A diet lacking in vitamin C leads to the development of a disease known as scurvy. This timeline traces the history of scurvy, the discovery of a cure for the disease and the isolation and identification of ascorbic acid known also as vitamin C.
1550 BC – Ebers Papyrus
The Ebers Papyrus of about 1550 BC gives an account of a disease likely to be scurvy. The suggested treatment of this disease is to eat onions, which we now know contain small amounts of vitamin C.
400 BC – Hippocrates describes symptoms
Hippocrates of Cos, an ancient Greek physician considered to be the ‘father’ of Western medicine, writes extensively on medical matters and describes the symptoms associated with scurvy: “They have foetid breath, lax gums and haemorrhage from the nose.”
1535 – Native Indian scurvy remedy
In winter, the frozen St Lawrence River in Canada strands French explorer Jacques Cartier’s ship. With limited food, scurvy breaks out amongst his men. The native Indians suggest a remedy – a drink made by soaking the bark of a local tree. The remedy works.
1747 – Scurvy and citrus link
British naval surgeon James Lind selects 12 men from HMS Salisbury, all suffering from scurvy. He divides them into 6 pairs, giving each group different additions to their basic diet. Those fed citrus fruits experience a remarkable recovery.
1795 – Citrus daily ration
British navy physician Gilbert Blane influences the Admiralty to issue regulations for the universal use of citrus juice as a daily ration on board British naval vessels. The scourge of scurvy is forever banished from the British navy.
1880 – Limeys
British influence in the Caribbean leads to the use of limes over lemons and oranges, since limes are more available. British sailors are known as ‘limeys’, which refers to the practice of supplying rations of lime juice to British sailors to prevent scurvy.
1907 – Guinea pigs and cabbage
Norwegian biochemists Axel Holst and Alfred Fröhlich demonstrate that a scurvy-like condition could be produced in guinea pigs by restricting certain foods. When fed cabbage, the symptoms disappear. An intensive search begins to find the specific nutrient responsible.
1928 – Hexuronic acid
Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi isolates an organic reducing agent from plant juices and animal tissues and chooses the name ‘hexuronic acid’. Four years later, he helps prove this compound is the antiscorbutic factor discovered in 1907 by Holst and Fröhlich.
1932 – Ascorbic acid
British chemist Walter Haworth determines the molecular structure of hexuronic acid and renames it ascorbic acid. This substance is also known today as vitamin C. The following year, Haworth leads a team of scientists that are able to make ascorbic acid synthetically.
1937 – Nobel Prizes
Albert Szent-Györgyi is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of vitamin C, and Walter Haworth is awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with carbohydrates and vitamin C.
1970 – The common cold
Chemist Linus Pauling’s book Vitamin C and the common cold is published. It proves to be a bestseller and leads many people to believe in the value of the vitamin for cold prevention and treatment.
2007 – Finding the missing step
Scientists at Plant & Food Research report the missing step in how plants produce vitamin C. Working with various kiwifruit varieties and the world’s largest kiwifruit DNA database, the team isolate the last undiscovered enzyme in the vitamin C production pathway.