How was Vitamin B12 Discovered?

Vitamin B12 Benefits

How was Vitamin B12 discovered? It is a fascinating history and it rounds out over a decade of vitamin research as the last vitamin to be discovered. What we now know is that Vitamin B12 is an essential daily nutrient that is needed to maintain healthy red blood cells, healthy nerve cells and to make DNA. However, it was discovered as a cure to a condition known as pernicious anemia which is directly related to a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Pernicious Anemia

The history of the vitamin B12 began as a cure for pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is mostly seen in elderly patients. Also known as megaloblastic anemia, Biermer's anemia, Addison's anemia, or Addison-Biermer anemia, pernicious anemia is when the stomach is missing a substance called intrinsic factor which causes the body to be unable to absorb vitamin B12. Researchers were looking for a cure for pernicious anemia when they discovered that vitamin B12 supplements would cure pernicious anemia. The deadly disease is essentially wiped out among the elderly population now, thanks to this discovery.

Key People in the History of How Vitamin B12 Was Discovered

Vitamin B12 was discovered somewhat by accident in this effort to cure pernicious anemia. Numerous scientists played small roles in helping to discover the element and isolate it, thus making the cure available.

Dr. Newcastle

Dr. Newcastle was never looking for a vitamin supplement, but rather a simple cure for pernicious anemia. He discovered that he could regurgitate his own gastric juices and then feed it to his patients which caused disease improvement. Clearly however, this was not a sustainable practice.

Dr. Whipple

Before Dr. Whipple, pernicious anemia was a fatal disease. In about the year 1920, Dr. Whipple bled dogs to induce anemia and then set about to find out which foods would cause the dogs to recover the most quickly. He discovered that feeding the dogs raw liver would essentially cure the anemia. Thus, raw liver, or raw liver juice became the treatment of choice for pernicious anemia. Patients would eat at least a 1/2 pound per day!

George Minot and William Murphy

It was these two researchers who set about to try to isolate the curative property of raw liver. They were successful in showing that the curative property was in the liver tissue. For the discovery of a cure of pernicious anemia, a disease that up until that point was fatal, Whipple, Minot, and Murphy won the 1934 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Edwin Cohn

By 1928, doctors knew that the cure laid in the liver tissues and with this knowledge, Cohn created a liver extract that was substantially more potent than simply eating raw liver. Since patients no longer had to eat large amounts of raw liver, the treatment became significantly more affordable.

Karl A. Folkers and Alexander R. Todd

It was these American and British researchers who simultaneously discovered, isolated and named cobalamin, or vitamin B12 in 1948.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

It wasn't until more sophisticated technology came about that doctors and scientists were able to determine the molecular structure of Vitamin B12. Using crystallographic data, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was able to determine the molecular structure and in the 1950s they were able to learn to produce large quantities from bacteria cultures leading to the modern form of treatment for the disease. She also won a Nobel Prize for her work.

Other Interesting Facts

The history of vitamin B12 is not actually brought to a close with the cure to pernicious anemia. The journey of how vitamin B12 was discovered continues on. In fact, initially researchers labeled all water soluble vitamins with active properties as B vitamins. Then they separated their properties by numbers and soon realized that some of their so called vitamins didn't exist and others were duplicated.

Here are some more interesting facts:

  • Calcium helps the absorption of vitamin B12.
  • Today, pernicious anemia is prevented via injections of Vitamin B12.
  • Vitamin B12 has also been used as a supplement for AIDS patients, Alzheimer's, asthma, and depression. Use of Vitamin B12 on these patients is still experimental.
  • Good dietary sources of B12 include meat, diary and eggs.
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How was Vitamin B12 Discovered?