Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals

: 2012  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 59--60

The vitamin which defeated Napoleon

Bhaskar Bhattacharyya1, Manash P Baruah2, Bharti Kalra3,  
1 Consultant Biochemist, Consultant Biochemist and Quality Manager, Suraksha Diagnostic Pvt. Ltd. Central Reference Laboratory, Kolkata, India
2 Consultant Endocrinologist, Excel Center (Unit of Excelcare Hospital), Guwahati, India
3 Consultant Obstretrician and Gynecologist, Bharti Hospital, Karnal, Haryana, India

Correspondence Address:
Manash P Baruah
Consultant Endocrinologist, Excel Center (Unit of Excelcare Hospital), Ulubari, Guwahati - 781 007

How to cite this article:
Bhattacharyya B, Baruah MP, Kalra B. The vitamin which defeated Napoleon.J Med Nutr Nutraceut 2012;1:59-60

How to cite this URL:
Bhattacharyya B, Baruah MP, Kalra B. The vitamin which defeated Napoleon. J Med Nutr Nutraceut [serial online] 2012 [cited 2024 Feb 24 ];1:59-60
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Full Text

It was the middle of the 18 th century. Britain and France were constantly on war to achieve the Numero Uno status as world superpower. The strength of their respective Navies used to determine largely who would be superior. But another big factor was playing a decisive role: A peculiar disease called scurvy which uses to take toll of the sea-men in thousands. Although scurvy had been known for centuries, the remedy was elusive. [1]

Around the turn of that century, another threat loomed large in the horizon of Britain. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Odds turned heavily in favor of Britain when Napoleon was defeated in the famous battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon's adventurist attack on Russia in the eastern front was largely held responsible for his defeat. But the presence of a strong and healthier fleet of British navy on west front was by no means less important. [2] The main reason behind the sudden emergence of a healthier British Navy was their ability to fight Scurvy (and saving about 100,000 sure deaths at sea), thanks to the seminal contribution from Sir James Lind, a British naval surgeon whose controlled experiments had shown in that fresh lime consumption can help fighting that scourge. [3]

For the best part of the next one and half century, the actual agent that cures scurvy would remain elusive. And Vitamin C, which seems so commonplace and ordinary nowadays, was destined to be born only through a prolonged and tedious labor.

In 1925, Europe was recuperating from the First World War. A young Hungarian chemist was cautiously making forays in to the fascinatingworld of organic chemistry, a craze in those days. He was immensely fascinated by the phenomenon of biological oxidation and reduction reactions. More precisely, he was obsessively focused on the root cause of brown pigmentation which develops when certain vegetables or fruits like potatoes, apples and pears are cut, and also bronzing of skin of patients with Addison's disease, which, he was certain, was due to absence of a particular anti-oxidant. When Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi first extracted 1 gram of a peculiar compound from orange and cabbage juice, he did not know what it was. In his first paper (the outcome of his PhD thesis in Cambridge, UK) he therefore called it "ignose" from ignosco (I don't know). Being derived from sugar (glucose) he suffixed the term with "ose". However this fancy term failed to catch the imagination of the editor of the journal to which he had submitted the paper. Szent-Gyorgyi then brought in "Godnose" (only God knows) to replace "οgnosco", but the editor furiously rejected this second term also, and christened the new molecule as "hexuronic acid". Szent-Gyorgyi, continued to extract "hexuronic acid" from adrenals of slaughtered animals during his brief stint in Mayo Clinic, Rochester, and when he was back in Hungary he had some 10 grams of this extract with him. Subsequently he put his "anti-scorbutic" research into cold-storage to focus elsewhere. In his wildest of drams could he imagine a war was in the offing, a war which is to be fought in the arena of academic excellence!

In 1930, a scientist called Dr. J. Svirbely joined the team of Szent-Gyorgyi. Svirbely had worked for his Ph D with Dr. C. G. King, a pioneer in ascorbic acid chemistry at Pittsburgh, USA. Through a series of experiments, he confirmed that "hexuronic acid "is nothing but ascorbic acid. Svirbely wrote to his former mentor about this important development prompting the later to send a communication to Science claiming his priority in bridging the (missing) link between the two nomenclatures. This in turn prompted Szent-Gyorgyi to write to Nature. He had a strong ally in Dr. N. Hawarth, who was arguably the best "sugar-chemist" at that time, and of course, instrumental is identifying the crystalline structure of ascorbic acid. Thus the battle lines were drawn involving not only two great scientists, but two of the greatest journals of all time. [1]

In 1937, Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi was awarded Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Nobel in Chemistry that year went to Dr. N. Hawarth. However the battle of wisdom continued with Dr. King supporting the conventional micro doses and Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi supporting mega doses, with aggressive backing of Dr. Linus Pauling, another great scientist of that era. That, however, is another long story. [1]

As Vitamin C enjoys the platinum jubilee (1937-2012) of its existence as a Nobel vitamin, biological scientists are continued to be fascinated by this masterly nutrient. By its enormous ability to reduce oxidative stress, it remains an important candidate for primary and secondary prevention of cancer and cardiovascular morbidity. [4] Hopefully, scientists will soon make some path breaking discovery to establish its role in these two fields. Hopefully, we too live to share that with our readers. And without doubt, it will be an interesting story, given the global impact of epidemic of these two groups of diseases.


1Hoffer A. The Discovery of Vitamin C. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi,M.D., Ph.D. 1893-1986 ". to see what everyone else has seen, but think what no one else has thought.". J Orthomol Med 1989;4:24-6.
2Napoleonic Wars-Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia. Available from:
3Brown SR. Scurvy: How a surgeon, a mariner, and a gentleman solved the greatest medical mystery of the age of sail. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press; 2003.
4Ness AR, Powles JW. Fruit and vegetables, and cardiovascular disease: A review. Int J Epidemiol 1997;26:1-13.