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Dietary deficiency diseases.

People in the Dutch East Indies commonly suffered from beriberi, which produced weakness and death. Naturally it was assumed to be a germ disease, since Pasteur (see 1862) and others had been so successful at combating disease on that assumption. However, no one could find the germ that caused the disease.

A Dutch physician, Christiaan Eijkman (1858-1930), who had gone to the East Indies to study the disease, was nonplussed. But then an ailment broke out in 1896 among the chickens being used at the laboratory for bacteriological researches. The chicken polyneuritis showed symptoms similar to beriberi, and Eijkman was busily studying the disease and checking on its contagiousness-when it suddenly disappeared and all the chickens got well.

Eijkman investigated and found that during the period when the chickens had had the disease, they had been feeding on rice ordinarily meant for the human patients. The disease disappeared when a new cook put them back on commercial chicken feed. Eijkman found he could produce the chicken disease at will when he fed the chickens polished rice. By feeding them unpolished rice, he cured them.

Eijkman was the first to correct a specific disease by diet since Lind had connected citrus fruits and scurvy (see 1747). Although Eijkman missed the point at first, it became clear that beriberi was a dietary deficiency disease. It was caused by the absence of some substance (present in the hulls of unpolished rice and not present in polished rice from which the hulls had been removed) that seemed necessary to health in small traces.

For this discovery, Eijkman received a share of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1929.

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Author:Asimov, Isaac
Publication:Asimov's Chronology of Science & Discovery, Updated ed.
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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