.

Late 1920s - Vitamin K Discovered

Vitamin K and its wonderful blood clotting properties were discovered in the late 1920s by the Dane Henrik Dam, who would win a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1943.

In that year also, the same prize was awarded to American Edward Doisy, for taking Henrik Dam's discovery and increasing the understanding of how it worked chemically.

1933 - Vitamin A Discovered

In 1913, attention turned to finding and isolating the vitamins themselves. Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel showed in rat experiments conducted at Yale University that butter contained a growth-promoting factor necessary for development.

Soon known as fat-soluble Vitamin A, its chemical character was established in 1933, and it was synthesized in 1947.

1936 - Vitamin B Discovered

Other vitamin discoveries came along in the early 20th century. Cow's milk was found to contain another growth-promoting factor, the water-soluble Vitamin B, which was isolated in pure form in 1936. (We now know there are several different types of Vitamin B.)

1922 - Vitamin D Discovered

In 1922, while looking for a solution to the problem of rickets, Edward Mellanby discovered Vitamin D. In the United States, the enrichment of milk with Vitamin D was extremely effective against rickets.

Experiments with rats in 1922 showed that rats reared exclusively on whole milk grew normally but were sterile and could not reproduce.

Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop, at the University of California, showed that the missing factor was abundant in green leaves and wheat germ. The fat-soluble Vitamin E had been discovered.

In the early 16th century, observations that citrus fruits could prevent scurvy on long sea voyages later led Harriet Chick of the Lister Institute to begin a series of painstaking investigations during the 1930s into the qualities of various foods.

1932 - Synthesized Vitamin

Meanwhile, in 1932, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance from the adrenal glands. He called it hexuronic acid. At the same time, W.A. Waugh and Charles King isolated a vitamin from a lemon and showed it was identical to hexuronic acid.

In 1932, this vitamin became the first to be synthesized in a laboratory. It was Vitamin C.

Of course, the two time Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling, made major waves when he suggested high dose vitamin therapy against all disease, including cancer. This proposal remains controversial.


By the 1930s, vitamin sales were already making huge profits for pharmaceutical companies.

In the 1930s a flurry of scientific discovery demonstrated the biochemical functions of the vitamins and established the body's requirements for them. From then on, they have been commercially produced.


Since 1955 and up to the present, research into the functions of vitamins has shown that some go beyond the simple prevention of deficiency diseases.

For example, niacin in pharmacological doses can lower blood cholesterol levels. Many vitamins have roles as co-enzymes and in regulation of gene expression.

Letters in Vitamins

Vitamins were given letters to go with their chemical names to simplify discussion about them. Not many people know what to say about 'd-alpha tocopheryl succinate' but most people have some idea of what 'vitamin E' is all about.

When the 'B' names were being handed out, several substances were given 'B' names, which turned out not to be vitamins after all. Therefore, you have heard of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B12 but not 4, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. Those latter substances lie in the scrap heap of nutritional history.

Fat and Water Soluble

There are 13 vitamins in all, divided into the four fat soluble (A, D, E and K) and the nine water soluble (eight B vitamins and vitamin C).

The fat soluble vitamins can be stored in the body and do not need to be ingested every day. Because they can be stored, it is possible to store too much and thus become toxic on these vitamins.

The water soluble vitamins cannot be stored, with the exceptions of B12 and folic acid and must be consumed frequently for optimal health. However, these vitamins can be taken in large amounts without toxicity, because they are not stored and are easily eliminated.

More info on VITAMINS here.

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