Skip to main content
No. 567:
Vitamins and Beriberi

Today, we talk about sick chickens and creativity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The word beriberi comes from the Singhalese word for extreme weakness. Weakness is the first symptom of beriberi. After that, neuritis, edema, paralysis and heart failure! It's no fun.

Beriberi became a great horror in colonial Asia during the nineteenth century. Finally Pasteur found that microbes cause disease. So, in 1886, the Dutch East India Company sent a team to Djakarta to find the offending beriberi germ.

The team put blood, saliva, and urine under the microscope. They tried everything and found out nothing. Finally, after nine months, they left their youngest member in charge of a tiny permanent station. They gave up and went home.

The young man was Christian Eijkman. For ten years he kept working on the problem. At one point, the chickens at the station came down with beriberi-like symptoms. They were sick for several months. Several even died. Then the rest recovered.

At first Eijkman shrugged that off. Then something caught his eye. The chickens got sick after a usual shipment of brown rice hadn't shown up. The cook had provided white rice for them. After a while, the superintendent found out. He said, "Stop this! White rice costs too much!" They switched the chickens back to brown rice. That was when they got well.

Polished white rice was a 19th-century refinement. Maybe it held the secret. So Eijkman went to local jails to check menus. Where they served brown rice, there was little beriberi. Where they served white rice, beriberi was a terrible problem.

What'd that mean? Eijkman decided that germs didn't cause beriberi after all. The rice must hold some kind of poison. The brown colored bran must carry the antidote. That solved the immediate problem. But his explanation was far off the mark.

Years later, a Pole named Casimir Funk realized what was going on. The husks contained a nutrient that we must have, but which the body can't produce. He found these nutrients come in other foods as well. Funk gave them a name. He called them vitamins. The vitamin in rice bran is thiamine or vitamin B-1.

That was in 1936. By now, Eijkman had the Nobel Prize for finding a nonbacterial disease. Maybe Funk didn't get his due, but I can't begrudge Christian Eijkman. After all, we've seen over and over in this series that the heart of creativity is recognition. And that's what Eijkman did. When he recognized what'd happened to those chickens, the rest of the discovery followed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Watson, L., The Birdman of Batavia. The Sciences, January/February 1989, pp. 36-37.

See also Encyclopaedia Britannica listings under beriberi, Nobel Prize, and Eijkman. Also note that Djakarta was actually called Batavia when Eijkman was there.