What do the Japanese military, a Dutch microbiologist, sick chickens, and rice polishers have in common?
In the 1800s, Europeans colonizing Asia brought with them steam-powered machines that completely polished rice. This rice, which was thought to be superior to unpolished rice, became very popular. As Far Eastern society’s main source of thiamine was polished to oblivion, beriberi became more prevalent and problematic.
At that time, micronutrient deficiency states were still a mystery to physicians. Kanehiro Takaki (October 30, 1849–April 13, 1920), surgeon general of the Japanese Imperial Navy, noticed a connection between sailors’ diets and their development of beriberi. White rice was replaced with barley, vegetables, fish, and meat. The incidence of beriberi dropped swiftly and was eliminated in the Japanese Navy, within six years.
Meanwhile, in the Dutch Indies, beriberi was endemic and crippling. Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutch microbiologist (August 11, 1858–November 5, 1930) who had studied with bacteriologist Robert Koch (December 11, 1843-May 27, 1910) in Berlin, was sent to research the disease in Java. Eijkman was unaware of Takaki’s findings and was convinced that beriberi was an infection.
Eijkman tried to infect chickens with a microorganism isolated from the corpses of two beriberi-related deaths. While he was striving to find the causative pathogen, Eijkman noticed that all chickens, even those having no contact with either the microorganism or other chickens, developed “a disease, in many respects strikingly similar to beriberi in man.” In fact, they had developed polyneuritis. Then, miraculously, they recovered spontaneously.
Eijkman was bewildered by this sequence of events and set out to solve the poultry mystery. He discovered that the chickens, during the time that they had been ill, had been eating leftover cooked, polished white rice from the hospital kitchen. When the cook left, however, his replacement refused to relinquish leftover rice, and they were thereafter given raw, unpolished rice. After this dietary change, the chickens recovered. Eijkman concluded that a substance in unpolished rice protected chickens against infection—he was still searching for the elusive microscopic culprit—and he called this protective substance the “anti-beriberi factor.” He thought unpolished rice contained an antidote to a bacterial toxin.
In 1906, Frederick Hopkins (1861–1947) demonstrated “accessory factors” in food, those nutrients necessary to maintain good health in addition to the carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and minerals that had previously been acknowledged as vital. In 1912, a Polish biochemist, Casimir Funk (1884–1967), thought he had isolated the anti-beriberi factor and named his discovery vitamine, from “vital amine.” Although he hadn’t isolated anti-beriberi factor—it is believed that he isolated nicotinic acid—the name vitamine remained. Eventually, in 1926, researchers were able to isolate the anti-beriberi factor in rice bran extracts. In 1929, Hopkins and Eijkman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of vitamins.
Clinicians are now well aware of alcohol abuse and the development of Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff amnestic syndrome. Phrases like wet (high output heart failure) and dry (peripheral neuropathy) beriberi were once commonly found on board exams. The clinical presentation of thiamine deficiency isn’t limited to alcoholics. For example, there is evidence that patients with end-stage renal disease on hemodialysis are at risk of becoming thiamine deficient and of developing “unexplained” encephalopathies.1 Patients who suffer congestive heart failure while on long-term diuretics are also at increased risk for thiamine deficiency.2
This account is a classic example of the fascinating way in which the discovery of these essential nutrients has evolved and serves as a wake-up call that emphasizes the current epidemic of malnutrition in hospitalized patients.