It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E?

The vitamins found in the fruits and vegetables we eat are essential for good health. But how and by whom were these vitamins discovered? Why were these microscopic substances given these names? Here is the little-known history of the nutrients we consume every day...

11 mins read
It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E?

Vitamins are essential for a healthy life. We all know the basic sources and benefits of vitamins. In winter, we immediately turn to vitamin C against colds, and in summer we try to get plenty of sunshine to produce vitamin D.

But where do the names of these vitamins come from? Why do we skip to the letter K after vitamins A, B, C, D, E? Are there vitamins F or G that we don’t know exist yet?

FIRST NITROGEN, THEN PROTEIN

Truth be told, humanity has been aware of the relationship between nutrition and health since time immemorial. For example, the words of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who lived between 460-377 BC, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” are often remembered even today.

But it took hundreds of years for modern nutrition research to emerge. This was preceded by advances in chemistry, physics and biology.

The first studies on nutrition focused on the element nitrogen, discovered in 1772. Scientists studied the effect of the presence or absence of nitrogen in food on disease and health in humans and animals.

It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E? 1
Gerardus Johannes Mulder

Then, in 1839, the Dutch chemist Gerardus Mulder demonstrated the existence of an “animal substance” essential for human nutrition, the molecule we know today as protein.

For a long time after Gerardus Johannes Mulder discovered the “animal substance” protein, it was believed to be the only nutrient necessary for human health.
According to historian Kenneth Carpenter, for a very long time protein was considered the only nutrient essential for human health.

However, information was slowly emerging that foods such as fruits, vegetables and milk could alleviate the symptoms of diseases such as scurvy and rickets.

Although these diseases were common among people on restricted diets, researchers still believed that factors such as infections, spoiled or insufficiently clean food or sea air were to blame.

WHITE RICE BECAME THE NUMBER ONE SUSPECT

Sailors on long sea voyages also suffered from a disease called beriberi. It caused loss of feeling in the arms and legs, as well as heart failure.

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Japanese navy doctor Kanehiro Takaki had a theory about beriberi. In the 1880s, Takaki had noticed that beriberi was much more common among poor civilians than rich ones, and he thought that a protein-poor diet might play a role.

Around the same time, Dutch army doctor Christian Eijkman developed his own theory about beriberi after studying chickens.

Chickens on Japanese navy ships that ate a lot of white rice showed symptoms similar to beriberi. However, chickens fed rice with husks by a cook who refused to “give the army’s rice to civilian chickens” did not show the same symptoms.

From this point, Eijkman continued his research and discovered that prisoners fed white rice also suffered from beriberi. Could rice have been the source of the problem?

It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E? 2
One of the pigeons Funk uses in his work

THE SECRET WAS IN THE CRUST, NOT IN THE RICE

The Polish chemist Kazimierz (Casimir) Funk focused on the husks peeled off processed rice and began his own experiments with pigeons in the early 20th century. Pigeons fed only white rice became sick, but recovered when fed rice bran and yeast.

This discovery confirmed Takaki’s theory: Diet and beriberi were related, but protein deficiency was not the issue. According to Funk’s theory, published in 1912, the problem was the lack of another substance. Funk called this nitrogen-containing substance “vitamine”. “Vitamine” was a combination of the Latin word “vita”, meaning “life”, and “amine”, the name given to nitrogen-containing compounds.

The discovery of vitamins caused an earthquake in the scientific world. The idea that diseases could be caused by nutritional deficiencies and cured by consuming sufficient amounts of these newly discovered compounds was very exciting. “A monotonous diet should be avoided,” Funk concluded.

FIRST A, THEN B…

Researchers also wondered whether there were micronutrients associated with rickets, scurvy, goiter and many other diseases.

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Around the same time that Funk coined the term “vitamine”, US nutrition scientist Elmer McCollum was conducting a series of studies with different animal populations. It was during this period that McCollum discovered an “accessory” substance. This substance, found in some fats, played a critical role in the growth of rats. This fat-soluble substance was named “vitamin A” after the initials “accessory”.

McCollum and other scientists were also working on the substance Funk had found in rice bran. This substance was named “vitamin B” in reference to beriberi. It was later discovered that vitamin B was a complex of 8 separate water-soluble vitamins. Numbered in order of discovery, each of these substances was given names such as thiamine.

In this photograph from Funk’s article Die Vitamine, it is possible to see the effect of beriberi on humans. Before the discovery of vitamin B, beriberi was particularly prevalent in Asian societies where white rice was a staple food.

When scientists discovered that not all compounds are nitrogen-containing “amines”, the “e” at the end of Funk’s word “vitamine” was dropped. But the tradition of naming vitamins alphabetically in order of discovery continued.It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E?

Today we know that there are 4 fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and 9 water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and 8 B vitamins). The B vitamins are B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate), B12 (cobalamin).

Each of these vitamins plays a different role in human development and health.

Vitamin C was discovered in the 1920s by Albert von Szent-Györgyi. Szent-Györgyi had seen that it prevented and cured scurvy. About 10 years later, Funk put the letter C next to this substance, whose chemical structure had not yet been discovered, in his list of vitamins. Later, Szent-Györgyi and Norman Haworth called it “ascorbic” or “anti-scurvy” acid. Today, the term “ascorbic acid” is still used for vitamin C. It was McCollum who gave vitamin D its name. In addition to McCollum, this vitamin was discovered as a result of simultaneous independent work by scientists such as Edward Mellanby and Harry Steenbock. Vitamin E was discovered in 1922 and separated in 1935. Because of its role in the fertilized egg resulting in a live birth in rats, vitamin E was named “tocopherol” (tocopherol) from the Greek words meaning “birth” and “to carry”.

WHY VITAMIN KAND NOT F?

Since vitamins are named according to a certain logic, the next vitamin after E should be F, right? So where did vitamin K come from?

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We go back to 1929 to find the answer to this question.

Vitamin K was discovered at that time by Danish researcher Carl Peter Henrik Dam. Normally, this substance should have been called vitamin F. Dam’s research showed that the vitamin played a critical role in blood clotting and was published in a German scientific journal. In the article, Dam used the initials “Koagulation”, the German word for clotting. The term vitamin K became widespread and accepted after this article.

It all started with that discovery in 1772. What does the word vitamin mean? Why does vitamin K come after vitamin E? 3
The “namesake” of vitamin K is the Danish scientist Carl Peter Henrik Dam.

The last vitamin, B12, was discovered in 1948. Since then, researchers have continued to study the health benefits of the substances and the links between vitamin deficiencies and diseases. The use of vitamins to treat diseases such as pellagra and anemia has also been an important area of research. But it now seems that the discovery of vitamins has come to an end. So it’s unlikely that we’ll be talking about vitamin F or G in the future.

But this doesn’t mean that nutritional research is over. On the contrary, nutrition research is currently in its golden age. Scientists are studying even the smallest nutrients that affect human health. In other words, if it was soup when vitamins were discovered, it is now the main course. One by one, how microscopic substances shape our lives is coming to light.

Compiled from the National Geographic article “Why is there a Vitamin K but no Vitamin F?”

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