The Invention of Vitamin C

The Invention of Vitamin C

Vsauce! Kevin here. Sailing the high seas! Avast ye, scurvy dogs! Actually, I’m in a kiddie pool. And you’re not scurvy dogs because scurvy
was just some weird thing pirates got or something. Or is it a disease everyone can still get
today?  And does the centuries-long search for its
cause and cure show us how life-saving knowledge can be hidden right in front of our faces? Yes. Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency
of ascorbic acid, commonly known as Vitamin C. It’s necessary for the absorption of
iron, which fortifies red blood cell production. Red blood cells help carry oxygen from your
lungs to the rest of your body. Vitamin C is also necessary for connective
tissues, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, bones, and the formation of collagen – the
glue that binds your body together.  Zombies could probably benefit from Vitamin
C. Guinea pigs are one of the only animals whose
livers don’t synthesize Vitamin C — a shortlist that includes some primates and all humans. For us, it’s thought to be the result of
an evolutionary defect that occurred 60 million years ago, and it means we have to get Vitamin
C from someplace else – food. Here are some foods that contain Vitamin C. While fresh fruits and vegetables are the
most common sources of Vitamin C, for the Inuit people living in the Arctic, there’s
as much Vitamin C pound for pound in beluga whale skin as there is in orange juice. Scurvy is so rare today that it’s often
overlooked by doctors when patients do suffer from it. It takes only about 10 milligrams of Vitamin
C a day to stave off — eight ketchup packets. But in a world without cheap, pre-packaged
servings of sweet and tangy tomato goop, without foods fortified with extra Vitamin C, or without
any idea that vitamins even existed, men were trapped on boats for months at a time eating
salted meat, biscuits and beer. A diet with a daily recommended allowance
of Vitamin C floating right around zero percent. The Age Of Sail, which lasted from the late
15th to mid 19th century, was defined by European powers exploring and warring over sea supremacy. Warships grew bigger, vessels for commerce
flourished and voyages lasted longer. Mortality rates at sea were so high that some
ships would leave port with up to 50% more sailors than they needed to try to make up
for the deaths caused by scurvy. Cannonballs, Krakens and Captain Hook can’t
compare to a deficiency of Vitamin C. So what happens when you get scurvy? According to the National Health Service,
scurvy is characterized by fatigue, pain in the limbs, swollen gums, and the appearance
of red-blue spots on the skin… which doesn’t sound too bad. But according to a surgeon on a 16th Century
English voyage, symptoms can get a lot more graphic. “It rotted all my gums, which gave out a
black and putrid blood. My thighs and lower legs were black and gangrenous,
and I was forced to use my knife each day to cut into the flesh in order to release
this black and foul blood. I also used my knife on my gums, which were
livid and growing over my teeth… When I had cut away this dead flesh and caused
much black blood to flow, I rinsed my mouth and teeth with my urine, rubbing them very
hard… And the unfortunate thing was that I could
not eat, desiring more to swallow than to chew.” Okay! Let’s break this down. Urine, which contains ammonia, was used as
a mouthwash and teeth-whitener for centuries – documented by 1st century BC Roman poet
Catullus in a verse about a rival’s beautifully-polished teeth: “… the higher the polish on your teeth,
the more it proclaims that you have drunk your piddle.” And cutting out foul blood, or bloodletting,
was a foundational tenet of medical reasoning from Hippocrates in 4th Century BC Greece
through the 19th century. Despite the surgeon general of The East India
Company writing in 1617 that lemon juice prevents and cures scurvy, it took years for anyone
to understand why. Three hundred sixteen years. Before the rise of modern medicine, ailments
were thought to be treated by balancing the four humors – blood, black bile, yellow bile
and phlegm. The scurvy-suffering surgeon thought he had
too much blood so he performed a venesection to release some. Then along came Dr. Lime Tree. Surgeon James Lind, whose last name derives
from the Old Norse for lime tree, performed the first controlled clinical trial in human
history. While aboard the English warship HMS Salisbury
in 1747, Lind separated scurvy-afflicted sailors into six pairs. He then monitored the effects of treating
them with cider, a sulphuric acid cocktail, vinegar, sea water, oranges and lemons, and
garlic paste. Lind found that, “the most sudden and visible
good effects were perceived from the use of oranges and lemons,” but without knowledge
of vitamins, he was forced to explain the results through the medical worldview of his
time. He concluded that the dampness at sea blocked
perspiration, which led to an imbalance of alkalinity. Basically, that sailors weren’t sweating
properly because they were wet all the time, and acidic fruits restored the body’s internal
pH balance. None of which is remotely true, but he didn’t
know that. No one understood the chemistry of nutrition
– it was a different world with different rules, and Lind was just trying to understand
what he observed and explain it to others. But it didn’t work. With no scientific understanding of how a
lemon could prevent and cure scurvy, other purported remedies included mixing hydrochloric
acid into drinking water or drinking wort of malt. A precursor to beer promoted as a scurvy elixir
by Dublin Physician David Macbride with the support of the Royal Society, wort of malt
not only contained zero Vitamin C, it actually inhibited its absorption. It was like giving a thirsty person a cup
of sand. Despite scurvy killing over two million sailors
during the Age Of Sail, there wasn’t much motivation to find a cure. Ship owners were more concerned about their
expensive ships — sailors were easier to replace. It wasn’t until the warship HMS Gloucester
had to be abandoned in 1742 because there weren’t enough living sailors to continue
manning it that England put effort into a solution.   Ships were loaded with lemon rob, a concentrate
invented by Lind which unknowingly destroyed half the Vitamin C in the process. Storing the rob deteriorated the Vitamin C
further over time, but it still worked well enough that in 1799, the Royal Navy ordered
a lemon and sugar cocktail to be administered daily to all sailors. Scurvy plummeted, which gave the British navy
a tremendous advantage in the Napoleonic wars. Scurvy was cured! Until it wasn’t. The advent of steam engines meant shorter
trips, so the importance of lemons was seen as less critical. Lemons, which had been planted throughout
Sicily to supply the British navy, were eventually replaced in 1860 by more readily available
West Indies limes. They believed that acidity provided the cure,
and while limes are more acidic than lemons they have half the Vitamin C. 50 years later, further misunderstandings
of scurvy led Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to Antarctica to not include any citrus at
all — and the trip was such a disaster that Apsley Cherry-Garrard called it “The Worst
Journey in the World.” But you didn’t have to be a sailor or an
explorer to suffer from scurvy. When baby formula became popular in the early
1900s, it contained no Vitamin C and thousands of infants died. By 1920, orange juice was mixed into the formula. Ultimately, the knowledge that fresh fruits
and vegetables cured and prevented scurvy wasn’t enough — we needed to understand
the process that was involved. Humanity required a shot in the arm. Like, with a bullet. In 1917, in the midst of World War I, a young
Hungarian soldier named Albert Szent-Györgyi wanted to get back to the University Of Budapest
so badly he said he was, “overcome with such a mad desire to return to science that
one day I grabbed my revolver and in my despair put a shot through my upper arm.” He finished his MD later that year without
a clue that a guinea pig would lead him to a nobel prize. While studying a deficiency disorder called
Beriberi, researchers Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich decided to switch out their pigeon
test subjects for a mammal. They fatefully chose the non-vitamin-c-producing
guinea pig, which died from scurvy-like symptoms when fed a strict diet of grain. For the first time, an animal was observed
with scurvy. They honed their experiments, and by 1932
Szent-Györgyi had isolated ascorbic acid. Prior to the discovery of X-rays, the electron,
radioactivity and relativity, scientific learning was largely limited by our senses. You can see a hungry lion; you can’t see
its electrons. You can see rotten food; you can’t see if
it has Vitamin C. The constraints of medical reasoning of the era prevented James Lind
from saving millions of lives. His knowledge was imprisoned by the zeitgeist
– a German word representing the dominant ideals and beliefs of a particular period
of time.     In his 1970 book, The Crazy Ape, Albert Szent-Györgyi
described the zeitgeist as a cage. He said, “The freedom of human thought is
very limited. We all live in a very narrow cage, the “spirit
of our times,” in which we have very limited freedom of motion. If, in different ages, people thought differently,
this was not because the cage got wider, but because the cage moved.” By discovering ascorbic acid and finally solving
a mystery that plagued humans for thousands of years, Albert Szent-Györgi moved the cage. Today, we live in a cage created by the math,
biology, chemistry, and physics of our time. And just like James Lind couldn’t conceive
the chemistry of lemons and livers — we have a hard time moving our own cage. Albert Szent-Györgyi included a quote in
his 1957 book, Bioenergetics, that says, “Research is to see what everybody has seen and think
what nobody has thought.” In order to move our cage, we have to step
outside its confines and see things from a new perspective. Whether it’s to advance science, improve
our world or just better ourselves. Like Vitamin C and scurvy, a solution that
can revolutionize life as we know it exists just outside the limits…of our own kiddie
pool. The greatness in each of us lies in our ability
to move beyond limitations and find a way to see what everybody else has seen but think
what nobody else has thought. And the fear, complacency and obstacles in
our path are washed away as soon as the wall impeding discovery is broken down. And as always – thanks for watching. Hey I’m really excited to announce I did a
collaboration with Sesame Studios. It’s a blanket fort memory game. It’s for really really little future Vsauce
fans. So go over there – check it out. Make sure you subscribe while you’re there. And uhh yeah. I’ll see you over there in the blanket fort. Okay? Bye!


  1. The gage around vit c in our time is locked by the pharmaceutical industry who downplay and lie about how miraculous it is in high doses. Maybe a time in tge future will not be so constrained.

  2. Was waiting for you to mention how ships stocked barrels of sourcraut for scurvy! And to tell us how one captain always put it first on his plate so that the sailors would esteme it and eat it, too (they didn't like it).

  3. When i started watching this i was like
    "What is someone is stalkin me or watching me on my webcam"
    Cuz i cant know the answer

  4. I've had scurvy for much of my life because my parent is delusional and believed I was allergic and my doctor was worse than those medieval doctors were.

    First world problems.

  5. Kinda proud when I hear about something hungarian related while watching my fav channels 🙂 Keep up, greetings from Hungary!

  6. So, if scientists and doctors would think outside the box, instead of adhering so tightly to what is currently known, they'd be a lot more effective at getting the results they were seeking?

    Too bad most of them are so egotistic and high-up on their pedestal that if you told them to look at their work differently, they'd either ignore you or give you a long-winded speech about how much smarter they are than you, and that you'd never understand the things they were doing.

  7. Scurvy is not "rare today." It is common and, when recognized at all, is called "subclinical." Which ironically implies "Not recognized in a clinic." Scurvy does not have some mysterious threshold where you suddenly have it but didn't previously. Most people are subclinical scurvy.

  8. wait did you orange juice has vitamin c !!!! i never knew that well thats my faveriot juice so i guess i dont have to eat all those veggies !!! phew (im not stupid i wont just rely on orange juice btw)

  9. That ending made so much symbolic sense to me that IT is what completed the video. Cemented the thought. The presence of the cage has been fully illuminated

  10. Yeah thats why I made the rhyming kids books I'm working on.. we all have our own idea of how to explain many things..

  11. Me watching the video: scurvy is not that bad
    Vsauce: I rinsed my teeth with my urine
    Me: Okay I'm done with this

  12. 4:47 that looks like Mozart

    The one who wrote twinkle twinkle little star.

    Mozart and him both also look like Haydn: the one who wrote Alleluia (Hallelujah)

    They all also lived ~around the same time

  13. You make a great point and I love this message. The music is a great passive-serious transformation. I ef-ing love it

  14. Actually pushing information into my brain in such a funny way should get you a real program on a streaming network. Thx dude.

  15. It's crazy that someday we might see the marriage of special relativity and quantum mechanics, and years later it will be as obvious as Newtonian physics is to us now

  16. So, as a shortage of iron, I can eat foods with vitamin C in order to make it better (or at least help with taking my meds?)

  17. this video make me add a spoon of fresh press orange juice into baby cereals… as surprisingly contains 0% vitamine C!?

  18. Vidéo hyper intéressante !!
    Depuis que j'ai découvert les multiples bienfaits de la vitamine C , j'en prends quotidiennement celle de , elle a vraiment un impact positif sur ma vie et mon dynamisme

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