The discovery of the vitamins

Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2012 Oct;82(5):310-5. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000124.


The discovery of the vitamins was a major scientific achievement in our understanding of health and disease. In 1912, Casimir Funk originally coined the term "vitamine". The major period of discovery began in the early nineteenth century and ended at the mid-twentieth century. The puzzle of each vitamin was solved through the work and contributions of epidemiologists, physicians, physiologists, and chemists. Rather than a mythical story of crowning scientific breakthroughs, the reality was a slow, stepwise progress that included setbacks, contradictions, refutations, and some chicanery. Research on the vitamins that are related to major deficiency syndromes began when the germ theory of disease was dominant and dogma held that only four nutritional factors were essential: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals. Clinicians soon recognized scurvy, beriberi, rickets, pellagra, and xerophthalmia as specific vitamin deficiencies, rather than diseases due to infections or toxins. Experimental physiology with animal models played a fundamental role in nutrition research and greatly shortened the period of human suffering from vitamin deficiencies. Ultimately it was the chemists who isolated the various vitamins, deduced their chemical structure, and developed methods for synthesis of vitamins. Our understanding of the vitamins continues to evolve from the initial period of discovery.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avitaminosis / history
  • Beriberi / history
  • Dietary Fats / history
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Milk / chemistry
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Pellagra / history
  • Rickets / history
  • Scientific Misconduct / history
  • Scurvy / history
  • Vitamin A / history
  • Vitamin A / physiology
  • Vitamins / chemistry
  • Vitamins / history*
  • Vitamins / physiology
  • Xerophthalmia / history


  • Dietary Fats
  • Vitamins
  • Vitamin A