The discoverer of vitamins, Polish American biochemist Casimir Funk (1884-1967) found that vitamins B1, B2, C, and D were necessary to human health and that vitamins contributed to the normal functioning of the hormonal system. His work led to the prevention of beriberi, rickets, scurvy, and other diseases caused by vitamin deficiency.
Studied in Switzerland and Germany
Funk was born February 23, 1884, in Warsaw, Poland, then part of Russia. His mother was Gustawa Zysan and his father was Jacques Funk, a dermatologist. At the time, education for Poles was difficult. All public schools were under Russia's control. Getting into a school required the help of someone with influence.
Funk was tutored at home until he was admitted to public school, where he did well at his studies. Dissatisfied with the education Funk was receiving, his parents enrolled him in the Warsaw Gymnasium in 1894. Funk graduated in 1900 and continued his education. He studied biology under Robert Chodat at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, then transferred to the University of Bern in Germany, where he studied chemistry under Carl Friedheim and Stanislaw Kostanecki. (Funk and Kostanecki later published an article on the synthesis of stilbestrols.)
In 1904, Funk earned his Ph.D. after completing his dissertation on how to prepare two stilbene dyes, Brasilin and H„matoxylin. He then went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he studied organic bases and amino acids under Gabriel Bertrand. During his time in Paris, Funk experimented with laccol, a phenol that caused him to suffer painful swelling. After he stopped those experiments, Funk began to study the building blocks of sugars and proteins.
In 1906, Funk held an unpaid position at the University of Berlin. There he worked in the laboratory of Emil Fischer. Under Fischer's assistant, Emil Abderhalden, Funk experimented with protein metabolism. A year later, Funk began a paid position as a biochemist at the Municipal Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany. There, he found that when dogs were fed purified proteins they lost weight, but when they were fed horse meat and powdered milk, they gained weight. The results were not what Abderhalden expected; he decided that Funk's methods were at fault and discounted the data. When relations with Abderhalden did not improve, Funk transferred to the pediatric clinic at the University of Berlin.
In 1910, Funk left Germany and became a scholar at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine in London, England. In 1911 he published his first paper in English, on dihydroxyphenylalanine. Charles Martin, head of the institute, gave Funk another problem to study: beriberi. Beriberi is a disease of the peripheral nerves that causes pain and paralysis. At the time of Funk's study, it was not known that beriberi is caused by a lack of B1, but only that the disease occurred in areas of the Orient where the population consumed polished rice.
Earlier work in how deficiencies in diet could cause health problems were the basis for Funk's work. In 1873, research had shown that dogs did not thrive on a diet of washed meat and that pigeons that ate synthetic food developed symptoms of disease. At the turn of the 20th century, Christiaan Eikjman found that chickens made sick by a diet of polished rice would recover if fed rice hulls. He determined that rice hulls could cure some diseases, but he assumed wrongly that the problem arose from a toxic factor in rice. In the early 1900s, Sir Frederick Hopkins found that mice fed a diet of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and mineral salts stopped growing if their diet did not contain milk. He determined that milk contained a substance that maintained health.
Building on the work of such researchers, Funk looked at how food factors affected health. It was already known that including citrus fruit in the diet could prevent scurvy and that rice hulls could prevent beriberi. But it was not clear why. To find the answer, Funk experimented with extracts made from the dark outer coating of rice that was removed during polishing. He found that there was a substance within that coating that cured beriberi. Funk also fed pigeons a diet of polished rice and found that within a short time the birds lost weight and became unhealthy. Since the birds were consuming enough proteins, he knew that the problem was not a protein or amino acid deficiency.
Birds fed the extract made from rice polish soon began to recover. Also, birds that ate small amounts of yeast regained their health. Funk decided that there was a substance in the rice polish and the yeast that was required in small amounts to maintain health. He published an article on the subject titled "On the Chemical Nature of the Substance which Cures Polyneuritis in Birds Induced by a Diet of Polished Rice."
The study led Funk to realize that there were substances in food essential to good health. He found that diseases such as beriberi, rickets, and scurvy could be cured by introducing into the diet organic compounds that contained certain chemical substances. Funk also maintained that certain diseases could be prevented by making sure the chemical substances were present in the diet. He called the substances "vitamines," with "vita" meaning vitality and "amines" meaning a chemical compound containing nitrogen. (The "e" was dropped in the 1920s when it was found that amines, or organic compounds derived from ammonia, were not always present.)
In 1912, Funk published his paper, "Vitamines." His publication earned him public recognition and a Beit Fellowship from the University of London. In 1913, Funk began working at the London Cancer Hospital Research Institute. He published his first book, Die Vitamine, translated in 1922 by Dr. H.E. Dubin into English. (Dubin collaborated with Funk to produce the first cod liver oil vitamin concentrate, called Oscodal.)
In 1915 during World War I, Funk decided to leave England and accept a position at the Harriman Research Laboratory in New York City. Upon his arrival, he found to his dismay that the laboratory did not have research funding or equipment. Anxiety over how he would support his family caused Funk to suffer serious health problems. But he recovered and in 1916 accepted a position with Calco Company in Bound Brook, New Jersey. A year later, in 1917, he started working for the pharmaceutical firm Metz and Company in New York City. From 1918 to 1923, he also held an academic position at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he worked on the synthesis of adrenaline.
Funk became a United States citizen in 1920. In 1923, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, he returned to Poland and worked as chief of the Department of Biochemistry at the State Institute of Hygiene. While there, he increased the quality of insulin produced in the laboratory. In 1928, because of political unrest in Poland, he accepted a part-time position with Gr, my, a pharmaceutical house in Paris. There he founded Casa Biochemica, a private laboratory that produced biochemical products. From 1927 to 1936, Funk also worked as a biochemist for the Rousell Company.
In 1936, Funk published Vitamin and Mineral Therapy, also translated by H.E. Dubin. In this publication he called vitamin deficiencies insidious because they occur without warning and can cause irreparable damage. "Lack of a particular vitamin leads eventually to a particular nutritional disease," Funk wrote. "However, long before this deficiency disease becomes apparent, a shortage of one or more vitamins may—and usually does—give rise to some tissue changes which lower the general resistance of the body making it susceptible to the attack of certain infections."
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Funk returned to New York and began working for the U.S. Vitamin Corporation, a company for which he had previously worked and which owned the copyright to Vitamin and Mineral Therapy. In 1947, with the support of the U.S. Vitamin Corporation, Funk became head of the Funk Foundation for Medical Research. In 1963, Funk gave up an active role in research when he retired. He died in New York City on November 20, 1976.
Married in 1914 to Alix Denise Schneidesch, Funk had two children. During his lifetime, he published more than 140 articles, including material on gonadotropic hormones, ulcers, and diabetes.
Legacy of Improved Health
Funk advanced humankind's understanding of nutrition and revolutionized the way people looked at their health. He never isolated a pure vitamin, but he did prepare concentrations that contained several vitamins. His conclusion that lack of vitamins in the diet was responsible for disease helped develop effective preventive and curative measures for anemia, beriberi, osteomalacia, pellagra, rickets, scurvy, and sprue.
During the vitamin craze that followed Funk's discoveries, many people overlooked Funk's observation that only small amounts of the substances were necessary to maintain health. Nutritional supplements were said to cure diseases, and vitamin makers claimed that synthetic vitamins improved energy and health. Consumers began to ingest large amounts of vitamins, despite the fact that small amounts were sufficient and that too much of some vitamins, such as A and D, are toxic to the body.
Although he is remembered primarily for his work with vitamins, Funk was also instrumental in advancing studies on hormones, cancer, and diabetes. His contributions to science include developing accurate views of the relationship between diet and health that led to advances in child and adult nutrition. He also contributed to getting proper nutrients into manufactured foods.
Other contributions made by Funk include finding the connection between Vitamin B complex and carbohydrate metabolism, discovering that vitamins influence the speed at which cancer grows, separating Vitamin D from cholesterol, and realizing that bacteria are a necessary part of the diet.
Generations of children made to consume cod liver oil by their parents may not appreciate Funk's work, but it is certain that his contributions have improved the health of countless. Indeed, his work clearly contributed to the increased life span many people enjoy in modern society.
American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 8: 1966-1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.
Funk, Casimir and H.E. Dubin, Vitamin and Mineral Therapy, U.S. Vitamin Corporation, 1936.
Washington Post, October 16, 1985.
"Funk, Casimir," Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/04822.html (January 6, 2002).
"Polish Born Biochemist Casimir Funk Introduces the Name Vitamin," Intellihealth, http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/23722/21250/245416.html?d=dmtContent (January 6, 2002).
"Year 1912—Casimir Funk Coins The Name 'Vitamin,"' India Infoline, http://www.indiainfoline.com/phar/mile/1912.html (January 6, 2002).