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Nelson: Cradle of discovery of vitamins – Audio (6-minutes)

The cradle of the discovery of vitamins (extended play)

David Nelson, Professor Emeritus
Department of Biochemistry
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Phone (608) 263-6879, (608) 263-5137

6:01 – Total Time

0:17 – Vitamins discovered at UW-Madison
0:45 – Farmers point out the obvious
1:08 – Something was missing
2:11 – Team of genius
3:03 – Components of milk and butter
3:51 – Vitamins named by order of discovery
4:08 – Current state of vitamin research
4:54 – Not what, but why
5:52 – Lead out


The cradle of the birth place of vitamins. We’re visiting today with David Nelson, Department of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Sevie Kenyon: David, the word is vitamins were discovered here at the University of Wisconsin?

David Nelson: Well the word is right; they were in fact discovered here around the turn of the 20th century. It was the result of the efforts of several people working together. Stephen Babcock, famous for his work on dairy products, had the idea that the current way of thinking about nutrition, especially for farm animals was inadequate.

Sevie Kenyon: How did they approach that situation?

David Nelson: Farmers told them that feeding the right amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins from different sources didn’t give equally good results. Some grains were better than others, but the paradigm at the time said that it shouldn’t matter, as long as they got carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the right amounts.

Sevie Kenyon: So what you’re saying is something was missing?

David Nelson: Something was missing, the farmers knew it, the scientists hadn’t discovered it and the chemists claimed that all you had to do to access the quality of food was to find out how much carbohydrate, fat and protein was there and feed the right amount. So Babcock had the idea of feeding four sets of animals, he took four pairs of heifers. He fed one of them the right amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein in the form of corn, one as wheat, the third grain and the fourth was a mixture of the three. He followed these heifers through their first calving and their second calving and he found that different diets were not equally good. The corn led to healthy heifers, healthy calves and heifers that gave good production of milk. The other diets, for example the wheat diet, was okay for a while, but eventually with the first calf and the second calf it became clear that the cow was not healthy.

Sevie Kenyon: What was the next step?

David Nelson:  So the next step was to ask what’s missing from this diet that consists of corn. The question was asked by a group of three that Babcock had assembled. One was Hart, who at that time was about to become the chairman of Biochemistry, the brains of the experiment and the two workers were Harry Steenbock of later fame, Vitamin D fame and E.V. McCollum, who at that time was an assistant professor. The plan was to take some good source of food and add it to the inadequate diet, show that it contained whatever was missing by showing that the cows actually were healthier with this addition. Then to fractionate the stuff, in this case it was milk or butter, either of those added to the inadequate diet made it completely adequate.

Sevie Kenyon: So this investigation now turned to components of butter and milk?

David Nelson: That’s right, the question became what is it in addition to carbohydrates, fats and proteins that is in butter and in milk and is required for healthy animals? McCollum began this process by extracting the butter or the milk into two separate fractions. One he called the lipid-soluble fraction, it was the greasy stuff and the other he called the water-soluble fraction. They became lipid-soluble, fat-soluble A and water-soluble B.  B turned out to contain not just one, but a number of Vitamins including Vitamin B1, B6, B12 and so on. Fat-soluble A turned out not only to contain Vitamin A but Vitamins A, E, D, and K.

Sevie Kenyon: Vitamins are named after these letters, is that in the order they were discovered?

David Nelson: It is in general in the order they are discovered, but there were some cases of confusion where somebody thought there was a vitamin and it didn’t turn out to be a vitamin and that letter has been discarded, because that vitamin has been disproved.

Sevie Kenyon: Where are we now with the research and use of vitamins?

David Nelson: Well this work took place around the turn of the century. The so called single grain experiment was published in 1913. By 1930 or so all the vitamins had been discovered that we know of now. The state of affairs now, we are asking not what does a cow or human need but why does the human need this vitamin? What role does it play in the biology of the human? And there are laboratories on this campus and all over the world who are asking that question at the level of molecules. They are asking, what is the chemical basis for the role of Vitamin D for example in health? Here, DeLuca lab and Wes Pike lab are investigating that.

Sevie Kenyon: David, look into your crystal ball a little bit, where is this lab work likely to go?

David Nelson: The most promising direction is that these vitamins that turn out to be important to us because we use them as accessory factors in all of the enzyme processes that take place in digestion energy production. It turns out that there are a number of human illnesses, in which the lack of a vitamin or the lack of the ability to use that vitamin appropriately results in disease. Right now the level of investigation is can we find analogs, can we find compounds like the vitamin that will produce the desired effect in the patient without having side effects. For example, Vitamin D makes a number of changes in a human’s physiology; one is to help regulate calcium and phosphate in bone. But, there are a number of other things that related to the immune system that Vitamin D can also do. Therefore, feeding Vitamin D triggers two things and maybe you only want in this patient to trigger one so the investigations look for a compound like Vitamin D but only triggers one.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with David Nelson, Department of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin and I;’m Sevie Kenyon.