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Christian Eijkman

Christian Eijkman

The Dutch physician and biologist Christian Eijkman (1858-1930) was a pioneer in the study of the biochemical basis of health and in the recognition and study of vitamins.

Christian Eijkman was born to a schoolteacher in Nijkerk on Aug. 11, 1858. He took his degree in medicine at Amsterdam in 1883 and then trained as medical officer for the army of the Dutch East Indies. His first official position was as assistant to the Dutch commission to study the scourge of beriberi in Batavia. The commission returned to Europe in 1887, but Eijkman remained as director from 1885 to 1896. In 1898 he was called to the chair of hygiene and forensic medicine at Utrecht. He became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands in 1907.

Eijkman arrived in Batavia at a time when there had been many severe outbreaks of beriberi. Beriberi is characterized by ascending paralysis and cardiac symptoms and edema, and it carried a frightful 80 percent mortality in some outbreaks. The epidemic nature of the disease seemed to be strong evidence that it was spread by a pathogen. As director of the civilian research laboratory, Eijkman, having been unable to isolate a causative organism, began to study the laboratory chickens which had been struck by the disease. None of the refined autopsy techniques indicated that the disease was infectious. Then fate revealed the clue to the puzzle: the chickens were being fed polished white rice, but when whole rice grain was given instead, the animals recovered. Eijkman also demonstrated that the disease could be produced at will by feeding the chickens only polished rice and that the husks removed by polishing would cure the disease if given with the polished rice.

Eijkman's work led to investigations of prisons where beriberi was rampant. It was found that men fed primarily on polished rice were stricken, while those who consumed crudely crushed whole grain rice remained healthy. Eijkman drew the conclusion that the disease was linked to the mode of rice preparation, but he incorrectly assumed that the husks contained an antidote to a toxic substance in the grain.

In 1896 ill health brought Eijkman back to Holland. Meanwhile his collaborators in Java, particularly Gerrit Grijns, continued to explore the beriberi problem and eventually demonstrated conclusively that the disease was caused by a dietary deficiency, not a poison. In 1911 the Polish chemist Casimir Funk separated a substance from grain polishings which could cure the disease. He named it Vitamine; it is now known as vitamin B1 (thiamine). The world was a giant step closer to understanding the biochemical nature of nutrition.

Eijkman won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1929. He died on Nov. 5, 1930.

Further Reading

Biographical sketches of Eijkman can be found in Sarah R. Riedman and Elton T. Gustofson, Portraits of Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology (1963) and Nobel Lectures, Physiology and Medicine: Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies, 1922-1941 (1965). Useful general works include T. R. Parsons, The Materials of Life: A General Presentation of Biochemistry (1930), and F. R. Jevons, The Biochemical Approach to Life (1964; 2d ed. 1968). □

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