Christian Eijkman: Fighting Beriberi

Berberi disease was the scourge of settlers sent to Asia by the Dutch East India Company. The mysterious illness led to general fatigue, inability to eat, heart weakness, paralysis, and death. Beriberi got its name from the locals and is translated as “cannot.”

At first, the Dutch East India Company contacted Robert Koch, the physician who did groundbreaking work on anthrax, to come to Asia and help. Koch claimed he was too busy and recommended his former student Christian Eijkman (1858-1930) to help with this problem.

Enter Eijkman

Eijkman, who was Dutch, was a part of a medical team that went to Java (Indonesia) to battle with beriberi in 1886. At this time, Germ theory was all the rage in the medical world, and many people thought that germs cause all disease. Eijkman came to Java with his assumption that there was some sort of microbe that was making everyone sick. Success would involve finding the microbe and eliminating it.

As Eijkman began to work, he noticed that the hospitals had clean beds and good food, with beriberi as a significant problem. Outside the hospital, the locals lived in squalid conditions with inadequate nutrition but no beriberi. Eijkman began to wonder what was the difference.

Eijkman looked at the water, blood samples, and even more closely at the food. After some time, the other doctors on the medical team with him left out of discouragement. Eijkman stayed behind. Money was becoming a problem, and he knew he could not stay much longer.

Enter the Chickens

Eijkman decided to conduct an experiment in which he would take blood from a beriberi patient and inject it into a chicken. Eijkman fully expected the chicken to develop the disease. However, the chicken did not get sick, to Eijkman’s surprise as this contradicted Germ theory. This led Eijkam to the conclusion that germs do not cause beriberi.

However, with time the chickens did actually get sick. Yet they also recovered, which furthered confuses, Eijkman. Eijkman asked the cook what did he feed the chickens. The cook replied that he usually feed them brown rice. During the week that the chickens were sick, he used white rice because all the brown was going. One week later, he switched back to brown rice, and that was when the chickens recovered.

Eijkman confirmed this observation with additional experiments. He also found that the locals ate brown rice while the settlers ate white rice. Something in the brown rice protected a person from beriberi that was lost when the rice was processed to be white.

Enter the Rejection

When Eijkman shared his results with the hospital, the leadership thought it was ridiculous. Everyone was convinced that only germs caused disease and not diet. Eijkman’s breakthrough was ignored for years before US doctors tried it in the Philippines with great success.

Further research found that the husk of rice contains a vitamin called thiamine. This vitamin was inadvertently removed when the rice was processed. Soon it was found that other diseases are caused by a lack of vital minerals and nutrients such as goiter,

Conclusion

For his hard work and persistence, Eijkman won the Nobel Prize in medicine. When he first made his discovery, it was mocked, but decades later, he received the highest award possible in his field.

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