The Discovery Of Vitamins 100 Years Ago

Ag problem solving in early 1900s led to UW scientists making remarkable advances in human and animal nutrition.

Published on: Jun 13, 2013

Agricultural research pays dividends that stretch far beyond the farm gate. One of the best examples happened 100 years ago when University of Wisconsin scientists were working a puzzle involving dairy cow diets.

Up to that point, most agricultural scientists thought that the optimal dairy diet consisted of the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and total calories. Farmers disagreed. They knew that some cows fed on supposedly balanced diets thrived while others fell ill.

"There was something missing," says David Nelson, emeritus professor of biochemistry at UW-Madison. "The farmers knew it; the scientists hadn't discovered it yet."

There is still much to learn about the exact mechanisms of vitamins in both humans and dairy cows. The line of research that began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison a century ago continues to explore both.
There is still much to learn about the exact mechanisms of vitamins in both humans and dairy cows. The line of research that began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison a century ago continues to explore both.

The missing ingredients turned out to be vitamins.

Vitamin advocate
Nelson has taken the story of vitamins under his wing. The humble project that sent UW scientists of the early 1900s looking for the missing ingredients in dairy diets is a classic story of how agricultural problem-solving led to remarkable advances in human and animal nutrition, he says.

For example, the discovery of vitamins nearly eliminated rickets and pellagra from the world, diseases common as recently as the 1950s, Nelson points out.

A key figure in the vitamin story was Stephen Babcock, the first UW agricultural chemist. Babcock heeded farmers' worries that seemingly complete diets were not always enough for dairy cows. He set out to find out what was missing.

Babcock fed groups of heifers different sets of "balanced" diets. Some were based on corn, others on wheat or other grains. Corn-based diets produced healthy cows that birthed healthy calves. Cows on the other diets often had aborted or had malformed calves.

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Babcock teamed up with fellow UW researchers Edwin B. Hart, Harry Steenbock and E.V. McCollum to find out what was missing. The team found that when milk, butter or cod liver oil were added to the inadequate diets, cows were healthier. The question was, why?

McCollum analyzed the milk and butter. He extracted the fats, the lipid-soluble fraction, from the water. As we now know, some vitamins dissolve well in water. Other vitamins dissolve in fat.

McCollum named the lipid-soluble part "A" and the water-soluble part " B." Those names remain with us today. Vitamin A was the first vitamin discovered in the fats. The first water-soluble vitamin was named B1, also known as thiamin.

As a glance at the nutrition facts on a box of breakfast cereal will tell you, many more vitamins were subsequently discovered. Other important fat-soluble vitamins include E, D and K. Many of the B vitamins are numbered, like B6 and B12, and also carry other names (pyridoxine, cobalamin).

A century after Hart's group published their discovery, researchers are still putting together the vitamin puzzle. For example, we know that we need vitamin D for strong bones, but we are still learning how it is important to the immune system and even to mental health. UW-Madison researchers Margaret Clagget-Dame, Hector F. Deluca, Colleen Hayes and J. Wesley Pike and others are still working to understand just how vitamins like A and D work in the human body.

Those long-ago cow studies led to great strides in human nutrition. But what did they tell us about the needs of cows?

As it turns out, with their more complex digestive systems, cows can manufacture many of the vitamins that we have to get from food. Like humans, cows make vitamin D just by spending time in the sun. Bacteria in the cow digestive tract make many B-vitamins. Cows' livers and kidneys produce vitamin C. So, vitamin-wise, cows clearly have a leg up.

Of course, as that early research showed, cows need to get some vitamins from their feed. Vitamins A and E are especially important. Adequate (but not higher) amounts of vitamin A may improve the health of mammary glands. Vitamin E has been linked to decreased mastitis.

Source: UW-Madison CALS