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History of vitamin C

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Today it is very well known that vitamin C is an essential nutrient for humans, however, as the history of vitamin C shows, it took a long time before this was generally recognized.

The need to include fresh plant food or raw animal flesh in the diet to prevent disease was known from ancient times. Native peoples living in marginal areas incorporated this into their medicinal lore. For example, infusions of spruce needles were used in the temperate zones, or the leaves from species of drought-resistant trees in desert areas. In 1536, the French explorer Jacques Cartier, exploring the St. Lawrence River, used the local natives' knowledge to save his men who were dying of scurvy. He boiled the needles of the arbor vitae tree to make a tea that was later shown to contain 50 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams.[1][2]

Through history the benefit of plant food for the survival of sieges and long sea voyages was recommended by enlightened authorities. John Woodall, the first appointed surgeon to the British East India Company, recommended the use of lemon juice as a preventive and cure in his book "The Surgeon's Mate" of 1617. The Dutch writer, Johann Bachstrom of Leyden, in 1734, gave the firm opinion that "scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens; which is alone the primary cause of the disease."

The first attempt to give scientific basis for the cause of scurvy was by a ship's surgeon in the British Royal Navy, James Lind. While at sea in May 1747, Lind provided some crewmembers with two oranges and one lemon per day, in addition to normal rations, while others continued on cider, vinegar or seawater, along with their normal rations. In the history of science this is considered to be the first example of a controlled experiment comparing results on two populations of a factor applied to one group only with all other factors the same. The results conclusively showed that citrus fruits prevented the disease. Lind wrote up his work and published it in 1753, in Treatise on the Scurvy.

Lind's work was slow to be noticed, partly because he gave conflicting evidence within the book and partly because of social inertia in some elements at the British admiralty who saw care for the well-being of ships' crew as a sign of weakness. There was also the fact that fresh fruit was very expensive to keep on board, whereas boiling it down to juice allowed easy storage but destroyed the vitamin. Ships' captains assumed wrongly that it didn't work, because the juice failed to cure scurvy. (Indeed, boiling in copper kettles may have destroyed the vitamin. See reference under Food preparation, above.)

It was 1795 before the British navy adopted lemons or lime as standard issue at sea. Limes were more popular as they could be found in British West Indian Colonies, unlike lemons which weren't found in British Dominions, and were therefore more expensive. (This practice led to the nickname limey for British people, especially British sailors.) Captain James Cook had previously demonstrated and proven the principle of the advantages of fresh and preserved foods, such as sauerkraut, by taking his crews to the Hawaiian Islands and beyond without losing any of his men to scurvy. For this otherwise unheard of feat, the British Admiralty awarded him a medal. So, the Navy was certainly well aware of the principle. The cost of providing fresh fruit on board was probably a factor in this long delay. The Captains usually provided luxuries or non-standard supplies not provided by the Admiralty.

The name "antiscorbutic" was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as general term for those foods known to prevent scurvy, even though there was no understanding of the reason for this. These foods include lemons, limes, and oranges; sauerkraut, salted cabbage, malt, and portable soup were employed with variable effect.

In 1907, Axel Holst and Theodor Frølich, two Norwegian physicians studying beriberi contracted aboard ship's crews in the Norwegian Fishing Fleet, wanted a small test mammal to substitute for the pigeons they used. They fed guinea pigs the test diet, which had earlier produced beriberi in their pigeons, and were surprised when scurvy resulted instead. Until that time scurvy had not been observed in any organism apart from humans, and it was considered an exclusively human disease.

In the early twentieth century, the Polish-American scientist Casimir Funk conducted research into deficiency diseases, and in 1912 Funk developed the concept of vitamins, for the elements in food which are essential to health. Then, from 1928 to 1933, the Hungarian research team of Joseph L Svirbely and Albert Szent-Györgyi and, independently, the American Charles Glen King, first isolated vitamin C and showed it to be ascorbic acid.

In 1928 the arctic anthropologist and adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson attempted to prove his theory of how Eskimo (Inuit) people are able to avoid scurvy with almost no plant food in their diet. This had long been a puzzle because the disease had struck European Arctic explorers living on similar high-meat diets. Stefansson theorised that the native peoples of the Arctic got their vitamin C from fresh meat that was raw or minimally cooked. Starting in February 1928, for one year he and a colleague lived on an animal-flesh-only diet under medical supervision at New York's Bellevue Hospital; they remained healthy.

In 1933 – 1934, the British chemists Sir Walter Norman Haworth and Sir Edmund Hirst and, independently, the Polish Tadeus Reichstein, succeeded in synthesizing the vitamin, the first to be artificially produced. This made possible the cheap mass production of vitamin C. Haworth was awarded the 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry largely for this work. The synthetic form of the vitamin is identical to the natural form.

The Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche was the first to mass-produce synthetic vitamin C, under the brand name of Redoxon, in 1934.

In 1959 the American J.J. Burns showed that the reason some mammals were susceptible to scurvy was the inability of their liver to produce the active enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase, which is the last of the chain of four enzymes which synthesize ascorbic acid.

American biochemist Irwin Stone was the first to exploit vitamin C for its food preservative properties and held patents on this. He developed the theory that vitamin C was an essential nutrient deficient in humans as a result of a genetic defect that afflicted the whole human race.


  1. Jacques Cartier's Second Voyage , 1535 Winter & Scurvy
  2. Jacques Cartier witnesses a treatment for scurvy. NCBI Pb Med, 2002 Jun, Martini E.