Eijkman, Christiaan

Christiaan Eijkman (1858-1930) discovered that not all diseases were caused by microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, but that some were due to dietary deficiencies, particularly deficiencies of certain vitamins. Born in the Netherlands in 1858, Eijkman received his medical degree from the University of Amsterdam in 1883, then went to Germany to study under the famous bacteriologist, Heinrich Robert Koch (1843-1910). Encouraged by Koch, Eijkman joined a commission sent to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1887 to investigate the disease beriberi and begin the work that was to make him famous.

Beriberi Research

At the time, beriberi was a widely prevalent disease, characterized by polyneuritis, the kind of nerve damage that causes numbness, paralysis and in many cases, death. Because Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease had already led to so many successful cures, physicians now assumed that all diseases must be caused by microorganisms. But the scientific commission found no microorganism that caused beriberi. Disappointed, most of the group returned home in 1887, but Eijkman remained behind to serve as director of a new bacteriology lab set up in a medical school constructed for native doctors. It was there that around 1890 Eijkman helped solve the problem of beriberi, partly by accident.

When a group of laboratory chickens suddenly developed a strange disease—one with symptoms that resembled polyneuritis—Eijkman promptly commandeered the chickens and once again tried to find the causative germ, without success. Moreover, he was unable to transfer the disease from sick chickens to healthy ones. To add to his frustration, the disease vanished as suddenly as it had started.

Fortunately, Eijkman refused to give up. He stubbornly continued to try to figure out this peculiar vanishing disease. Before long, he learned that, for a brief period of time, one of the cooks had been feeding the lab chickens boiled rice from the hospital's own stores. A second cook, however, decided it was wrong to feed rice meant for people to mere chickens, and switched back to cheaper unpolished rice. Oddly enough, Eijkman learned that the chickens had developed their illness while eating the polished rice. To determine whether the polished rice was actually responsible for causing the sickness, Eijkman began feeding it to other chickens which quickly developed the beriberi-like illness. Eijkman could then cure this new illness by switching the sick chickens back to unpolished rice.

Eijkman had discovered a dietary deficiency disease. At first, he did not fully understand the meaning of his findings, assuming that there must be a toxin (poison) in rice grains that could be neutralized by something in the hulls. But others would quickly clarify his results. A younger colleague, Gerrit Grijns, took over the nutrition studies when an illness forced Eijkman to go home in 1896. In 1901 Grijns proposed that beriberi was caused not by germs, but by the lack of some natural substance present in rice hulls and other foods (this substance turned out to be thiamine, a vitamin. Over the next decade, a number of investigators—most notably, England's Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947)—came to similar conclusions about a number of diseases and a new era in medicine was launched. Eijkman, whose work served as the basis for the modern theory of vitamins, shared the Nobel Prize in medicine with Hopkins in 1929.

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