Discovery of essential fatty acids

J Lipid Res. 2015 Jan;56(1):11-21. doi: 10.1194/jlr.R055095. Epub 2014 Oct 22.


Dietary fat was recognized as a good source of energy and fat-soluble vitamins by the first part of the 20th century, but fatty acids were not considered to be essential nutrients because they could be synthesized from dietary carbohydrate. This well-established view was challenged in 1929 by George and Mildred Burr who reported that dietary fatty acid was required to prevent a deficiency disease that occurred in rats fed a fat-free diet. They concluded that fatty acids were essential nutrients and showed that linoleic acid prevented the disease and is an essential fatty acid. The Burrs surmised that other unsaturated fatty acids were essential and subsequently demonstrated that linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid analog of linoleic acid, is also an essential fatty acid. The discovery of essential fatty acids was a paradigm-changing finding, and it is now considered to be one of the landmark discoveries in lipid research.

Keywords: arachidonic acid; docosahexaenoic acid; eicosapentaenoic acid; fat-soluble vitamins; linoleic acid; prostaglandins; α-linolenic acid.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Fats, Unsaturated
  • Fatty Acids, Essential / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans


  • Dietary Fats, Unsaturated
  • Fatty Acids, Essential