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Traditional Treatments of Scurvy Using Vitamin C Rich Foods

Vitamin C - Ascorbic Acid is a Common Antioxidant

French explorer Jacques Cartier led a ship traveling in ice near Quebec, Canada in 1534, the ship became stranded, and all Cartier's crew became severely sick. The sickness is called scurvy, caused by lack of vitamin C in diet. Jacques Cartier used the Quebec Indian natives’ knowledge to treat his crew members with a brew made from pine bark and needles, and saved their lives.

In May 1747, Scottish naval surgeon James Lind discovered a treatment of scurvy using limejuice, which was believed to contain a common nutritional component from citrus foods. He conducted a “control experiment” of scientific significance by providing a group of ships’ crew members with lemon juice in addition to normal rations, and supplying the second group of crew members only with the normal rations without lemon juice. The results led to a conclusion that a mysterious material component in lemons prevented the disease. By 1795, the British navy adopted a general and standard practice to supplement the sea crew members with lemon or lime juice in their diet.

A nutritional philosophy was also documented in writing by the early eighteenth century Dutch writer, Johannes Bachstrom, who concluded that "scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens; which is alone the primary cause of the disease."

The Early History of Vitamin C

The concept of vitamins was developed as early as 1912, when Polish-American scientist Casimir Funk was investigating beriberi in pigeons. It had been clear by then that some mineral nutrients are vital to health, while it had been less clear that some non-mineral micro-nutrients are also essential to health. Funk believed that all the non-mineral vital nutrients were organic amines, and named them vital amines. The "e" was removed for the fact that not all of them are amines. The word vitamin has been since used as a generic name. A name "water-soluble C," was used in 1928 for a specific member of vitamins, which was an anti-scorbutic factor in food first discovered earlier by Holst and Frølich. But chemical structure of “water-soluble C” remained unknown until a few years later.

Without knowing the reasons, a term “antiscorbutic” was widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries for those foods that prevent and cure scurvy.
The mysterious component to cure and combat scurvy was further exploited from 1907-1912 by Norwegians, A. Hoist and T. Froelich. They accidentally discovered a clean animal experimental model for scurvy when guinea pigs were fed a test diet of grains and flour, which had earlier produced beriberi in experimental pigeons. Pigeons, as seed-eating birds, did not develop this disease as they were later found to make their own vitamin C. Holst and Frølich treated and cured scurvy in guinea pigs by feeding them with various fresh foods and extracts.

Discovery of Hexuronic Acid as Antiscorbutic Factor

A chemical called hexuronic acid with empirical molecular formula of C6H8O6 was isolated from the contex of animal adrenal glands by Szent-Györgyi by 1927, while he was a graduate student with a Rockefeller fellowship at Cambridge University. This compound was believed to be the antiscorbutic factor without experimental evidence from a biological assay. It was a crystallized material with a strong reducing activity. Szent-Györgyi got his PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University for the work of hexuronic acid, which was published in the Biochemical Journal.

At the same time, Charles Glen King, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh spent about 5 years in isolation of the antiscorbutic factor in lemon juice, using the model of scorbutic guinea pigs, as mentioned above. Joseph L. Svirbely, a former research group member in King’s lab joined in Szent-Györgyi’s lab in late 1931. Svirbely started to work on the last small portion of hexuronic acid, Szent-Györgyi still had, in order to prove that it be the anti-scorbutic factor.

King published a paper in early 1932, claiming the scientific proof that their isolated material from lemon juice was antiscorbutic factor without giving the credit to Szent-Györgyi. This led to a severe dispute between the 2 groups on the priority of the discoveries. In the same year, popular Hungarian paprika peppers were found, in Szent-Györgyi’s lab, to contain rich hexuronic acid as the antiscorbutic factor, which was also named as ascorbic acid due to its activity against scurvy. All these different terminologies mean vitamin C. The anionic part of ascorbic acid is called ascorbate. The Szent-Györgyi was awarded the 1937 Nobel Prize in Medicine "for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid".

Chemical Synthesis of Vitamin C

Vitamin C was first synthesized independently in two chemical labs in 1933 and 1934. One of them was the lab of British chemists Sir Walter Norman Haworth and Sir Edmund Hirst. And the other was Tadeus Reichstein’s lab at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich. The 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was only awarded to Haworth, while the Reichstein process, a combined chemical and bacterial fermentation sequence is still used today to produce vitamin C. Hoffmann–La Roche has been the major company since 1934, in production of synthetic vitamin C in the industrial scale, under the brand name of Redoxon.

L-Gulonolactone Oxidase for Vitamin C Biosynthesis in Mammals

In 1957, an American scientist J.J. Burns discovered that some mammals cannot produce the active enzyme L-gulonolactone oxidase in their livers, which is one of the 4 key enzymes for the vitamin C biosynthesis. That discovery explained why some mammals are susceptible to the scurvy disease. American biochemist Irwin Stone developed a theory that humans possess a mutated coding gene of the L-gulonolactone oxidase, while he was also the first scientist to investigate the food preservative properties of vitamin C.

Since the mid 1950s, the 2-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling exploited the optimal health idea at the molecular level. He called his new idea "orthomolecular" medicine. Optimal health can be achieved under all the optimal reaction conditions in the body and by making sure that the body maintains the properly balanced chemicals, including nutrients, catalysts, and products.  It is all about "the right molecules in the right amounts," which was ignored or criticized by the medical community.

As suggested by one of his lecture’s attendees at the end of the 1960s, Pauling “tested” the vitamin C effects by personally taking large doses of vitamin C. He surely “felt” better and suffered fewer colds. By 1969 he recommended the idea of large doses of vitamin C to physicians via reporters. In response to a FDA letter demanding the evidence for recommending increased doses of vitamin C, Pauling published a book in 1971 by reviewing the health effects of vitamin C supplementation in the related scientific literature. The book was titled Vitamin C and the Common Cold. Against the criticism of the medical community, Pauling promoted large doses of vitamin C for a variety of health issues from the common cold to cancer, which seemed to have gone beyond the available evidence by then. However, it was to be proved later that vitamin C is among vitamins and other antioxidants as dietary supplements and exhibited significant beneficial effects on health.

Nobel laureate Linus Pauling Promoted Vitamin C

Common Antioxidants
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