Vitamin D: part II; cod liver oil, ultraviolet radiation, and eradication of rickets

Int Orthop. 2019 Mar;43(3):735-749. doi: 10.1007/s00264-019-04288-z. Epub 2019 Jan 9.


Purpose: After Glisson's description of rickets, it took two centuries to realize that rickets was due to the absence of antirachitic nutrients in the diet or lack exposure of the skin to ultraviolet rays. This bone disease caused by vitamin D deficiency was one of the most common diseases of children 100 years ago. This paper explores how the definition, diagnosis, and treatment of rickets shifted in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Material and methods: Although benefits of cod liver oil as food were known as early as the seventh century, cod liver oil was only proposed as medicinal for rickets in Northern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. The relationship between rickets and nutritional deficiency was suspected and demonstrated between 1880 and 1915, at the same time of the discovery of other vital substances (vitamins) needed to prevent beriberi, scurvy, and pellagra. Understanding that the lack of photosynthesized vitamin D or the lack of dietary vitamin D was a similar risk of rickets was an important turn in the comprehension of the disease. We look at the sequence and turn of events related to the discovery of vitamin D.

Results: Rickets has been recognized first as a disease of urban living people. Cod liver oil had been used since 1700 as a nonspecific treatment for a range of diseases. Generations of children in cities of the north of Europe had learned to hate the taste and smell of the black oily liquid and then grown up to be parents who, in turn, hated to force it down their children's throats. Occasional papers before 1900 pointed to its efficacy for rickets, and most textbooks of the early 1900s mentioned it only as a treatment option. The discovery in the early 1900s that artificial and natural ultraviolet rays had both antirachitic activity allowed to produce antirachitic foods just by food irradiation with artificial ultraviolet irradiation. Clinical guidelines were adopted to propose exposure to sunlight or to artificial ultraviolet radiation to prevent rickets in children. By the mid-1920s, rickets was promoted as universal, at times invisible to non-experts, but present to some degree in nearly every young child regardless of race or class. It was thus used to promote the young disciplines of preventive medicine, pediatrics, and public health. Innovative advances were made in the understanding of vitamin D synthesis from 1915 to 1935. A public health campaign of the 1930s was a success to eradicate rickets, using irradiated ergosterol from yeast to enrich milk and other foods with vitamin D, ensuring that the general population was consuming sufficient vitamin D.

Conclusion: Rickets therefore provides an excellent window into the early politics of preventive health and the promotion of targeted interventions in the world. It is also a relevant historical counterpoint for current debates over the role of risk factors (absence of light or sun) for disease (today's so-called "lifestyle" diseases).

Keywords: Cod liver oil; Rachitis; Rickets; Sunlight; Ultraviolet radiation; Vitamin D.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cod Liver Oil / history*
  • Cod Liver Oil / therapeutic use
  • Europe
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Rickets / diagnosis
  • Rickets / etiology
  • Rickets / history*
  • Rickets / therapy
  • Ultraviolet Rays / history
  • Ultraviolet Therapy / history*
  • Vitamin D / history
  • Vitamin D / therapeutic use
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / complications
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / diagnosis
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / history*
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / therapy


  • Vitamin D
  • Cod Liver Oil