Like all the water-soluble B vitamins, thiamine functions as a coenzyme. Thiamine works primarily in the metabolism (processing) of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It also helps to produce ribose, an important sugar needed by all body cells for the production of nucleic acids.
Thiamine is neither synthesized (blended or created artificially) by the body's intestinal bacteria nor stored in fat tissues. Because the body neither produces nor stores thiamine, a daily dietary source is needed. Without such a source, both humans and most animals soon develop some form of deficiency disease. In humans, the disease is called beriberi. Beriberi is a serious and disabling disease characterized by polyneuritis (an inflammation of nerves in the arms and legs.) It was the search for a cure for beriberi that led to the discovery of thiamine.
In the 1880s most physicians were certain that beriberi was caused by some sort of toxic (poisonous) bacteria. The disease was particularly widespread in Far Eastern countries where rice was a dietary staple. Because of this, the bacteria was suspected to be in rice. In 1886 a commission was sent to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) to try and locate the causative organism. The commission failed to find the organism, but one of its members, Christiaan Eijkman (1858-1930) stayed behind to continue his experiments.
Between 1890 and 1897 Eijkman began reporting that chickens fed a diet high in polished rice developed symptoms similar to those of his beriberi patients. Even more important, Eijkman reported that adding rice hulls to the diet quickly effected a cure. A colleague named Gerrit Grijns found that other foods—including green peas and meat—could also prevent beriberi. In 1901 Grijns correctly deduced that beriberi was not the result of a bacteria based on his experiments which proved that certain natural foodstuffs contained an anti-beriberi factor.
Roughly a decade later Casimir Funk, a Polish-born biochemist, was inspired by reading the reports of Grijns and Eijkman. Funk began searching for the elusive anti-beriberi factor in rice hulls. He managed to isolate an active substance and was briefly elated. Unfortunately, the substance (which later proved to be niacin) had only minimal effect on beriberi. Funk discarded it and went on with his research.
In 1926 two other biochemists isolated a crystalline material that could actually cure polyneuritis in birds. The discovery was made by P. Jansen and W.P. Donath, working in the same laboratory in the Dutch East Indies originally used by Eijkman and Grijns. The two researchers called the substance they found aneurine. Too little of the substance could be isolated, however, to make identification certain.
A Rare Substance
In the 1930s scientists made important discoveries that would allow them to synthesize the substance. In 1932 German chemist Adolf Windaus (1876-1959) was able to isolate a sulfur atom in a molecule of another substance. This proved to be a crucial step in determining the structure of the elusive compound. In 1934 American chemist Robert Runnels Williams (1886-1965), isolated one-third of an ounce of the active crystalline material from almost a ton of rice hulls. His procedure used highly advanced laboratory techniques, but was too expensive to be used for mass production. Because the vitamin proved to contain a sulfur molecule (of the thio group) and an amine, the substance was named thiamine. Two years later, Williams and his colleagues successfully synthesized the substance.
Today thiamine is a regular component of many multivitamins and continues its role of preventing this ancient disease.