Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

BORIS BURDA: how to save yourself from a deadly disease

BORIS BURDA: how to save yourself from a deadly disease
Share material
Roger Morris. Bounty / nzherald.co.nz




Who eats better, lives longer, right? Not exactly: in one prison in the East, it was noticed that prison guards often suffered from a dangerous, sometimes even fatal disease, while much worse-nourished prisoners never did. The doctor who figured out why this was the case won a Nobel Prize and helped discover a new class of substances. Which ones?




Vitamins. The prisoners were fed with bad uncleaned rice, and rice husks were one of the few sources of vitamin B1 in those places, without which the terrible disease beriberi developed.




How long did, say, the ancient Egyptians live? It’s not always so short. The great pharaoh Ramses II ruled for 67 years and ascended the throne at the age of twenty — it seems quite a lot, however… Living about a thousand years earlier, Pioppi II, in general, was sitting on the throne for 94 years — far from Louis XIV and Elizabeth II! And the famous Cheops ruled for more than 30 years, he would not have built his pyramid faster.

How long did a common servant of a pharaoh live on average? It turns out, only 23 years — feel the difference! It is easy to understand why — the living conditions of the ruler, and first of all, his food, were many times more comfortable than those of his subordinates. And in the ancient Romans, emperors lived 60–70 years (well, if, of course, they were not killed — the profession was dangerous!), and ordinary Romans mostly lived to a maximum of 25 years (slaves — in general, no more than 18).

In our time, food has become much better, and medicine has improved. Now, according to UN data, a person lives 73.8 years on average (women live longer than men — yes, they age earlier, but they die about 6 years later). So, to live a long life, do you have to eat well? It’s really important, but not enough — there are other factors that influence just as much.




Even if you eat enough, you can do a lot of damage to your health if you eat the wrong things. It seems that sailors, for whom only food that could be stored for a relatively long time was available, were the first to learn this on a mass scale. Even when corned beef was still good, breadcrumbs were free of mealworms, and 120 grams of rum were poured to everyone, people got sick on long voyages, and the better-fed officers suffered the same.

A terrible disease in which the body was covered with sores and teeth fell out, spared no one — in all sea battles, fewer sailors died than from this disease. It was not contagious — everyone who ate this way got sick. And after a while, it was noticed that ships returning from hot countries were less ill than those sailing there — and in 1747, physician James Lind realized why!

Fresh herbs and citrus fruits were plentiful in supplies for the return voyage, so Lind suggested giving sailors lemon and lime juice. As usual, the pillars of official science laughed at Lind for a long time, but some of the sailors listened to him and became convinced that it really helped. Soon, lemon or lime juice became an indispensable element of sailors’ rations.

Captain Cook served his sailors sour cabbage, which was no less lifesaving. Intuitively, it was clear that lemons and cabbage contained very effective medicine. But it wasn’t until 1932 that they found out what these substances were. And the first of them was discovered a little earlier.


Джеймс Линд (4 октября 1716 — 13 июля 1794) — шотландский врач. Разработал теорию о лечении цинги цитрусовыми. Он также предложил получать пресную воду путем дистилляции морской воды. Его работы способствовали развитию профилактической медицины
James Lind (October 4, 1716 — July 13, 1794) — Scottish physician. He developed the theory of curing scurvy with citrus fruits. He also proposed obtaining fresh water by distilling seawater. His work contributed to the development of preventive medicine / wikipedia.org




The staple food of temperate and cold-climate countries was bread made from flour obtained by grinding grain — not for nothing was the food beautifully named «our daily bread» in the Gospel. It was baked mainly from wheat. In the vast and densely populated Southeast Asia, the main breadwinner was (and still is) rice.

For a long time in those lands, the unpleasant disease, which in Malay was called by the word «beriberi», i.e., «weakness» (beri is weakness, and the plural in this language is formed by simple doubling of the noun, orang — person, and orang-orang — people). It becomes difficult to walk, sometimes crutches are required, pulse rate increases, constipation prevails — it is quite possible to die.

Dutch doctor Christiaan Eijkman, who worked in a prison hospital on the island of Java, also faced beriberi. Prison staff often came to him with symptoms of this disease. He also had to treat prisoners — their living conditions were much worse, they were poorly fed and were sick more often. But never a single case of bribery!

Dr. Eijkman couldn’t figure out what was going on, but a chance occurred to him. The chickens in the prison’s backyard suddenly began to show clear symptoms of beriberi — they suddenly stopped and twisted their necks as they walked, just like sick people. And they were fed well, with leftovers from the guards’ food. Not the prisoners — they ate everything…


Больной бери-бери в Юго-Восточной Азии
A sick beriberi man in Southeast Asia / wikipedia.org


By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art




Do chickens eat like the guards — and get sick like them? And what do prisoners eat? The main part of the diet of both is their daily rice, there is no other way. But it is different: for the guards — high-quality cleaned rice, without a thin silver shell, which is peeled at special grinders, for the prisoners — poor uncut rice. The polished rice is prettier and more expensive; the prisoners eat the unpolished rice.

Eijkman thought about it and soon found out that in the poorer prisons, where the staff were fed with unpolished rice, there was no beriberi! Could it be that rice husks were saving the disease? He wrote an article about it — and it seemed to be of no use to anyone: all diseases were then considered to be the work of bacteria, and one pathogen after another was discovered. What did rice husks have to do with it?

Eijkman’s article was published in 1889, but only in 1911 did Polish scientist Kazimierz Funk become interested in it and started conducting experiments. It turned out that the crystalline substance he isolated from rice bran cured beriberi in the blink of an eye! Funk called it «vital amine» (these are such nitrogen-containing compounds) — Latin for vitamin!

By the way, even before Funk, in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, the physician Kaneshiro Takaki noticed that Japanese sailors were losing their fighting ability and even dying from beriberi. But they were fed well, white peeled rice — it was the main part of their diet. Oh, right…

Dr. Takaki found something to do. They started adding barley to their food, and the disease receded. The doctor was awarded a baronial title and was unofficially called «Barley Baron». But the results of his labors were brilliant: after all, during the siege of Port Arthur, according to a number of data, more than a quarter of Japanese soldiers suffered from beriberi, 80,000 soldiers had to be sent to the rear, and 10% of the sick died…


Христиан Эйкман (11 августа 1858 — 5 ноября 1930) — нидерландский врач-патолог. Продемонстрировал, что болезнь бери-бери вызывается неправильным рационом, что привело к открытию витаминов. В 1929 году был удостоен Нобелевской премии по физиологии и медицине (совместно с Фредериком Хопкинсом)
Christiaan Eijkman (August 11, 1858 — November 5, 1930) was a Dutch medical pathologist. Demonstrated that beriberi disease was caused by improper diet, which led to the discovery of vitamins. In 1929, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (jointly with Frederick Hopkins) / wikipedia.org




The substance Funk isolated from rice husks was called thiamine. When several other similar substances were discovered, they were called by Funk’s coined word «vitamins». In 1928, Szent-Györgyi isolated pure ascorbic acid — vitamin C; in 1935, Henrik Dam discovered vitamin K; in 1936, Bishop and Evans received vitamin E… And the substance discovered by Funk was called vitamin B1.

It turned out that the body does not produce vitamins — you must get them from the outside. Lack of vitamins causes a severe disease — avitaminosis. Avitaminosis C is well known from ancient times scurvy, avitaminosis PP — pellagra, avitaminosis B12 — malignant anemia … And beriberi turned out to be just avitaminosis B1, a milligram a day — and you are healthy!

Obviously, the work of the vitamin discoverers received well-deserved recognition. In 1937, the Nobel Prize was awarded to the discoverer of vitamin C Szent-Györgyi, in 1943 — found vitamin K Henrik Dam… Christiaan Eijkman was also awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery — in 1929, about forty years after he completed his research beriberi. Better late than never!

The number of vitamins is now in double digits, some are debated whether they are vitamins or not, but there is now no doubt about their existence. And the first vitamin received by people and now remains thiamine, or B1, — a crystalline substance from rice husks, the lack of which caused an unpleasant disease. Now practically no one has this disease, and Christiaan Eijkman and his chickens — thank you very much for that!


When copying materials, please place an active link to www.huxley.media
By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art
Share material

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: