By Paul A. Kimpel.

 Everyone pops a daily Vitamin C pill, right? Well, two recent reports from the American Medical Association may give you pause when gobbling up those 500 milligram chewables with breakfast. The first report stated that Vitamin C, in doses as low as 250 mg. a day, may actually  harden  coronary arteries. The other negative report, which was more conclusive, showed that megadoses of Vitamin C, when given to cancer patients to help fight cancer, actually protected the cancer cell from the effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Pretty scary stuff. Take your vitamins.

Vitamins: Definitions And Classifications

 There are 13 known vitamins of which four are fat-soluble, and the remaining nine are water-soluble. A fat-soluble vitamin is absorbed with the help of fat. Vitamins A,D,E and K are fat-soluble. The nine water-soluble vitamins are: B-1 (Thiamin), B-2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), Folic Acid, B-6 (Pyridoxine), B-12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin and Vitamin C. 

Early 20th Century Herbalist's Desk

The History Of Vitamins

 The discoveries of which vitamins are present in food, and what effects those vitamins have upon human health, began to develop in about 1905 when an English doctor, William Fletcher, experimented on asylum inmates in Kuala Lumpur. He showed that nearly 25 percent of those who received polished rice developed  beriberi, while less than 2 percent of the 123 patients who received unpolished rice fell victim to beriberi. This disease was common in the rice cultures of Asia.  Beriberi is characterized by weakness in the legs, hands and arms. Later, weakening of the cardiac muscles leads to heart failure.

 Then, in 1912, while working at the famed Lister Institute in London, the Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk, took Fletcher's thinking a few steps further. He isolated the active substances in rice husks of the unpolished rice that were preventing beriberi. He named these missing dietary links 'vitamines' (vital amines), in the belief that they were "amines," which were compounds derived from "ammonia." (The "e" on the end was dropped in 1920 when it became clear that not all vitamins were "amines.")

 In 1913, attention turned to finding and isolating the vitamins themselves. Thomas Osborne and Lafayette Mendel showed in rat experiments conducted at Yale Univeersity that butter contained a growth-promoting factor necessary for development. Soon known as fat-soluble Vitamin A, its chemical character was established in 1933, and it was synthesized in 1947.

 Other vitamin discoveries came along in the early 20th century. Cow's milk was found to contain another growth-promoting factor, the water-soluble Vitamin B, which was isolated in pure form in 1936. (We now know there are several different types of Vitamin B.) In 1922, while looking for a solution to the problem of rickets, Edward Mellanby dicovered Vitamin D. In the United States, the enrichment of milk with Vitamin D was extremely effective against rickets.

 Experiments with rats in 1922 showed that rats reared exclusively on whole milk grew normally but were sterile and could not reproduce. Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop, at the University of California, showed that the missing factor was abundant in green leaves and wheat germ. The fat-soluble Vitamin E had been discovered.

 In the early 16th century, observations that citrus fruits could prevent scurvy  on long sea voyages later led Harriet Chick of the Lister Institute to begin a series of painstaking investigations during the 1930s into the antiscorbutic qualities of various foods. Meanwhile, in 1932, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance from the adrenal glands. He called it hexuronic acid. At the same time in history, W.A. Waugh and Charles King isolated a vitamin from a lemon and showed it was identical to hexuronic acid. In 1932, this vitamin became the first to be synthesized in a laboratory. It was Vitamin C.  By the 1930s, vitamin sales were already making huge profits for pharmaceutical companies.