Albert Szent Gyorgyi is credited with many discoveries including the Krebs cycle on how cells produce energy within the mitochondria, however few things in life are due to the efforts of a single individual. The discovery of Vitamin C, which Szent-Gyorgyi gets most of the credit for may not be as it appears. This April 9, 2015 reprint of the history in The Hindu sheds more light on who was mostly responsible for the discovery of Vitamin C. Szent-Gyorgyi is credited with beginning the science of nutrition through his numerous studies in his lifetime.
Vitamin C enables the efficient use of carbohydrates, fats and proteins by the body and is thereby vital too the health of bones, blood vessels, ligaments, teeth and gums.
Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Charles Glen King discovered Vitamin C within weeks of each other. One was feted, but the other remains uncredited.
Cases of a river bed going dry for a day, like what happened to Niagara in 1848, happens possibly once in a century. What happens more often when you are out in the river, or in the sea or ocean for that matter, is a bout of seasickness.
For centuries though, sailors also used to suffer from one particular disease while out on their voyages. Scurvy — whose symptoms include loose teeth, swollen gums, haemorrhages and fatigue — took a huge toll before its cure was found.
We now know that scurvy is caused by the lack of vitamin C and a ration of citrus fruits would be enough to prevent the disease. We, however, knew this even before vitamin C had been discovered. For vitamin C was discovered only in April 1932 - by two people, within weeks of each other. While one of them went on to win the Nobel Prize for the same, the other simply remains the other guy who discovered vitamin C.
Years of war
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was born into a Hungarian family that already included three generations of scientists. So when he shot himself in the arm to escape combat during World War I and resumed his studies to pursue a career in science, it didn’t come as a major surprise.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Charles Glen King, on the other hand, waited till the end of the war to resume his education. An American who went to the University of Pittsburgh for his M.S. and Ph.D, King was interested in the growing field of vitamins right from his graduate days.
Szent-Gyorgyi pioneered the study of biological oxidation mechanisms in the 1920s. He went on to isolate a molecule from adrenal glands, naming it hexuronic acid. Working with J. L. Svirbely, an American-born scientist of Hungarian descent who had previously been under King, Szent-Gyorgyi was successfully able to conduct tests on guinea pigs (which similar to human beings cannot produce their own vitamin C), concluding that hexuronic acid was in fact vitamin C. They renamed it ascorbic acid, so that it reflected anti-scurvy properties.
King, who had long believed hexuronic acid could be vitamin C, reported success early in April 1932, adding that the crystals he had isolated had all the properties of Szent-Gyorgyi’s hexuronic acid. He published his results in April, weeks before Szent-Gyorgyi came out with his.
Why we need vitamin C?
Vitamin C enables the efficient use of carbohydrates, fats and proteins by the body and is thereby vital to the health of bones, blood vessels, ligaments, teeth and gums. Found in various foods, including citrus fruits and green vegetables, processing may destroy it. Vitamin C deficiency, however, is increasingly becoming rare, owing to plentiful access in modern times.
As for Szent-Gyorgyi and King, both of them went on to have long distinguished careers as biochemists who laid the foundation for modern nutrition. While the Szent-Gyorgyi camp states that he was the one who first isolated vitamin C and hence deserves the Nobel Prize that he received in 1937, those vouching for King believe that he deserves the credit as he knew what he was after. A debate that will probably never be put to rest...