The History of Vitamins: Special Factors in Food

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Vitamins are a 20th-century discovery. While people always felt properties of some foods were important to health before the opening decades of the 1900s, it wasn't until after the turn of the century that these factors were identified and synthesized.

Discovery of Vitamins as a Factor

In 1905, an Englishmen named William Fletcher became the first scientist to determine whether the removal of special factors, known as vitamins, from food would lead to diseases. Doctor Fletcher made the discovery while researching the causes of the disease Beriberi. Eating unpolished rice, it seemed, prevented Beriberi while eating polished rice did not. Hence, Fletcher suspected that there were special nutrients contained in the husk of the rice removed during the polishing process that played a role. 

In 1906, English biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins also found that certain food factors (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals) were important to growth in the human body: his work led to his receiving (together with Christiaan Eijkman) the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1912, Polish scientist Cashmir Funk named the special nutritional parts of food a "vitamine" after "vita," which meant life, and "amine" from compounds found in the thiamine he isolated from rice husks. Vitamine was later shortened to vitamin. Together, Hopkins and Funk formulated the vitamin hypothesis of deficiency disease, which asserts that a lack of vitamins could make you sick.

Specific Vitamin Discoveries

Throughout the 20th century, scientists were able to isolate and identify the various vitamins found in food. Here is a short history of some of the more popular vitamins.

  • Vitamin A (a group of fat-soluble retinoids, including retinol, retinal, and retinyl esters— Elmer V. McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered Vitamin A around 1912 to 1914. In 1913, Yale researchers Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel discovered that butter contained a fat-soluble nutrient soon known as vitamin A. Vitamin A was first synthesized in 1947. 
  • Vitamin B (known as biotin, a water-soluble vitamin that helps the body convert carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy)—Elmer V. McCollum also discovered Vitamin B sometime around 1915–1916.
  • Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine, a water-soluble B vitamin that plays a critical role in energy metabolism) —Casimir Funk discovered Vitamin B1 (thiamine) in 1912.
  • Vitamin B2 (also known as riboflavin, an important role in energy production, cellular function, and metabolism)— D. T. Smith, E. G. Hendrick discovered B2 in 1926. Max Tishler invented methods for synthesizing the essential vitamin B2.
  • Niacin—American Conrad Elvehjem discovered Niacin in 1937.
  • Folic acid— Lucy Wills discovered Folic acid in 1933.
  • Vitamin B6 (six compounds which are extremely versatile and primarily work on protein metabolism)— Paul Gyorgy discovered Vitamin B6 in 1934.
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, required for the biosynthesis of collagen)—In 1747, Scottish naval surgeon James Lind discovered that a nutrient in citrus foods prevented scurvy. It was re-discovered and identified by Norwegian researchers A. Hoist and T. Froelich in 1912. In 1935, Vitamin C became the first vitamin to be artificially synthesized. The process was invented by Dr. Tadeusz Reichstein of the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich.
  • Vitamin D (promotes calcium absorption in the gut and enable bone mineralization)— In 1922, Edward Mellanby discovered Vitamin D while researching a disease called rickets. 
  • Vitamin E (important anti-oxidant)— In 1922, University of California researchers Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop discovered Vitamin E in green leafy vegetables. 

Coenzyme Q10

In a report called “Coenzyme Q10 - The Energizing Antioxidant,” issued by Kyowa Hakko USA, a physician named Dr. Erika Schwartz MD wrote:

"Coenzyme Q10 was discovered by Dr. Frederick Crane, a plant physiologist at the University of Wisconsin Enzyme Institute, in 1957. Utilizing specialized fermentation technology developed by Japanese manufacturers, cost-effective production of CoQ10 began in the mid-1960s. To this day, fermentation remains the dominant production method around the globe."

In 1958, Dr. D.E. Wolf, working under Dr. Karl Folkers (Folkers leading a team of researchers at Merck Laboratories), first described the chemical structure of coenzyme Q10. Dr. Folkers later received the 1986 Priestly Medal from the American Chemical Society for his research on coenzyme Q10.


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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Vitamins: Special Factors in Food." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, July 31). The History of Vitamins: Special Factors in Food. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Vitamins: Special Factors in Food." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).