While recruiting for the Boer War in the years 1899 to 1902, the British Army Medical Service reported that fully 40 percent of volunteers were rejected for medical reasons such as deformities, rotten teeth and weak hearts, a situation which only became worse during the ensuing years of the First World War. Scientists found that British children of the day were sustained mainly on bread made from white flour as milk was in short supply.1 Many children suffered from rickets and tuberculosis, as portrayed by the beloved Charles Dickens’ character, Tiny Tim, from The Christmas Carol.2
On the other side of the great pond, medical examinations of the 1910s in the U.S. also revealed an unhealthy citizenry. Of 3.76 million men examined for service in World War I, over half a million were rejected as unfit; and of the 2.7 million called into service, about 47 percent suffered physical impairments.3 Most Americans of that time suffered some kind of health problem. In the same time period, among five thousand citizens of Framingham, Massachusetts, examined as part of a Metropolitan Life Insurance demonstration project to control tuberculosis, 77 percent were recorded as ill with some disease.4
Theories and treatments of the day designed to address this worsening crisis were abject failures. Many experts sided with the theory of eugenics, believing that some people were simply doomed as “human wastage,” their ill health a result of weak or defective genes.5 But babies of the rich and well-off were also suffering and dying.1 Great minds of the day turned to food and the diet.
GOLDEN AGE OF VITAMIN HUNTERS
Nutrition study at the beginning of the 1900s was a fledgling science, and researchers came from many fields: agriculture, biochemistry and chemistry, dentistry, anatomy, medicine, physiology, hygiene, home economics, health education, anthropology and others. The twentieth century was a golden age filled with important discoveries of essential nutrients, their roles in the prevention of disease, and the implementation of these findings into public health nutrition policy. Many Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists in the field of nutrition science. Nutrition science today is the heart and major driving force welding together diet, genetics, disease, disability, and other related fields.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the germ theory of Robert Koch and the work of Louis Pasteur guided scientific thinking. The principles of Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), who contended that food contained only three elements (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) and refused to acknowledge that any other substances could play a role in health, also dominated scientific thought and held sway over health policy for many years.1 Liebig even promoted baby formulas based on his own principles which were devoid of essential vitamins and minerals. Babies fed on these formulas developed infantile scurvy in large numbers. While the babies of the well-to-do suffered because families could afford to buy these formulas, infants of the poor suffered even more because of hunger, famine and poverty.1
In this era researchers who opposed these views were criticized, taunted and discouraged. But despite the predominant “science of the day,” scientists slowly and successfully picked apart the puzzles of the deficiency diseases such as rickets, pellagra, beriberi and scurvy, which were the major killers of that era, and the “accessory factors,” namely vitamins, became the major focus of nutrition research for the next half of the century. Indeed, that era was a golden age for nutrition research, and many important discoveries were made.1
WESTON A. PRICE
Probably the greatest nutrition researcher of the twentieth century was Dr. Weston A. Price (1870-1948), a dentist who was raised on a farm in Canada.6 With his wife, Florence, he traveled the world studying diets of indigenous peoples and recorded the effect of their diets on their dental, physical and mental health. He also documented the effects of “foods of commerce,” such as white rice, canned milk, and white flour on the facial structure, rates of dental caries and the overall physical health of these groups. His work applies not only to dentistry but also to related fields, such as anthropology, genetics, health education, chemistry, physiology and medicine.
At his Cleveland dental clinic, Dr. Price also worked extensively with children, adults and families, applying the nutrition principles he developed during his career and using the knowledge established by early scientists who had identified vitamins A, B, C, D, E and others. In his most famous work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, he cites many of these early pioneers who built the foundations of nutrition science up to his time.7
Price also was working at the height of the eugenics movement, which he addressed in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Price showed that humans suffered disease and disability, mentally as well as physically, not because of “bad genes,” but because elements of the modern diet caused degeneration in the expression of the human genome, which continued to appear in successive generations.7 Through his work he established the basis for the work we now call epigenetics.
In addition to his magnum opus, Dr. Price wrote books related to dental practice, along with many articles published in medical journals. Dr. Price’s papers (and those of other researchers) are archived at the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, founded in 1952 and presently headquartered in Lemon Grove, California, which traces its history back to 1952. PPNF publishes Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and will issue the 23rd edition of the book in summer 2015. Together with the Weston A. Price Foundation, founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD, these two organizations keep the work of Dr. Price alive and relevant today.
FJRANCIS M. POTTENGER, R.
In conjunction with the work of Dr. Price, Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. (1901-1967), a California native and the son of a physician, was best known for his epigenetic work with generations of cats and diet, which is documented in his book Pottenger’s Cats.8 From 1932 to 1942 he conducted controlled experiments with over nine hundred cats, involving three generations. Dr. Pottenger proved that cats eating fresh meat, raw milk, and cod liver oil remained healthy, whereas a group of cats eating heated milk and cooked meat began to develop health problems and degenerative diseases within the first generation.
Cats in the second and third generations developed degenerative diseases earlier: they became blind, weak, infertile, with hypothyroidism and soft bones, culminating in a short life span. Allergies increased up to 90 percent in the cats fed processed foods versus only 5 percent in the cats fed raw foods. Kittens of the third generation of cats fed cooked foods suffered adverse personality changes, with males exhibiting docility and females aggressiveness. By the fourth generation the cats were sterile and could not reproduce.
Dr. Pottenger also conducted a milk study with the cats, using pasteurized, evaporated, sweetened, condensed, and raw milk. Cats on raw milk thrived while cats on the other regimens sickened. The changes that Dr. Pottenger saw in the cats were similar to those observed by Dr. Price in his world travels when groups abandoned their native diets and adopted diets of processed foods. Some experts claim that today we are seeing the results of Pottenger’s fourth generation of cats in our younger generations of humans.
In 1940 Dr. Pottenger founded a hospital for treating lung diseases, specifically asthma, where he promoted the use of diet principles determined by Dr. Price. Butter, cream, raw milk, liver, cod liver oil, and eggs were the foundation of the patients’ diets. The records and artifacts from his research are also archived at the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation.
The course of nutrition science was driven by history, politics and economics. During World War I, just as later in World War II, women took the reins in business and industry, as well as in nutrition science. Dr. Dame Harriette Chick (1875-1977), in charge of the Lister Institute (Institute of Public Health) in London since the beginning of World War I, was concerned with the nutritional deficiency diseases of scurvy, beriberi and rickets, which often befell soldiers during military service and affected the course not only of battles, but of history. (These diseases had affected soldiers in the Civil War in America as well.1)
Along with her colleague, Dr. Elsie Dalyell (1881-1948), Dr. Chick arrived in Vienna, Austria in 1919 to minister to Vienna’s children. Vienna had been a glorious city and one of the world’s major medical centers, but with the end of World War I came the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty (a fixture since the 1200s) and war’s destructive aftermath of famine, disease, crime and insanity.1
Dr. Chick’s experiments with lab animals showed that rickets was caused by nutritional deficiency. She and her colleagues went to Vienna in 1919 to assist with the many post-war cases of childhood rickets. The head of the Kinder Institute in Vienna, Professor Clemens von Pirquet, of Vienna University, as well as many other practitioners of the time and before him, believed rickets to be an infectious disease and so consequently no progress had been made in curing the condition in two centuries. Many infants and children were dying from the illness. In 1909, among infants aged eighteen months or less who died, 96 percent were afflicted with rickets.9 However, Dr. Chick, working with malnourished children in Viennese clinics, showed that rickets could be cured by the administration of whole milk and cod liver oil.10,11
Rickets, the “English disease,” was common among impoverished urban children at that time not only in postwar Europe but also in America. The condition included soft bones, bandy and bowed legs, deformed spines, dental caries, swollen joints, large heads and mental health problems.1
In a 1917 paper, two pediatricians from New York found that 90 percent of African-American children had rickets. A group of these babies were fed cod liver oil and matured normally. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, numerous researchers worked on the rickets dilemma. Through experiments with animals, cod liver oil and sunshine were shown to be keys to solving the puzzle.9 The development of the X-ray by Marie and Pierre Curie led to more understanding of the disease. Marie was a Polish physicist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two of them. During WWI she set up the first military field radiology centers.12
Casimir Funk (1884-1967) was the first of the vitamin hunters to coin the term “vitamines” —vital amines—in 1912 for the unidentified substances present in food which could prevent the diseases scurvy, beriberi and pellagra. Dr. Funk was a Polish scientist who worked in Paris and also at the Lister Institute during the early twentieth century.13
Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), a British biochemist, was an amazingly influential researcher in whose lab many young European scientists trained. Biochemistry was not yet recognized as a discipline in the early days of his career. His best known work, published in 1912, debunked Justus von Liebig’s and others’ longstanding belief that pure proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals were all that were needed for growth.14 He named those yet unidentified mysterious substances, vital in small quantities for animal growth and survival, “accessory food factors,” later renamed vitamins. It was this work that led to his receiving (together with Christiaan Eijkman) the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.15 He also discovered the amino acid tryptophan in 1901.
During the rationing and food shortages of World War I, Hopkins studied margarine and found it inferior to butter because it lacked vitamins A and D. In relation to this work, British government policy supported vitamin-enriched margarine in 1926.16 Hopkins was President of the Royal Society from 1930 to 1935.17
EDWARD AND MAY MELLANBY
Sir Edward Mellanby (1864-1955) was a highly respected British physician and professor of pharmacology at the University of Sheffield in England and a true nutrition pioneer who followed the experimental method to investigate diseases using puppies and dogs. In 1918 he found that feeding dogs oatmeal caused rickets because the phytic acid content in the oatmeal reduced the availability of calcium. He discovered that the condition could be cured with cod liver oil. Dr. Mellanby concluded that rickets was caused by a dietary factor. He diagnosed rickets by X-ray examination, bone-calcium assay, and histology of bone, and noted that the gross appearance of the dogs’ bones was quite similar to that of rachitic children.26,27 The missing element was a fat-soluble essential dietary factor. He wrote: “Rickets is a deficiency disease which develops in consequence of the absence of some accessory food factor or factors. It therefore seems probable that the cause of rickets is a diminished intake of an anti-rachitic factor, which is either [McCollum’s] fat-soluble factor A, or has a similar distribution to it.”26,27
Together with his wife, May (1882-1978), the Mellanbys devoted their careers to studying nutritional deficiency diseases, such as rickets and pellagra. During World War II, Dr. Mellanby acted as a scientific advisor to the British War Cabinet and exerted a strong influence on government food policy.28
Lady May Tweedy was a lecturer at Bedford College in London when she met Edward Mellanby. She was born into a rich merchant family and studied at Cambridge University. After their marriage the focus of her work turned more towards nutritionally related topics. In 1917 she noticed that the structure of teeth in dogs with rickets was altered by a change in the diet. In 1918 she began dental research for the Medical Research Council and during the 1920s and 1930s she conducted dietary trials with children in institutions. She published many papers in the British Medical Journal and British Dental Journal. Mrs. Mellanby and associate showed that even badly formed teeth attacked by caries could increase their resistance to caries so that the decay process was slowed and even stopped by the vitamin D in cod liver oil.28,29
Dr. Mellanby’s major work, Nutrition and Disease, published in 1934, devoted a chapter to Mrs. Mellanby’s research on diet and dental decay.30 The Mellanby papers are housed at the Wellcome Library in London.
HERBERT McLEAN EVANS
Herbert McLean Evans, MD (1882-1971), a California native, was an anatomist and embryologist who obtained his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and was an associate professor there. Later he was professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
In his research, Evans studied human nutrition and other sciences. In 1922, with his associate, Katharine Scott Bishop (1889-1976), he discovered vitamin E, which was called the “fertility factor.” Vitamin E deficiency is associated with increased infection, anemia, stunted growth, poor outcomes in pregnancy, and reproductive failure. Rat pups deprived of vitamin E in Evans’ and Bishop’s experiments became partially paralyzed. Adult rats survived without vitamin E but were sterile and pregnancies were resorbed. In 1937, Dr. Evans isolated vitamin E from wheat germ. Vitamin E destroyed “free radicals” and was itself destroyed in the process. The author of more than seven books and numerous articles, Dr. Evans was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
HENRIK DAM AND VITAMIN K
Henrik Dam (1895-1976) was a Danish biochemist and physiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1943 for the discovery of vitamin K with Edward Doisy. For his work he used chickens as experimental animals. Dr. Dam called the new vitamin “koagulation,” (German for coagulation), thus vitamin K.
ALBERT SZENT-GYÖRGYI: VITAMIN C
The Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi, MD (1893-1986), won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1937 for his discovery of vitamin C.36 He had a very colorful history as a freedom fighter and covert diplomat while serving in both World Wars. Adolf Hitler personally issued a warrant for his arrest because of his resistance activities. After the Communists took over Hungary he immigrated to the U.S.35
He was a Rockefeller Fellow at Cambridge, visiting professor at Harvard, and held a research position at the National Institutes of Health. In 1948, he was selected as a member of the National Academy of Science.35
In the 1930s, Szent-Györgyi discovered vitamin C, “the anti-scorbutic factor,” as well as components and reactions of the citric acid cycle. In some experiments he used paprika, a famous national food product, as a source of the vitamin and as the Hungarian cure for scurvy. He also discovered actin and myelin in muscle tissue. His later work was concerned with cancer, and he founded the National Foundation for Cancer Research in 1973.35
ALFRED FABIAN HESS AND ADOLF WINDAUS: VITAMIN D
Dr. Alfred Fabian Hess (1875-1933), a graduate of Harvard, earned his MD from Columbia University and studied medicine in Berlin, Prague and Vienna. He spent time at the Rockefeller Institute as well. In 1921 he observed that ultraviolet (UV) light cured rickets. Dr. Hess worked with Harriette Chick and her team to cure rickets among children in Vienna. He founded the Tuberculosis Preventorium for children in New Jersey, and was professor of pediatrics at New York University. In 1925 he isolated sitosterol. When irradiated by UV light, both sitosterol and cholesterol from the rat brain were active against rickets.37
Hess and his team proposed the hypothesis that “it would seem quite possible that the cholesterol (which we now know as 7-dehydrocholesterol) in the skin is normally activated by UV-irradiation and rendered anti-rachitic—that the solar rays and artificial radiations can bring about this conversion. This point of view regards the superficial skin as an organ, which reacts to particular light waves rather than as a mere protective covering.”38
From 1919-1922 Hess was concerned mainly with the study of rickets, heliotherapy (curing with sunlight), infant feeding, irradiated ergosterol and cod liver oil, particularly with its potency in connection with rickets, as well as irradiation of milk, dental caries and minerals in human milk and cow milk.37
Hess asked the German steroid chemist Adolf Windaus (1876-1959) to work on the substance of cholesterol and the anti-rachitic factor. Windaus and Hess worked together to test over thirty different plant substances before they finally isolated ergosterol, a fungal steroid from ergot which when irradiated was effective in curing rickets. They named this substance vitamin D2.37 It was purified in 1931 by Windaus and his team who also established its structure in 1936. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. In 1937 Windaus and Beck isolated 7-dehydrocholesterol (7 DHC), which when irradiated became vitamin D3, present in animals, human skin, and animal-source foods, and synthesized it in 1935. Windaus went on to establish the formula for cholesterol, its relationship to bile acids, and other functions.39,41
It wasn’t until 1980 that the sequence of steps leading to the production of cholecalciferol in the skin was described by Michael F. Holick, PhD, one of the current vitamin D experts.42
HARRY STEENBOCK AND VITAMIN D
Harry Steenbock (1886-1967) was one of the first students of E.V. McCollum (see page 51) at the University of Wisconsin; he later became professor of biochemistry at the same university. He demonstrated in 1924 that irradiation by ultraviolet light increased the vitamin D content of food, especially milk, and that it cured rickets in rats. Quaker Oats offered him one million dollars for his patent on his technique but Steenbock gave the rights to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which he founded with other alumni. WARF then sold the patent to Quaker Oats and also licensed the technology for pharmaceutical companies for the patented medical application called “Viosterol,” which eventually almost completely replaced cod liver oil as a treatment for rickets.43
According to the Vitamin D Council, “in 1943 the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals stripped Steenbock of his patent, labeling Professor Steenbock’s work a ̔discovery̕ and not an invention. By that time, Steenbock’s patent had already delivered 7.5 million dollars to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. That is equal to about one hundred million dollars in 2012.” 44
Early on, vitamin D was measured in Steenbock Units or Oslo Rat Units defined as “the total amount of vitamin D which will produce a narrow line of calcium deposits in the rachitic metaphysis of the distal ends of the radii and ulnae of standard rachitic rats in a period of ten days.” Steenbock Units were declared to equal 3.2 IUs (international units). To add to the confusion, also in existence were U.S.P. (United States Pharmacopeia) units, ADMA units (American Drug Manufacturers Association), and others.45
After their discovery, vitamins D2 and D3 were considered equivalent in vitamin potency, a confusion that continues today and is propagated by Dr. Holick.46 Many recent papers discuss the biochemical difference.47 But already early papers discussed the fact that more and more viosterol (ergosterol) was needed to cure rickets, and that high amounts cause vitamin D hypervitaminosis. 48 Dr. Weston Price, throughout his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, criticized the overuse of viosterol and considered it dangerous as it led to calcification of the soft tissues.49
JOSEPH GOLDBERGER: VITAMIN B3 AND THE PUZZLE OF PELLAGRA
Pellagra, from the Italian word meaning “rough skin,” a deficiency disease of vitamin B3 (niacin), was widespread during the American Civil War and in the southern states of the U.S. in the nineteenth century. It was very common among inmates of lunatic asylums and prisons.1
In 1912 around thirty thousand cases were reported in South Carolina with a 40 percent mortality rate. Pellagra commissions were set up by Congress and private individuals, but these authorities denied that pellagra could be caused by malnutrition. The official cause was deemed either syphilis, sun exposure, corn toxin, or a disease imported by immigrants. In 1914 the Surgeon General appointed Dr. Goldberger (1874-1929), an officer in the Public Health Service and a “seasoned epidemiologist,” himself an immigrant son from the East Coast, to investigate pellagra and determine its cause.
Dr. Goldberger immediately noted that staffs in institutions where pellagra was rampant were not affected by the disease. The inmates and the poor ate diets largely restricted to fatback, cornmeal, sweet potatoes and molasses. But other public health officials and administrators called his conclusions regarding diet “absurd,” relying on the current eugenics theories that only inferior “human wastage” ended up impoverished or in institutions and that susceptibility to disease was racially determined. Even though Dr. Goldberger proved through his dietary experiments with convicts that pellagra was a condition of malnutrition, he was still accused of fudging his results, and criticized even by E.V. McCollum. Totally frustrated, he and six volunteers injected themselves with the blood of pellagra patients, as well as rubbed nose secretions into their mouths, and ingested urine, feces, and skin scabs mixed in a flour paste from patients. The fact that they did not contract pellagra still did not convince the medical profession that pellagra was caused by a vitamin deficiency. But at universities and in Europe, his work was praised and he was nominated twice for a Nobel Prize. Goldberger, again back in the South, was asked to intervene when an epidemic of pellagra struck after widespread flooding in 1927. He recommended brewer’s yeast, which was a huge success and saved many lives.1
Dr. Goldberger died prematurely in 1929 of a rare cancer and never succeeded in isolating the substance lacking in the diet of those with pellagra. Conrad Elevjhem (1901-1962) did so when he experimentally fed a similar diet to dogs. They developed “black tongue” and could be cured by feeding them nicotinic acid (niacin) contained in fresh meat or brewer’s yeast. With the Great Depression, the 1930s saw a resurgence in the incidence of pellagra, also called the disease of four Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death. After the discovery of vitamin B3 as a preventive, pellagra rates fell rapidly. These nutrition advances led to the enrichment of all flour with niacin, along with iron, thiamin and riboflavin. After World War II pellagra was considered a disease of the past.1
The remainder of the vitamins we know today were also discovered in the first half of the twentieth century. These include all members of the B-vitamin family, including B12 and folic acid, as well as vitamin K2 and others.1
A NEW FOCUS
Research during the second half of the twentieth century turned from curing nutritional deficiencies and infectious diseases to exploring the role of nutrition in chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. The new direction began in the 1950s with the start of the Framingham Heart Study and the research of “Dr. Cholesterol,” Ancel Keys. Fat, particularly saturated fat, and cholesterol were identified as the culprits in the development of heart disease, and dietitians were taught to recommend severe restrictions of these “villains.”50,51 Sadly, the Standard American Diet (SAD), largely a result of the now-failed nutrition policy from the 1950s onward, resulted in a staggering upward trend in the incidence of all these diseases.52
The vitamin deficiency diseases are again appearing among children, immigrants, and the poor, while subclinical deficiencies are also seen in the general population.53 From 2014 on, scientists cannot help but admit that this paradigm of condemning traditional saturated fats is not only just plain wrong but dangerous. Butter is once again becoming popular,54 replacing rancid vegetable oils that were pushed so heavily for decades.55 As in the days of Weston Price, the nutritional value of the commercial food supply continues to decline as processed, artificial and genetically modified foods become the mainstay along with increasingly poor physical and mental health of the American population.56
Yet burgeoning public awareness and grassroots initiatives spurred on by organizations like the Weston A. Price Foundation continue to inspire everyday citizens to take a stand and fight for their food rights by supporting small farmers and farmers markets, tending organic gardens, and cooking wholesome, delicious meals at home where future generations will be nurtured.
ELMER V. McCOLLUM, AKA “DR. VITAMIN,” LAFAYETTE MENDEL, AND THOMAS OSBORNE
In a commentary on his life, Time magazine stated in 1951 that, “Dr. Vitamin has done more than any other man to put vitamins back in the nation’s bread and milk, to put fruit on American breakfast tables, fresh vegetables and salad greens in the daily diet.”18 Elmer McCollum believed that milk was the greatest of “protective foods” for health. A farm boy from Kansas, McCollum became a giant in the field of nutritional biochemistry.
McCollum earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1906 and started work with farm animals at the University of Wisconsin. When he began his career, few physicians or public health officials in America took the relationship between diet and disease seriously, and few saw the connection between animal experiments and human health. The principles of Justus von Liebig, which stated that food provided only three components—fat, protein, carbohydrate—and perhaps small amounts of a few minerals, was still the mainstream thought on nutrition. When McCollum accepted his position at the University of Wisconsin, his colleagues at Yale asked him why he wanted to “work in a field which had already been figured out.”19
McCollum and his colleagues conducted experiments to determine which food rations would best promote the growth of cattle and other economically important farm animals. McCollum also pioneered the use of small animals on purified diets for experimental studies in nutrition, insisting on their unequaled value as test animals. Despite the indignant reaction of the School of Hygiene and Public Health at the U of W to the presence of lab “vermin,” he established the nation’s first colony of white rats for nutritional research, which led to the isolation of the first known fat-soluble vitamins between 1912 and 1915, later called vitamins A and D, and water-soluble vitamin B. McCollum confided to a colleague that his rat colony was the key to all his successes in nutritional science, which were many.20
Scientists made note of deficiency-disease symptoms in humans. Using lab rats and purified diets they induced these diseases in small animals and birds, and then figured out how to cure them with dietary substances. But rats were and remained the major “workhorses” in nutrition science. After this initial work was completed and verified by various laboratories, the next step was to isolate the substance that was vital to prevent a particular disease.
At Yale University in 1913, also using rats for experimental research, Layfayette Mendel (1872-1935) and Thomas B. Osborne (1859-1929) co-discovered vitamin A in butter independently of E.V. McCollum. They also found that lack of vitamin A led to the development of xerophthalmia, an eye condition that caused blindness. They also established the essential amino acids and in 1910 discovered vitamin B.21 Dr. McCollum had worked with Drs. Osborne and Mendel while studying at Yale. It was Mendel who helped him obtain his first position at the University of Wisconsin.
McCollum and his lab assistant Marguerite Davis shortened the name “vitamines” to “vitamins” and in 1916 proposed an alphabetical designation preceded by a notation of the solubility of the factor, thus fat-soluble A and water-soluble B. This was the beginning of the common nomenclature for vitamins.22
In 1917 Johns Hopkins University recruited Dr. McCollum as the first chair and professor in its newly established department of chemical hygiene where he remained until retirement. While at Johns Hopkins he studied the nutritional status of children in orphanages and schools and gave many public lectures on nutrition. In addition to Marguerite Davis, his research colleagues included Nina Simmonds and J. Ernestine Becker.22
Some of his most important research explored the relationship of diet, sunshine and rickets by experiments with rats. This research demonstrated the role of “a vitamin whose specific property is to regulate the metabolism of bones” (later called vitamin D) in preventing childhood rickets and led to the widespread supplementation of diets with vitamin D-rich cod liver oil.23
In 1920 McCollum’s team found that the fat-soluble factor A in butterfat could be destroyed by heating and aeration. Butterfat so treated no longer had growth-promoting activity; rats fed the treated butterfat developed xerophthalmia and died within 50 days. But the key experiment was performed by McCollum and his co-workers in 1922, when they observed that heated and oxidized cod-liver oil could not prevent xerophthalmia but could cure rickets in rats. “This shows that oxidation destroys fat-soluble A without destroying another substance which plays an important role in bone
McCollum’s belief that many other diseases of unknown origin, including mental illnesses, could be traced to nutritional deficiencies motivated his research into the effects of other inorganic elements including aluminum, boron, calcium, cobalt, potassium, phosphorus, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc and sodium. He published one hundred papers at Johns Hopkins, reporting his research on tooth decay, vitamins D and E, and the role of minerals. He wrote many books including his classic textbook, The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition, which passed through multiple editions.24
Dr. McCollum died on November 15, 1967, at the age of eighty-eight. Shortly before his death, he remarked: “I have had an exceptionally pleasant life and am thankful.” His papers are housed at Johns Hopkins University.18
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This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2015