Elmer McCollum

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McCollum, Elmer Verner

(b. near Fort Scott, Kansas, 3 March 1879; d. Baltimore, Maryland, 15 November 1967)

organic chemistry, nutrition.

Elmer V. McCollum originated the first white rat colony in the United States devoted solely to the purpose of experimentation in nutrition. The outcome of this endeavor was his personal discovery and codiscovery of a number of the vitamins. Although he worked with other aspects of nutrition, the major portion of his professional career was devoted to vitamins and other trace nutrients.

McCollum received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in 1903 and completed his doctorate at Yale University in 1906. Although his primary field was organic chemistry, circumstances led him to work for a period of time under Thomas B. Osborne at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station where he acquired a strong interest in what was then called agricultural chemistry (biochemistry). In 1907 he was employed by the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station to conduct chemical analyses on the food and excreta of dairy cattle, part of an experiment inaugurated a year earlier to determine the effect of various cereal grains upon the health and reproductive capacity of cattle. McCollum, despairing of the long and tedious procedures entailed in these of such large animals, instituted a study which resulted in his setting up the albino rat colony. Under the most adverse conditions, including the hostility of the dean of the College of Agriculture, he conducted experimental work of such a nature that he was able to report in 1913 that rats fed on a diet deficient in certain fats resumed normal growth when fed “the ether extract of egg or of butter.” Furthermore, he was able to transfer this “growth-promotting factor” to otherwise nutritionally inert fat or oil which then exhibited growth–promoting activity in rats.

Within two years McCollum also demonstrated that certain water–soluble substances were necessary for normal health in rats, and he consequently named these substances, present in foods in relatively small quantities, “fat-soluble A” and “water-soluble B,” thus initiating the alphabetical nomenclature for vitamins. He at first thought that there existed one fat–soluble A and one water–soluble B, but further work in his laboratory and at other institutions soon indicated that there were numerous chemical entities involved.

In 1917 McCollum left Wisconsin to become the first biochemist of the School of Hygiene and Public Health of Johns Hopkins University, where he continued his studies of the vitamins and where, in collaboration with members of the medical school, he aided in the elucidation of what is now known as vitamin D (the antirachitic factor). Another outcome of McCollum’s work both at Wisconsin and at Johns Hopkins was the development of the use of the living animal as an analytical tool. As far as nutrition was concerned, the only means by which the presence of curative or preventive substances could be detected was the animal feeding experiment, that is, biological analysis.

Because of his outstanding contributions in the field of nutrition, McCollum received many awards and he was invited to serve as a member of numerous national and international organizations devoted to public health. He was involved with the World Health Organization and the Nutrition Board of the National Research Council, as well as being an American fellow of the Royal Society of London.

McCollum’s interests extended beyond the laboratory to the public domain via lectures, magazine articles, and books. His career indicates he was a man of tenacious character who, even after his retirement in the early 1940’s, retained an active interest in nutrition and related health fields, evidenced by the fact that he published his book A History of Nutrition in 1957, and maintained an influence upon the science he had pioneered many years before.


A detailed biography and bibliography of McCollum is in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society,15 (1969), 159–171. His works include The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition (1918; 5th ed. 1939); with E. Simmonds, Food, Nutrition and Health (1926). A History of Nutrition (1957); and Text Book of Organic Chemistry for Medical Students. His autobiography is From Kansas Farm Boy to Scientist(Lawerence. Kans., 1964). McCollum also contributed chapters or sections to a number of textbooks such as Endocrinology and Metabolism (1922); and Human Biology and Racial Welfare (1930). He published over 200 papers in the major scientific periodicals, as well as numerous popular magazine articles.

McCollum’s early years of nutritional investigations (1907–1915) are most thoroughly dealt with in Stanley L. Becker, “The Emergence of a Trace Nutrient Concept Through Animal Feeding Experiments” (Ph.D.diss., 1968; Univ. of Wisconsin Microfilms), esp. chaps. 3–5.

Stanley L. Becker

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McCollum, Elmer Verner (1879–1967) American nutritionist; originated the letter system of naming vitamins.

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