Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Scurvy and Paprika

Jack W. Dini
Livermore, California

What famous scientist do you think of when one mentions vitamin C? My guess is that it’s Linus Pauling because of his much publicized efforts at labeling vitamin C as a remedy for cancer and the common cold. The early history of vitamin C reveals that there were some other good scientists and interesting events that led to the understanding of this vital ingredient.

If you travel to Hungary, one item you might bring home with you is some paprika. At least that’s what a lot of folks did on my recent trip to that country. Hungary is famous for its paprika. What’s all this have to do with vitamin C? Think scurvy. Joe Schwarcz reports, “The first vitamin-deficiency disease to be recognized was scurvy, described as early as 1550 BC by the Egyptians in the Ebers Papyrus. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when long ocean voyages became common, thousands of sailors died from scurvy, which is characterized by spongy gums, loose teeth, and bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes. The first clue that scurvy was a diet related disease came from North American Indians who showed French explorer Jacques Cartier that a brew made for pine needles could cure the condition.” (1)

James Lind, a Scottish physician, had been inspired to work on this issue when he heard about a British Navy expedition that had gone terribly wrong. James Burke provides the story, “In 1740 Captain George Anson had sailed from England with six ships and over a thousand men. His mission: to head for the Pacific and clobber the Spanish wherever he found them. He did so, in spades, attacking Spanish ports and ships, laying waste right and left in the usual manner, and coming home four years later with so much treasure it took thirty wagons to haul it from the docks to the Tower of London for safekeeping. Every crew member walked off Anson’s ship rich for life. There was a lot more booty than originally planned for each man to share because, of the original six ships and one thousand crew, only one ship with 145 men made it back. Scurvy had killed the rest.” (2)

Lind proceeded to carry out what was probably the first properly controlled trial in the history of clinical nutrition. For fourteen days he kept six pairs of scurvy patients on the same diet, but gave each pair a different medicine: cider, elixir vitriol, vinegar, seawater, a ‘medicinal paste’ or oranges and lemons. The citrus fruit was the cure and in 1753 Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy. (2) It took another 50 years but the British Navy finally got around to requiring sailing vessels to carry supplies of lemons or limes. Besides solving the scurvy problem, this led to the slang term ‘Limeys’ for British sailors. (1) The upside for the British besides the saving of many lives is that according to historians, many a naval victory claimed by the ‘Limeys’ resulted because these sailors, unlike their enemies, were protected form scurvy. (3)

So what was the magic ingredient in the citrus fruits? This gets us back to paprika since it played a key role in helping isolate the anti-scurvy factor found in citrus fruits. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was a Hungarian physician studying plant chemistry around 1925. He noted a similarity between the darkening of damaged fruit and skin discoloration in patients suffering from Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder. He had observed that certain fruits like oranges did not turn brown and their juice prevented others from discoloring. He isolated the substance that prevented browning and suggested the name “Godnose” for it. This wasn’t accepted very well so he changed the name to hexuronic acid. Szent-Gyorgyi wanted to do more research on this material but he needed large amounts of it. Along the way he accepted a university position in Szeged, which is the paprika capital of the world. As Joe Schwarcz reports, “To live in Szeged is to be surrounded by the sights and smells of paprika. Szent-Gyorgyi couldn’t help but wonder if paprika, like oranges and limes, might also contain his hexuronic acid. Did it ever! (3) (Fresh red peppers have more than seven times as much vitamin C as oranges, but the very high heat of drying destroys much of its vitamin C.)(4) Within a short time, Szent-Gyorgyi had isolated a kilogram of the stuff and determined that it was identical to the anti-scurvy factor found in citrus fruits. He rechristened it ‘ascorbic acid.’ Today we know it as vitamin C. Why name it vitamin C? Because the practice of naming vitamins by letter had been introduced some twenty years earlier and A and B were already taken. (3)

Some last words on Szent-Gyorgyi. He left an impressive legacy as a highly admired biochemist, winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his biological combustion discoveries. He is credited with saying. “Very often, when you look for one thing, you find something else.” (5)


1. Joe Schwarcz, The Fly in the Ointment, (Toronto, ECW Press, 2004), 122

2. James Burke, Circles, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000), 235

3. Joe Schwarcz, That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles, (Toronto, ECW Press, 2002)

4. “Paprika”, http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/paprika/html

5. “Know Your Strengths”, http:www.dailycelebrations.com/063001.htm

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