October 29, 2012

History of the Discovery of Vitamin B12

A Fatal Form of Anaemia:

In 1824 a fatal form of anaemia associated with degeneration of the stomach was described by J.S. Combe in Edinburgh in his article entitled "History of a Case of Anaemia". Similar case reports were later described in 1849 by Thomas Addison, a physician at Guy’s Hospital.  In 1872 Biermer, working in Switzerland, coined the concept of this as a "pernicious anaemia" based on the inevitably fatal outcome of this disorder.

Raw Liver Diets:

This disease remained totally incurable until 1926 when two US physicians, Minot and Murphy, described giving patients a diet made of raw liver that miraculously cured the symptoms of pernicious anaemia.  Their discovery was actually prompted by experiments made six years earlier by George Whipple.  Whipple had found that feeding raw liver to dogs, who had been made anaemic by bleeding, regenerated hemoglobin.

Liver extracts were later found to be able to reverse the anaemia not only in dogs, but also in humans.  The discovery of this curious anti-pernicious or "extrinsic" factor is one of the most fascinating events in the history of medicine; Minot, Murphy and Whipple went on to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1934 for this work.

Vitamin B12 is finally identified:

We now know that liver contains a very high concentration of vitamin B12.  In fact, for the next two decades it served as the main source of this unknown curative "extrinsic factor." However, in 1948 two teams working independently in the US and UK isolated the mysterious factor in crystalline form.  Folkers decided to call it ‘vitamin B12’.

In 1955 Dorothy Hodgkin, a British chemist, worked out the very complex chemical structure of this large molecule, using a technique called X-Ray crystallography.  Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, partly for this monumental achievement, but also for determining the structure of penicillin.

The production of vitamin B12 on an industrial scale in the early 1950s has enabled its worldwide medical application to treat pernicious anaemia.

Check back again soon for our next blog update, when we will look at the History of the Discovery of Folic Acid.

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