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Eijkman, Christiaan

rice disease beriberi deficiency

[ayk man] (1858–1930) Dutch physician: discovered cure for beriberi.

Eijkman served as an army medical officer in the Dutch East Indies in the early 1880s and was sent back there in 1886 to study beriberi, then an epidemic disease in south Asia. This paralysing and often fatal disease is in reality a deficiency disease, whose rise was linked with increased use of polished (white) rice as the major diet in some ‘closed’ communities. When Eijkman began his work in Java, it was assumed to be an infection, but he noticed that some laboratory birds showed similar symptoms to beriberi victims, and they had been fed on left-over rice from a military hospital kitchen. Then a change occurred and the birds recovered. Eijkman discovered that a new cook refused to give ‘military rice’ to civilian birds and had changed to less refined rice. Eijkman went on to show that the disease could be cured by adding rice husks to the diet and could be caused by feeding polished rice. He did not interpret his results correctly (he thought the bran contained a substance which protected against a poison) but his work was a valuable step towards the full recognition of vitamin deficiency diseases by after 1900. Isolation and synthesis of vitamin B1 (thiamin) was achieved by R R Williams (1886–1965) in the 1930s; deficiency of it in the diet causes beriberi. Eijkman and Hopkins shared a Nobel Prize in 1929.

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