Vitamin D, cod-liver oil, sunlight, and rickets: a historical perspective

Pediatrics. 2003 Aug;112(2):e132-5. doi: 10.1542/peds.112.2.e132.


Rickets, a disease of vitamin D deficiency, is rarely confronted by the practicing pediatrician in the United States today. At the turn of the 20th century, rickets was rampant among the poor children living in the industrialized and polluted northern cities of the United States. With the discovery of vitamin D and the delineation of the anti-rachitic properties of cod-liver oil by the 1930s, it became possible to not only treat but also eradicate rickets in the United States. Rickets was a common disease in 17th century England. Frances Glisson's treatise on rickets published in 1650, a glorious contribution to English medicine, described the clinical and anatomic features of rickets in great detail. The exact etiology of rickets had been elusive until the 1920s. During the Glissonian era, rickets was a mysterious disease. By the late 19th and early 20th century, faulty diet or faulty environment (poor hygiene, lack of fresh air and sunshine) or lack of exercise was implicated in its etiology. Animal experiments, appreciation of folklore advocating the benefits of cod-liver oil, and the geographical association of rickets to lack of sunshine were all relevant factors in the advancement of knowledge in the conquest of this malady. In this article, the history of rickets pertaining to the discovery of vitamin D, cod-liver oil, and sunlight is reviewed.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cod Liver Oil / history*
  • Cod Liver Oil / therapeutic use
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Rickets / history*
  • Rickets / therapy
  • Sunlight
  • Vitamin D / history*


  • Vitamin D
  • Cod Liver Oil