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Nelson: UW cradle of discovery of vitamins – Audio

The cradle of the discovery of vitamins

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

3:03 – Total Time

0:17 – Vitamins discovered at UW-Madison
0:39 – Farmers point out the obvious
0:58 – The experiment begins with cows
1:47 – Team of genius
2:21 – Vitamins revealed
2:53 – 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. One, Stephen Babcock, famous for work on dairy products, who 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 get 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. 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 these different diets were not equally good. The corn led to healthy heifers and healthy calves. The other diets, for example the wheat diet eventually with the first calf and the especially with the second calf it became clear that the cow was not healthy.

Sevie Kenyon: What was the next step?

David Nelson: The question was asked by a group of three that Babcock had assembled. One was Hart, the brains of the experiment and the two workers were Harry Steenbock of later fame and E.V. McCollum. 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 and 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: 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 to contain not only Vitamin A but Vitamins A, E, D, and K.

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.