The History of Vitamins

Millennia before vitamins were discovered, people had established a link between what they ate and their health. Our ancestors didn’t know exactly what it was about certain foods that improved their well-being and cured illnesses, but they put this knowledge to good use.

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Even though vitamins have only been discovered by scientists in the past century, ancient civilizations such as that of Ancient Egypt knew about the positive medicinal effects of certain foods.

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Curaçao island – where Christopher Columbus’ crew recovered from scurvy

 1500 BC 

Outbreaks of scurvy reported in Egypt, during winter when fresh fruit wasn’t available. The ancient Egyptians knew that feeding liver to a person would help cure night blindness, now known to be caused by a deficiency in Vitamin A.

 500 BC

Hippocrates, a Greek physician, describes scurvy (lack of Vitamin C) as bleeding gums, haemorrhaging and death.


The island of Curaçao (next to Venezuela) meaning ‘Cure’ was named when a group of Portuguese sailors who were sailing with Christopher Columbus, were ill with scurvy. They asked to be dropped off on a nearby island rather than be tossed into the sea. On a return visit months later the crew was stunned to find the sailors waving to them on the shores alive and well. The island was full of fresh fruit.


Native Americans have had a cure for scurvy for centuries. It is a tea consisting of pine bark and needles. French explorer Jacques Cartier had lost 25 members of his crew before the natives taught him this remedy. He brought the treatment back to France where unfortunately it was dismissed by the medical establishment.


Scottish surgeon James Lind published Treatise on the Scurvy which recommended using lemons and limes to avoid and/or cure scurvy. It was adopted as official policy by the British Navy leading to the nickname limey for British sailors who were issued with bottles of lemon or lime juice.


Another common illness among sailor, as well as prisoners and those living in poverty, was beriberi. This syndrome caused mental confusion, muscle wasting, fluid retention, high blood pressure, walking difficulties and heart disturbances. Today we know that beriberi is caused by severe deficiency of vitamin B — specifically, thiamin (vitamin B1). In this year Dutch physician Christian Eijkman discovered that adding unpolished rice husks to the diet prevent beriberi.


Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) discovered as an essential food component found in rice


Vitamins are discovered. Dr. Casimir Funk found active properties in the unpolished rice husks. He called them ‘vitamines’ from the Latin vitals meaning ‘vitally important’ and animes meaning ‘organic derivatives of ammonia’. Funk’s theory was that all active substances were nitrogen-containing amines. While his theory was proved wrong, the name ‘vitamins’ stuck.

Did you Know?

As of 2010, Brazil grew one third of all the world’s oranges.

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The Age of Exploration on the high seas saw a big increase in cases of scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C

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A copy of James Lind’s important Treatise on the Scurvy

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A scientist at work in a laboratory in the early 20th century. Work like this led to the discovery of vitamins 100 years ago.

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With it’s high concentration of Vitamin D, Vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids, cod liver oil capsules have proved one of the most popular supplements since its discovery in 1920. It was commonly given to chidren to prevent rickets in the 1950s and 1960s.


Vitamin A (Retinol) is the first vitamin discovered. Found in cod liver oil


Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) recognised as essential food component found in meat, dairy products and eggs


Vitamin C discovered as an antiscorbutic factor (something which counteracts scurvy) in food.


Vitamin D (Calciferol) deficiency associated with rickets. Found in cold liver oil.


Vitamin E (Tocopherol) associated with reproductive failure. Found in wheat germ oil and unrefined vegetables


Lack of Vitamin B12 (Cobalamins) identified with pernicious anaemia. Found in Liver, eggs and other animal products.


Vitamin K1 (Phylloquinone) discovered. Found in leafy vegetables.


Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid) discovered as a growth factor in yeast. Found in meat, whole grains and many other foods.


Vitamin B7 (Biotin) discovered – Found in meat, dairy products and eggs.


Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) isolated. Found in citrus fruit and most fresh foods.


Vitamin B6 (Pyridozine) deficiency associated with dermatitis. Found in meat and dairy products.


Swiss researchers discovered a way to artificially synthesize vitamin C. They mass produced and marketed the first vitamin C supplement under the name Redoxon.


Vitamin B3 (Niacin) deficiency identified in United States. Found in meat and grains.


Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid) is discovered. It can be found in leafy vegetables.

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Effervescent vitamin C tablets which dissolve in water. Vitamin C was the first artifically produced vitamin supplement.

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Getting your appropriate Folic Acid (Vitamin B9) intake is easy. All you have to do is eat leafy green vegetables either cooked or raw.


Now you’ve learned about the history of vitamins, why not act upon this advice? Cook a nutrient rich meal for you and your family.