Casimir Funk and a Century of Vitamins

Casimir Funk, 1884-1967

One hundred years ago, in 1911, the Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk published his first work on vitamins, titled “Experiments on the causation of Beri-Beri,” in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet.  Curiously, the word “vitamin,” coined by Funk, was missing from this paper as the Lister Institute in London, for which Funk was working at the time, did not accept the designation. It was not until 1912 that Funk was able to use his new word in a formal publication, the term appearing for the first time in the Journal of State Medicine.

And so began a new path of scientific inquiry into vitamins as constituents of food necessary to the maintenance of good health – an entire discipline whose start can be attributed in large part to Funk, the “father of vitamin therapy.” That said, even one-hundred years ago, it is apparent that Funk drew from what was already known about deficiency-related diseases as he charted his own experiments.

Before Funk’s time, it had already been established that certain foods acted like drugs in their capacity to prevent certain diseases. In the mid-1700s, Scottish physician James Lind conducted an experiment on sailors suffering from scurvy, a disease which is characterized by spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from mucous membranes. This ailment plagued many sailors who were at sea for longer than fruit could be preserved, and was suspected to be caused by a lack of fresh foods.

Lind tested this hypothesis by feeding one group of sailors two oranges and one lemon every day, while several other groups of sailors consumed a different diet that included garlic, mustard seed, cider and sea water. The two sailors who were given citrus fruits recovered from their symptoms of scurvy, while the others remained in the same condition or worsened. Lind came to the conclusion that citrus fruits were the cure for scurvy. Casimir Funk later discovered that diseases similar to scurvy, such as beriberi and pellagra, were likewise the physical manifestation of a nutritional deficiency.

Kazimierz Funk (“Casimir” is an anglicized form of his given name) was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1884. He became interested in pathology and physiology at the age of fourteen, and at sixteen he went to Geneva, Switzerland to study the natural sciences – just the start of what would prove to be a peripatetic academic career. Funk later studied chemistry at Berne for three years, eventually focusing on organic chemistry under the supervision of Stanislaw Kostanecki.

His interests in the human body and chemistry eventually led to a program of research on “trace elements” in humans, carried out in 1904 at the Pasteur Institute with Gabriel Bertrand.  Funk’s trace elements work relied upon his ability to synthesize both organic bases and amino acids. Two years later he moved to Berlin, which was the world’s most scientifically vital city at the time. In Berlin, Funk and Nobel laureate Emil Fischer, a leading organic chemist of the period, undertook an analysis of amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – specifically focusing on the structures of cysteine and alanine.

Emil Fischer

At the same time that he and Fischer were analyzing amino acids, Funk accepted a position as a biochemist working for the municipal hospital in Wiesbaden. It was there that he came to the conclusion that foods could be divided into two categories: food that encouraged tumors and that which discouraged them. Funk also observed that “poor” proteins seemed to be poisonous to animals.  In an experiment conducted with Emil Abderhalden  – at the time one of Fischer’s assistants – one dog was fed horsemeat mixed with glucose and butter, while another dog was fed gliadin with glucose and butter. In fifteen days, the first dog gained 150 grams of protein while the second dog lost 450 grams. Based on this data, the American duo of Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel showed that gliadin and edestin are “poor” proteins.

In 1910 Funk began the studies that led to his discovery of the vitamins when he traveled to London to work at the Lister Institute, and met its director, Charles Martin. Martin and Funk discussed the disease beriberi, which is found in populations of people who eat polished rice but not in those who eat the rice polishings. Beriberi was at one time fairly common among populations where rice is a staple, specifically in east Asia, and in its final stages caused paralysis and death.

Funk knew of a disease in pigeons called polyneuritis that is equivalent to beriberi in humans – it occurred in pigeons that had been fed exclusively polished rice. It had been previously supposed by the English scientist Leonard Braddon, and later the Dutchman Christiaan Eijkman, that the endosperm of rice contains a poison, while the cortical layers – the “polishings” – contain the antidote. Funk, however, conducted preliminary experiments in which he administered a diet of various pure carbohydrates – such as starch, insulin, cane sugar and dextrin – and found that they all induced polyneuritis when administered alone. He came to the conclusion that there was no toxic agent at fault; rather, polyneuritis and beriberi were caused by a deficiency of some essential ingredient missing in polished rice.

From there, Funk performed a series of tests which fractured rice polishings into two sections, A and B. He gave one set of polyneuritis-stricken pigeons fraction A, and another set of pigeons fraction B. The pigeons which were given fraction A died, while the group that was given fraction B recovered. Funk further broke down fraction B, and discovered that very small “trace elements” of fraction B could cure pigeons of polyneuritis. He named this trace element a vitamin: “vita” meaning life and “amine” meaning a nitrogen-containing compound.  The word “vitamin” then, stands for “a life-sustaining compound containing nitrogen.” (Though as it turns out, Funk was mistaken about the “amine” part.) Funk named this first vitamin “B1,” now known as thiamine. He published his second paper on the vitamins, “On the Chemical Nature of the Substance which Cures Polyneuritis in Birds Induced by a Diet of Polished Rice,” in 1911.

Funk was sure that more than one substance like Vitamin B1 existed, and in his 1912 article for the Journal of State Medicine, he proposed the existence of at least four vitamins: one preventing beriberi (“antiberiberi”); one preventing scurvy (“antiscorbutic”); one preventing pellagra (“antipellagric”); and one preventing rickets (“antirachitic”). From there, Funk published a book, The Vitamines, in 1912, and later that year received a Beit Fellowship to continue his research.

For several years following the publication of his book, Funk served as director of the Hygiene Institute in Warsaw. At the Institute, he cured dementia symptoms in patients who suffering from pellagra by giving them vitamin B1 and adding yeast to their diet. Funk was correct in his supposition that vitamins are required for the proper metabolism of nervous tissues, and that the lack of vitamins causes the body to extract nutrients from its tissues, thus leading to weight loss as those vital resources are depleted. In 1922 Funk and Harry Dubin successfully created and marketed the first vitamin supplement containing vitamins A and D, found in cod liver oil. It was called “Oscodal” and was sold widely as a product used mostly in infant therapy.

Casimir Funk died in New York in 1967 at the age of 83.  His discovery of the vitamins is widely acknowledged as having catalyzed many more studies on and discoveries related to nutrition and health.  Among them was a 1928 project in which, after a number of efforts, physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi was able to separate vitamin C from citrus fruits – the first instance of success in obtaining a pure vitamin. Within a few years, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) became recognized as a substance that greatly improved one’s health, and in the 1960s Linus Pauling began to take a special interest…

[Ed Note: Over the next four weeks we will mark the centenary of Casimir Funk’s discovery of the vitamins by examining a number of specific aspects of Pauling’s Vitamin C and the Common Cold.]

6 Responses

  1. […] Caismir Funk’s first work on vitamins in 1911, there was a notable emphasis on vitamins and their impact in American popular press and […]

  2. Great article
    I am writting an piece about Casimir Funk and would like to use the images of him and OSCODAL in a scientific publication. What is the copyright situation? Can I get permission to use them?
    Simon Spedding

  3. […] them when the twentieth-century began. It wasn’t until the early years when some doctors (Casimir Funk and Sir Frederick Hopkins among them) realized that there were deficiencies  in the nutritional […]

  4. […] up by studying the chemistry of individual foods, across the Atlantic, a Polish scientist named Casimir Funk was studying nutrition from the top down by starting with human […]

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