Vitamins Come to Dinner

In the late 1950s a number of vitamin producers marketed their pills in apothecary-style bottles. The apothecary bottle, a recognizable symbol of pharmacies, lent respectability to the product within. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

In the late 1950s a number of vitamin producers marketed their pills in apothecary-style bottles. The apothecary bottle, a recognizable symbol of pharmacies, lent respectability to the product within. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

The place: Suburbia, Anytown, U.S.A.

The time: Late 1950s.

The scene: A room in a house with a table set for dinner. A family of four is sitting down to a meal of meat, potatoes, green beans, bread, and salad.

Mother: “Don’t forget your vitamins!”

[A small apothecary-style bottle sitting next to the salt and pepper shakers is now passed around. Each family member removes the stopper, takes out a little green pill, and washes it down with a glass of milk.]

Fifty years before this dinnertime scene vitamins existed only as an idea without a name in the minds of a few biochemists investigating human nutrition. They postulated a mysterious substance, something beside fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and salts, existing in foods and essential to health. What they discovered gave birth to an industry and a highly marketable product—the vitamin pill.

Vitamin pills came of age in a country preoccupied with economic depression and war, and grew with a return to prosperity and subsequent consumer-oriented culture. Yet that neat, brightly colored tablet could not have appeared without the rise of the lab rat and an expanding and scientifically sophisticated pharmaceutical industry. Some welcomed the vitamin as a benefit to human health. Others considered vitamins to be little more than a fraud perpetrated on a gullible public. In either case, by the late 1950s the vitamin pill, attractively packaged and increasingly familiar, began to join salt and pepper at the table. Vitamins were here to stay.

Learning the ABCs

The word vitamine first appeared in print in 1912 in an article by Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk. At the time Funk was at London’s Lister Institute working on the problem of beriberi, a disease endemic to mostly Asian populations who subsisted on diets of polished white rice. Funk came to the conclusion that the disease was caused by the absence of an essential nutrient in the rice rather than by the presence of a toxin, as earlier believed. He coined the term vitamine for this substance and proposed that similar essential vitamines could prevent such diseases as pellagra, scurvy, and rickets, whose symptoms included, respectively, sores and delusions, fatigue and bleeding gums, and bone deformations. Funk’s work was widely read and helped promote a powerful new idea emerging from the research of several scientists: that of deficiency diseases, which could be prevented and even cured by mysterious substances found in foods.

At the University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture, Elmer Vernon McCollum was investigating the nutritional needs of dairy cattle and decided to use rats as stand-ins for his cows. At the time rats were considered pests to be exterminated, not important lab animals. But they quickly proved essential to nutrition science, and use of rat colonies spread to other academic institutions as well as commercial labs. In 1913 McCollum, with the help of his rats, identified the first vitamin, a substance found in butter and egg yolk, which he dubbed “fat-soluble factor A.” Working with his colleague Marguerite Davis, he fed rats highly controlled diets that differed only in the quality of fat they contained. The rats fed with elements of butter fat or egg yolks thrived, while those on diets with fat derived from lard or olive oil failed to grow and eventually died. Though the chemical nature of fat-soluble A remained unknown, McCollum and Davis were able to transfer it from butterfat to olive oil.

Water-soluble B was the name given to the anti-beriberi vitamin that Funk found in the husks left behind after rice polishing; the substance discovered in citrus fruits, which were known to prevent scurvy, was called water-soluble C. A second fat-soluble substance was recognized by McCollum and his associate Nina Simmonds in the early 1920s and became vitamin D, the anti-ricketic. By this time the final “e” in vitamine had been dropped and the alphabet naming convention firmly established.

The new science of nutrition quickly permeated the national consciousness. Newspaper and magazine health columnists, government agencies, and home economists all spread the word about vitamins and the foods necessary to a good diet. Although research in vitamins began with the study of severe deficiencies, popular nutrition information focused on general dietary guidelines for health and vitality. This information was aimed at women, who had the primary responsibility for buying and preparing food, and it firmly linked specific food groups to essential nutrients. At the same time, images of laboratory animals started to appear in print, demonstrating the physical effects of severe vitamin deficiencies. Deformed, underweight, and sickly vitamin-deprived “after” rats (as well as other small experimental animals, including chicks, guinea pigs, and pigeons) were juxtaposed against pictures of their healthy, well-fed, “before” selves. Their striking recovery after returning to a balanced diet seemed almost miraculous.