Grijns, Gerrit

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Grijns, Gerrit

(b. Leerdam, Netherlands, 28 May 1865; d. Utrecht, Nethęrlands, 11 November 1944)


Grijins was the son of Cornelis Dirk Grjins, a merchant, and Janetta Christina Seret. He attended the Gymasium at Delft and started his medical studies at the University of Utrecht in 1885. In 1901 he took his M.D. degree, offering a thesis entitled “Bijdrage tot de physiologie van den Nervus opticus.” For this investigation he had to work at night, since the very sensitive galvanometer he used was disturbed by traffic during the day. In March 1893 Grijns passed the final examination that gave him the right to practice. A scholarship enabled him to study physiology for six months at Leipzig, under Carl Ludwig. After marrying Johanna Gesina de Wilde on 15 September 1893, Grijns left for the Netherland East Indies as a medical officer. In his first years in the Far East he treated many patients suffering from beriberi, a disease then very common and of unknown origin.

The Dutch government had, in 1886, sent out the Pekelharing-Winker commission with instructions to investigate the cause of beriberi. They concluded that most probably an infectious agent, a coccus, was the causative agent. Christiaan Eijkman, later winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, was charged with the continuation of their studies. At Batavia, Java, he had a small laboratory for pathological anatomy and bacteriology at his disposal. Grijns became his co-worker but had to join the Atjeh expedition in Sumatra in 1895–1896. Here he observed patients with beriberi but had no time for thorough investigations.

On Eijkman’s return to the Netherlands in 1896, Grijns was appointed to continue his investigations. The former had pointed to the close resemblance of human beriberi to polyneuritis gallinarum and had established that feeding only completely polished (overmilled) rice caused polyneuritis in fowls, but that incompletely polished (or husked by hand) rice prevented or even cured the disease. Eijkman firmly believed a bacterium or a poison to be the cause even several years after Grijns, in 1901, had advanced the idea that a deficiency of “protective substances” was the causative factor and that the absence in food or not only proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals, but also of other (still unknown) substances, could result in disease. This idea of “partial hunger” became the starting point and the basis of the modern theory of vitamins. At the same time Grijns gave lessons in anatomy at the School for Native Doctors (S.T.O.V.I.A.) and later taught physiology and ophthalmology, on which he wrote a simple textbook. Except for an interruption during 1902–1904, when he was on leave in Europe because of ill health, he pursued his research until 1912, when he became director of the laboratory.

In 1917 Grijns returned to the Netherlands, and in 1921 he was appointed professor of animal physiology at the State Agricultural University, Wageningen. In the academic year 1929–1930 he served as vicechancellor. In the year of his retirement (1935), on his seventieth birthday, a committee of honor presented him an, English translation of his publications on nutrition (1900–1911) and of his thesis. Because of his brilliant and immensely fruitful idea on nutritional deficiency, he was awarded in 1940 the Swammerdam Medal, inscribed “Hodiernae Nutrimentorum Doctrinae Conditor atque Pater” (“Founder and Father of the Modern Doctrine of Nutrition”).


I. Original Works. Grijns’s classic publications appeared in Geneeskundig tijdschrift voor Nederlandschlndië4 (1901–1910). They appeared in English in his Research on Vitamins 1900–1911 and Physiology of the Nerves optics, his thesis, both translated and republished on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Gorinchem, 1935). His inaugural address was Nieuwere gezichtspunten in de voedingsleer (Gorinchem, 1921).

II. Secondary Literature. No full biography of Grijns is available. The best, although short, is inserted in Research on Vitamins (see above). Some short notes, all in Dutch, are the following (listed chronologically): E. Brouwer, “Prof. Dr. G. Grijns,” in Landbouwkundig tijdschrift, 44 , no. 531 (Mar. 1932); N. H. Swellengrebel, “Toespraak tot Prof. Grijns,” in Nederlands tijdschrift voor geneskunde, 185 (1941), 120–123, with Grijins’s answer; B. C. P. Jansen, “In Memoriam Prof. Dr. G. Grijins,” ibid., 90 (1946), 240–241, with portrait; S. Postmus, “Gerrit Grijns 1865–1944,” Voeding, 16 (1955), 3-4; and J. F. Reiht, “Christiaan Eijkman en Gerri Grijins,” ibid., 32 (1971), 180–195.

Gerrit A. Lindeboom

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Grijns, Gerrit

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