Dutch Physician and Pathologist
Christiaan Eijkman was a Dutch physician who shared the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Frederick Hopkins (1861-1947) for their demonstration that beriberi is caused by poor diet. This work subsequently led to the discovery of vitamins. Eijkman helped to establish the first laboratory dedicated to the physiological study of people living in tropical regions. His work helped to show that there were few physiological differences attributable to the change in geography. Eijkman also developed a well-known fermentation test to readily establish if water has been polluted by human and animal feces containing E. coli.
Christiaan Eijkman was born on August 11, 1858, in Nijkerk, the Netherlands. A year later his family moved to Zaandam, where his father was appointed head of a newly founded school for advanced elementary education. It was here that Christiaan received his early education and training. In 1875, he became a student at the Military Medical School of the University of Amsterdam, where he was trained as a medical officer for the Netherlands Indies Army, graduating with honors. He finished his doctor's degree, with honors, in 1883. That same year he left Holland for the Indies, where he served as medical officer of health in Java. He developed a case of malaria, which significantly impaired his health to the extent that he had to return to Europe in 1885.
This disease turned out to be a significant event for Eijkman in that it enabled him to return to Amsterdam and get involved with a Dutch research team that was returning to the Indies to conduct investigations into beriberi. At that time, beriberi was very prevalent in the region and was responsible for many medical problems. Although the mission ended prematurely, it was proposed that Eijkman stay behind and be appointed director of the newly established "Geneeskundig Laboratorium" (Medical Laboratory) in Java. He served at this post for over eight years and made many important contributions during this time.
This laboratory was the first to be devoted exclusively to studying the physiology of people living in tropical regions. Eijkman was able to disprove a number of inaccurate theories regarding life in tropical regions. Among them, he clearly demonstrated that the blood of Europeans living in the tropics unaffected by disease show no measurable differences when compared to the blood of Europeans living in Europe. He also compared the metabolism, perspiration, respiration and temperature regulation of Europeans to natives and found that there were no differences. Thus, Eijkman put an end to a number of speculations on the acclimatization of Europeans in the tropics, which had previously necessitated the taking of various precautions.
Eijkman began to study beriberi and believed that a bacterial agent was responsible for the disease. In 1890, a disease called polyneuritis broke out among his laboratory chickens. Eijkman noticed the disease's striking resemblance to beriberi, and he was eventually able to show that the condition was caused by a diet of polished, rather than unpolished, rice. Although he still believed that the disease was related to some toxin produced in the intestine by the action of bacteria on boiled rice, Eijkman demonstrated that the problem was a nutritional deficiency. It was later determined to be a lack of vitamin B1) (thiamin), which helped lead to the discovery of vitamins.
Eijkman returned to the Netherlands in 1896 to serve as a professor at the University of Utrecht. In 1883, before his departure to the Indies, Eijkman married Aaltje Wigeri van Edema, who died in 1886. Professor Eijkman later married Bertha Julie Louise van der Kemp in 1888. Christiaan Eijkman died in Utrecht in 1930.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN