(b. Nijkerk, Netherlands, 11 August 1858; d. Utrecht, Netherlands, 5 November 1930)
medicine, physiology, nutrition.
Eijkman, who in 1929 shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with F. G. Hopkins, was the seventh child of a boarding-school proprietor in the small Gelderland town of Nijkerk, situated at the northern border of the Veluwe. His parents, Christiaan Eijkman and Johanna Alida Pool, had several gifted sons: one brother became a chemist and a professor at Tokyo and Groningen; another was a linguist; and a third was one of the first roentgenologists in the Netherlands.
When Eijkman was only three years old the family moved to Zaandam, where he received sufficient instruction to pass the examination that enabled him to enter the university (1875). The costs of his study were defrayed by the government because he enrolled for later service as an army physician. His ability soon became apparent; he passed three examinations cum laude or magna cum laude.
As a student, for two years Eijkman was assistant to the professor of physiology, Thomas Place. In 1883 he qualified as physician and took his medical degree after defending a thesis on polarization in the nerves (“Over Polarisatie in de Zenuwen”). He was immediately sent as medical officer to the Dutch East Indies, where he worked for two years on Java and Sumatra. A severe attack of malaria forced him to repatriate on sick leave in November 1885. Two months later his young wife of three years, Aaltje Wigeri van Edema, died. After his recovery Eijkman decided to train himself in bacteriology, then a new and rising science. After studying under Josef Förster at Amsterdam, he went to work with Robert Koch at Berlin. Here he made some acquaintances that were decisive for this future career.
In the Dutch East Indies and other eastern countries a disease called beriberi was spreading, especially in closed communities—the army, the navy, prisons, and so on. In some cases cardiac insufficiency with massive edema of the legs dominated the clinical picture, in others a progressive paralysis of the legs (hydropic and “dry” forms). In view of its apparent epidemic character, a bacteriological origin seemed obvious. The Dutch government appointed a committee to study the disease on the spot. The committee consisted of C. A. Pekelharing and C. Winkler, then a young reader and later a well-known neurologist. Before undertaking their difficult mission, both men went to Koch at Berlin to learn something of bacteriology. The result of their meeting there with Eijkman was that the latter, at his own request, was added to the committee that departed for the East in October 1886.
After some two years the committee had shown that in beriberi a polyneuritis could be proved by clinical and microscopic examination, and it believed it had isolated from the blood of beriberi patients the causative agent: a micrococcus, the toxins of which caused the polyneuritis. pekelharing and Winkler returned to Europe in 1887, leaving Eijkman as head of a small laboratory built for the purpose of continuing the research. Eijkman was also director of the Javanese Medical School.
At that time Eijkman also considered beriberi to be an infectious disease, but he did not succeed in producing the disease in animals by inoculation with the micrococci. He then had the good fortune to see a similar disease develop spontaneously in fowls. The animals showed paresis or paralysis of the legs with dyspnea and cyanosis; microscopic examination of the nerves confirmed the presence of a polyneuritis. Eijkman considered the polyneuritis gallinarum to be the equivalent of the polyneuritis in beriberi.
In order to extend the observations, the fowls were removed to another place; but then, unexpectedly, the disease inexplicably disappeared. Eijkman noticed that at the same time a slight change had occurred in the food of the fowls: the original food was obtained from the leavings of boiled rice from the officers’ table in the military hospital; later they received unpolished rice, or “paddy,” because a new cook had refused military rice to “civilian” fowls. Eijkman now supposed that the causative factor must be sought in the food, especially the polished and boiled rice.
On the basis of extensive food experiments, Eijkman proved that unpolished rice had both a preventive and curative effect on polyneuritis in fowls; but he did not perceive the correct explanation and continued to believe that some chemical agent was causing the polyneuritis, for example, a toxic substance originating from the action of intestinal microorganisms on boiled rice. He even adhered to such a hypothesis for some years after Grijns, in 1901, had advanced the idea of a nutritional deficiency. Nevertheless, Eijkman’s observations were the starting point for a line of scientific research that led to the discovery of thiamine (vitamin B1), found in the pericarp of the unpolished rice grains, as the substance protecting against beriberi.
In 1896 Eijkman, who had married Berthe Julie Louise van der Kemp in 1888, returned home again on sick leave. He made statistical studies on beriberi, on osmosis in the blood, and on the influence of summer and winter on metabolism. In comparing the metabolisms of Europeans in the tropics and natives, he had found no disparities in respiratory metabolism, perspiration, and temperature metabolism. In 1898 he was appointed professor of public health and forensic medicine at the University of Utrecht. He took office with a formal address on health and diseases in the tropics, Gezondheid en Ziekte in Heete Gewesten (Utrecht, 1898). During the thirty years of his professorship Eijkman guided many research projects in his laboratory. In the academic year 1912–1913 he acted as rector magnificus, leaving this office with a rectorial oration entitled “Simplex non veri sigillum”. He was also a member of several governmental committees in the field of public health and of many national and foreign societies, including the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands, to which he was appointed in 1907. He was a recipient of the John Scott Medal and a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.
In 1928, seventy years old, Eijkman retired; the following year the state of his health did not allow him to accept the Nobel Prize personally, but the address he had intended to deliver was published in Les Prix Nobel. During his long life he had performed research in various fields, but his discovery of the role of polished rice in causing polybneuritis gallinarum remains is claim to fame because it was the foundation of the later doctrine of the role of vitamins in human nutrition.
About the man himself little information is obtainable. By his second marriage he had one son, Pieter Hendrik, who became a physician.
I. Original Works. Except for two textbooks on physiology and chemistry and his orations, nearly all of Eijkman’s publications appeared in annual reports and periodicals, most of them in Dutch. A full list is given by Jansen. Of special note are Specifieke Antistoffen (Haarlem, 1901); Onzichtbare Smetstoffen (Haarlem, 1904); Een en Ander over Voeding (Haarlem, 1906); and Hygiënische Strijduragen (Rotterdam, 1907). See also Nobel Lectures. Physiology or Medicine, II (Amsterdam–New York, 1965), 199–207.
II. Secondary Literature. See J. M. Baart de la Faille, “Christiaan Eijkman,” in T.P. Sevensma, ed., Nederlandsche Helden der Wetenschap (Amsterdam, 1946), pp. 299–333, with portrait; and B. C. P. Jansen, Het Levenswerk van Christiaan Eijkman 1858–1930 (Haarlem, 1959).
G. A. Lindeboom
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.
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.