Who gave vitamins that name? Who discovered them? Who triggered the multi-billion supplement industry, which thrives despite scientific disparagement of many of its claims?
The coiner of the word “vitamin” was Hungarian-American Casimir Funk (1884-1967) of Polish-Jewish ancestry. In a 1912 paper titled “The etiology [causation] of the deficiency diseases, Beri-beri, polyneuritis in birds, epidemic dropsy, scurvy, experimental scurvy in animals, infantile scurvy, ship beri-beri, pellagra,” which proposed the existence of at least four vitamins, Funk drew on many earlier studies to explain that many diseases are the result not of infections or poisons, but a lack of trace elements which he dubbed “vitamines.”
“The diseases mentioned above present certain general characters which justify their inclusion in one group, called deficiency diseases,” he wrote. “They were considered for years either as intoxications by food or as infectious diseases, and twenty years of experimental work were necessary to show that diseases occur which are caused by a deficiency of some essential substances in the food. Although this view is not yet generally accepted, there is now sufficient evidence to convince everybody of its truth, if the trouble be taken to follow step by step the development of our knowledge on this subject.”
Noting that the most prominent symptoms of the diseases he listed were cachexia (loss of weight and energy) and nervous system disabilities, Funk proceeded to coin the word “vitamine,” based on the words “vital” (essential) and “amines” (carbon based compounds).
“It is now known that all these diseases, with the exception of pellagra, can be prevented and cured by the addition of certain preventive substances; the deficient substances, which are of the nature of organic bases, we will call ‘vitamines,'” he wrote.
Scientists eventually concluded that pellagra was also from a deficiency of vitamins. At its peak, pellagra caused 7,000 deaths annually in the southern states of the USA, where millions of poor people subsisted mostly on corn bread and molasses, and led to over 3 million cases and 100,000 deaths. Funk suggested that the outbreak of pellagra, like beriberi, was due to vitamin deficiencies caused by a change in the milling of corn, begun shortly after 1900, which removed the germ. His opinion was shunted aside for years until the medical establishment concluded that pellagra was due to a deficiency of several vitamins, particularly of the B group.
Funk’s paper also mentioned the Dutchman Christiaan Eijman, who “established the important fact that birds (fowls, pigeons, ducks) when fed on polished rice developed a disease which he called polyneuritis gallinarum.”
In Funk’s subsequent book, The Vitamines, he wrote, “Eijkman’s discovery of experimental beriberi marked a great step forward. This finding was made accidentally since Eijkman observed that chickens which fed upon the remains of the food used in a hospital for beriberi died of a disease which he recognized opportunely to be similar to human beriberi… Eijkman went a step further. He found that the addition of the pericarp [the shell] of the rice kernel, or even the rice bran, to white rice made it possible to prevent the occurrence of beriberi in animals.”
Despite Eijkman’s brilliance, Funk writes, he “did not find the correct explanation; he believed that the starch of the grain gave rise to toxins which exerted a deleterious action on the nervous system, and that this was prevented by the addition of the pericarp.”
Funk succeeded in isolating the substance Eijkman discovered. It is now known as vitamin B3 or niacin and famous as an additive to breakfast cereals.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A BALANCED DIET
Noting in his paper that “The results of modern investigation of deficiency diseases seem to be unknown to most physiologists,” Funk concluded with the prediction of other nutrients later known as vitamins B1, B2, C and D. Of rickets he wrote, “I think that experiments with vitamines, which can at least do no harm, ought to be performed here in order to ascertain if a deficiency of the latter is not the real primary cause of the disease.”
It was indeed discovered later that rickets is caused by a lack of either calcium or vitamin D (which is required for calcium to be absorbed into bones) or both of them.
Funk ended with the future war cry of dietitians and nutritionists.
“From the present résumé we can conclude that all the deficiency diseases can be prevented by a complete diet,” he summed up. “A monotonous diet ought to be avoided, because in this case a deficient food is made use of for long periods and prepares the ground for the outbreak of the deficiency diseases. There is no doubt that as our knowledge of the relative value of different foodstuffs increases we will be able to prevent completely the outbreak of the latter.”
THE BRILLIANT QUACK
Drastic vitamin deficiency is one thing; whether vitamin popping enhances health is another. The person who almost single-handedly catapulted the billion dollar vitamin supplement industry was the brilliant Linus Pauling (1901-1994), the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes. His work was so profound that even Albert Einstein said, when asked about it, that “It was too complicated for me.”
Pauling caught the vitamin bug gradually. In 1941, he helped control a renal disease he had developed with the help of vitamin supplements. In 1965, after stating at a lecture that he hoped to live 25 years more in order to follow the new breakthroughs in science, he received a letter from the lowly qualified biochemist Irwin Stone stating, Pauling recalled, “If I followed his recommendation of taking 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C, I would live not only 25 years longer, but probably more.”
“I began to feel livelier and healthier,” Pauling wrote after beginning the regime. “In particular, the severe colds I had suffered several times a year all my life no longer occurred. After a few years, I increased my intake of vitamin C to ten times, then twenty times, and then three hundred times the RDA: now 18,000 milligrams per day.”
In a 1969 paper titled Orthomolecular Psychiatry, he advocated “orthomolecular therapy, the provision for the individual person of the optimum concentrations of important normal constituents of the brain.” Later, he helped establish the Institute of Orthomolecular Medicine in Menlo Park, California.
Pauling became a shill for the vitamin industry, urging people in his book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, to consume 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily, 50 times the recommended dose. With huge genius, Linus Pauling slammed subsequent experiments showing that vitamin C had no influence on the common cold as being flawed. As an old friend said of him, “When he was right, which was more often than not, he was very, very right. But when he was wrong, which he also was from time to time, there was no way to get him to see it.”
Things got worse after Pauling heard from Scottish surgeon Ewan Cameron that vitamin C had an ameliorative effect on cancer. In 1977 he stated, “My present estimate is that a decrease of 75 percent can be achieved with vitamin C alone and a further decrease by use of other nutritional supplements.” By using vitamins optimally, he predicted, people would live to 100, 110 and possibly 150. Pauling and Cameron’s book, Cancer and Vitamin C, popularized their musings. Pauling also theorized that vitamin C and lysine (an essential amino acid) could treat and cure heart disease.
A 1992 Time magazine starred Pauling and his ideas, writing, “Vitamins, often in doses much higher than those usually recommended, may protect against a host of ills ranging from birth defects and cataracts to heart disease and cancer. Even more provocative are glimmerings that vitamins can stave off the normal ravages of aging.”
An industry of self-help books prodded people to stuff themselves with mega-doses of vitamins of all kinds. This was discovered to be a mistake as vitamin mega-doses can be dangerous. Too much vitamin A, for example, can lead to liver damage and hair loss; too much vitamin D can cause irreversible damage to the kidneys and heart; and overdoses of vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage.
In the end, studies showed that mega-doses of vitamins not only failed to ameliorate cancer but often made it worse.
Matters came to a head on December 16, 2013, when the journal Annals of Internal Medicine published two new clinical trials and one large review of 27 past clinical trials, which all found no evidence that daily multivitamin and mineral supplements prevent or slow cognitive decline or chronic diseases such as heart diseases or cancer.
“We believe that the case is closed; supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with most mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” the researchers concluded.
(Sources include: The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65 (1992), 211-221 Politics and Pellagra: The Epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S. in the Early Twentieth Century, Alfred Jay Bollet, M.D. Clinical Professor of Medicine, Yale University School ofMedicine, New Haven, Connecticut. The Friend’s observation about Pauling from: “A Flamboyant Scientist’s Legacy : Scholar: Linus C. Pauling’s supporters and detractors join in calling the two-time Nobel winner one of the most significant figures of this century.” Los Angeles Times. August 21, 1994.)