Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk was the first to discover and name vitamins. He proved that – apart from carbohydrates, proteins, fats and mineral salts – they are chemical compounds necessary for the proper functioning of the living organism.
by Piotr Bejrowski
Born on 23 February 1884 in Warsaw, Kazimierz Funk was a son of a dermatologist. After high school, he studied biology in Geneva and chemistry in Bern. By the age of twenty, he already had a PhD from the University of Bern and began scientific work under the supervision of Polish professor Stanisław Kostanecki. Later, he continued working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, at the Department of Organic Chemistry at the University of Berlin, and at other research institutes in London. At that time, he had diverse scientific interests. While practicing in one of the German hospitals, he studied cancer and was convinced that its development or decrease depended on food ingredients. During this time, he also studied uric acid metabolism, protein metabolism and analyzed amino acids.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the causes of such serious diseases as scurvy, pellagra, rickets and beriberi were still unknown. Christiaan Eijkman was one of the physicians who tried to find out the cause. He conducted experiments on the island of Java (now Indonesia) when it was hit by the beriberi plague. He made studies on chickens and found that differences in food consumption determined which animals were sick and which remained healthy. Funk followed his ideas, and in London he analyzed the rice bran that was being used to feed hens and decided to give it to pigeons instead. As a result, in 1911, he isolated a previously unexplored substance in the form of small crystals, necessary for the proper development of the organism. He called it “vitamin” (vitamine) – from the Latin words for life (vita) and a chemical compound containing an amino group (amine). The first vitamin that was isolated was B1 (thiamine).
British scientists proposed alternative nomenclature: “accessory food factor”, “nutramina” or “food hormone”. Ultimately, the London Chemical Society rejected the last letter of the name proposed by Funk. Thus, the term “vitamine” was replaced by “vitamin”, which is still used today. It was also proposed, temporarily, that subsequent discovered substances should be identified using letters of the alphabet. Scientists today distinguish thirteen vitamins which determine our daily requirements, indicating sources in food and their role in the body and the effects of deficiency. We know, for example, that the cause of scurvy decimating sailors for centuries was a deficiency of vitamin C. The occurrence of pellagra is associated with a deficiency of vitamin B3, and rickets – with a lack of vitamin D.
There is no doubt that Funk’s discovery was an astounding achievement in nutritional research and a breakthrough that changed the world. The term “vitamin” would soon become widely used in the scientific community. Its author was present in the thick of the scientific debate at the time and constantly emphasized the importance of a varied, balanced and vitamin-rich diet for the prevention of all diseases. Previously, microbes and the toxins produced by them were thought to be the main cause of disease. Thus this new theory was only slowly and reluctantly adopted.
In following years, Funk extracted further vitamins and identified the foods in which they were found. Soon, pharmaceutical companies began producing drugs containing vitamins. After the outbreak of the First World War, he continued his research in the United States, even receiving American citizenship. In 1923, Funk decided to return to Poland. Ludwik Rajchman, a bacteriologist and social activist, with whom he had previously cooperated in London, caused him to take this step. Funk took over the management of the Department of Biochemistry within the National Institute of Hygiene in Warsaw.
In Poland, he studied mainly nicotinic acid, hormones and the isolation of insulin. Poland soon became the third producer of insulin in the world. After four years, he moved to Paris, where he worked in a large pharmaceutical company, and also had his own laboratory, which he turned into a contract in the United States before the outbreak of the Second World War. America’s largest drug manufacturers benefitted from his achievements for years. He managed his own foundation, continued research on vitamins, and also searched for the causes of cancer. He also worked on the theory of the joint interaction of vitamins and minerals in the human body. Funk died on 29 November 1967.
In 1929, Christiaan Eijkman and Frederick Hopkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their research on vitamins. During the award ceremony, Funk was named as the creator of the term “vitamin” and one of the scientists whose many years of research led to the discovery of these life-giving compounds. Hopkins himself later admitted that Funk “received too little recognition for his work.” Funk was nominated for the most important scientific award four times (1914, 1925, 1926, 1946).
Today we know that not all vitamins have an amino group. Even though not all the theories advocated by Funk turned out to be true, with his research and epochal discoveries, he contributed to the unprecedented development of medicine, verifying wrong theories and setting new directions for scientific research.
Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin