Casimir Funk: The scientist who gave us the word ‘vitamin’


2NGGYHG Polish-born American biochemist Dr. Casimir Funk, who coined the term vitamin, is shown at work in his new research laboratory on W. 64th Street in New York City on Jan. 12, 1953. (AP Photo)

Casimir Funk in his laboratory in 1954

Associated Press/Alamy

Casimir Funk, the Polish biochemist who coined the term “vitamins” for the vital class of molecules that help keep us alive, is the subject of today’s Google doodle.

There have been theories of how food affects health for millennia. In ancient Greece and Rome, early physicians invented “humoral” theory, which stated that foods must have the right balance of wet, dry, hot and cold to keep the body’s four essential humours – fire, earth, blood and phlegm – in check. Much later, physicians made more distinct associations, such as the observation that consuming citrus fruits like lemons helped to prevent the disease scurvy in sailors on long voyages.

In the late 19th century, scientists were trying to figure out the cause of beriberi disease, which can affect a person’s nervous or cardiovascular system and is today known as a vitamin B1 deficiency. In 1897, Christiaan Eijkman published a study based on experiments in chickens, proposing that diets containing brown rice were protective against beriberi, compared with those consisting of only white rice.

Casimir Funk read Eijkman’s paper and set himself the task of finding the chemical compound that gave brown rice its protective properties. In 1912, Funk managed to isolate a chemical that he thought was responsible and found it contained a characteristic nitrogen compound called an amine, so he named it a vital amine, or vitamine. When scientists eventually realised that vitamins didn’t necessarily need to contain an amine group, they dropped the final “e”.

Funk suggested that similar compounds might exist for many other “deficiency diseases”, as he called them, writing: “We will speak of a beriberi and scurvy vitamine, which means a substance preventing that special disease.” Funk also correctly suggested that vitamins existed that prevented the diseases pellagra and rickets.

The compound that Funk isolated and dubbed an “anti beriberi factor” was what we now call vitamin B3, or niacin, which doesn’t actually prevent beriberi. Two years earlier, Japanese scientist Umetaro Suzuki isolated vitamin B1 from brown rice and correctly identified its role in preventing beriberi. However, his work was published in a Japanese journal and the first Western translation, in German, failed to note that it was a new discovery.

In the 35 years after Funk’s initial finding, scientists discovered the rest of the vitamins, which number 13 in total, including eight kinds of vitamin B and vitamins A, C, D, E and K. Funk continued working with vitamins, and for pharmaceutical companies, for the rest of his career. He produced the first widely used vitamin concentrate in the US, called OSCODAL, which contains liquid vitamin A and D.

While vitamins are recognised as helping to prevent certain diseases, their use as supplements is still debated by scientists. A recent meta-analysis found there isn’t good evidence that supplements and vitamins protect against cancer or heart disease for most people.


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