Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Voyagers’ Vitamin– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Amazing Discovery–Part I


What does shipbuilding and the invention of navigational compass have to do with Vitamin C?

A lot, actually.

The world knew about scurvy for thousands of years. Susruta and Hipoocrates and Pliny described the disease as did the Ebers Papyrus and the Talmud. But it was only during the age of the great sea explorations that began with Columbus’ voyages when scurvy became the dreaded scourge that mercilessly decimated ship’s crews.


It was because till then, sea voyages were short, since the ships and navigational techniques did not stretch to accommodate longer trips. But during the fifteenth century, the technological advances in the design of the compass and in shipbuilding made possible larger ships and more sophisticated navigational techniques that would allow seafarers longer sea voyages. It also meant that ships’ crews had to go for longer periods of time on food that was mainly “salt pork, biscuit and grog” – in other words, without fresh fruits or vegetables. It is estimated that over a million seamen may have died in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from scurvy, earning it titles like the “explorer’s sickness” and “the plague of the sea”.

Naturally, the terrible devastation instigated a search for cures, but it was sporadic and lacked the backing of the governments of the seafaring nations. In 1617, John Woodall, the first surgeon-general to the East India Company wrote “The Surgeon’s Mate”, considered to be the pioneering treatise in the practice of naval medicine. In this, he clearly states that scurvy could be treated by “the juice of vegetables and fruit”, which included lemons and oranges! But despite this, no systematic and sustained effort to find a cure for scurvy was made and ships’ crews suffered terribly. It was only in 1741, when of the 1955 sailors aboard a British convoy of seven ships on a mission to harass Spanish shipping in the Pacific Ocean, only 145 returned, that the British authorities were shocked into action.

Even so, the answers came more than ten years later. In 1753, James Lind, a Scottish doctor, conducted clinical trials that proved that including lime juice in the diet prevented scurvy. In spite of this, it took another almost another forty years for Lind’s findings to be “officially” accepted and in 1795 it became mandatory for British sailors to carry limes on long voyages. (The nickname of “limey” for the British is a result of this practice!)

Of course, even then, the medical community did not know that it was the deficiency of vitamin C that caused scurvy and that the reason why fruits like lemons and oranges were so successful in treating it is because they contained very high amounts of this vitamin. In fact, the concept of a vitamin was first developed only in 1912 by the Polish-American biochemist Casimir Funk. And it was almost two decades later, in 1928, that two teams, one American and one Hungarian, discovered vitamin C. (At the time, it was called ascorbic acid, arising from its anti-scorbutic action or ability to prevent scurvy). It won the Hungarian team of two scientists, Szent-Györgyi and Joseph Svirbely the Nobel Prize for chemistry. ……

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