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The History of Vitamin C


The history of vitamin C goes back to the Discovery voyages of the 15th to 17th century when sailors went to sea for a long period of time-- weeks, and sometimes months. And after a while, disease would develop, or symptoms will appear among the crew, a symptom that today we know as scurvy. What happened is that the gums would start bleeding. They would get blotches over the skin. And actually, there is a description of the time of someone observing what happened when people developed this particular condition that became known as scurvy. "Legs became--swollen and puffed up while the sinews contracted and turned coal-black and, in some cases, all blotched with drops of purplish blood. Gums were so decayed that the flesh peeled off down to the roots of the teeth while the latter almost all fell out-- By February out of our group of 110 there were not ten left in good health--already eight were dead, and over fifty more were given up for lost. “The first indication that scurvy could be caused by a nutritional deficiency came about when Jacques Cartier actually landed on what was to become New France. Most of his crew suffered from scurvy, not knowing what caused the problem. Fortunately, the natives recognized the symptoms--they recognized the causes of the symptom. They realized that actually, they had a treatment for that. They approached Jacques Cartier and they suggested to him that he makes a brew made out of pine needle. And today, we know that pine needle actually is a rich source of vitamin C that can fight off scurvy. So for instance, if you're stuck in northern Canada, and you notice the first symptoms of scurvy, look around, pick up some pine needles, make yourself a brew, and this should be helpful. Now actually, vitamin C-- ascorbic acid-- is present in a number of other foods. It is also present in cabbage, and again, this could be of use. And on long trips, eventually it was realized that one could take cabbage--or sauerkraut, and use this to prevent the symptoms of scurvy. The first person to recognize that in fact, scurvy could be prevented through proper nutrition was a British surgeon by the name of James Lind. And actually, it is said that James Lind was the first one to carry a clinical trial. What he did, he gave to sailors suffering from scurvy different food, or a different potion, to see if it could make a difference. Some were given the food, some the potion-- some were not. And what they did is that they noticed that among all the different food and potion, there was one that was really important. And that one was lime. They found that lime contained some sort of nutrient that prevented scurvy. And actually, initially it was believed that it was not so much the food itself, but the acidity of the food that was helpful in preventing scurvy. So as a result, initially the British sailors were made to drink--to take-- diluted sulfuric acid, also known as oil of vitriol, to prevent scurvy. But eventually it was realized that it was the lime that was important. So on their long voyages, British sailors would take lime juice with them. And they had two ways of preventing the lime juice from oxidation. One way was to mix it together with brandy, with alcohol. And the other way, actually, was to keep it in a barrel and cover the top of the barrel with oil so that the oil would prevent air from getting into contact with the juice, with the lime juice. Now if you look at this particular slide, you'll notice that the second method, the one that involves putting it in a barrel with oil on top was used rather than the one where the juice was mixed with brandy. You know, these gentlemen were not too happy. Well, following this, it was decided that on the long voyages, all the British sailors had to drink one ounce, or to have one ounce of lime juice per day. And this became known, and this is the reason why there's a nickname associated with these British sailors, and that is limey. Now, it took a long time to determine  what the substance in lime juice was that actually did prevent this disease. It was only in 1927 when Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated the active ingredient in lime juice and citrus fruit and cabbage and the like, and found out that active ingredient was what we know today as vitamin C, ascorbic acid. And it is 10 years later in 1937 that Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Hungarian chemist, got the Nobel Prize actually for his identification of vitamin C as the substance that prevented scurvy. Adapted from edx talks on the History of Vitamins 


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