Casimir Funk Biography (1884-1967)
- Polish, American
A biochemist and a forerunner in the field of nutritional science, Funk discovered that many human diseases are caused by a lack of certain nutrients thatare readily available in some foods. He found cures for such devastating illnesses as beriberi, pellagra, ricketts, and scurvy based on this finding. Funk later did extensive research on hormones.
Funk was born in Warsaw, Poland, the son of a renowned dermatologist. As a young man, he studied organic chemistry at Switzerland's University of Berne, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1904. Afterward, Funk worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris until 1906, then sporadically at the University of Berlin as an assistant. It was not until 1910, when he accepted an offer to work at London's Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine, that Funk's career as ascientist truly began. In this position, he was assigned to research beriberi, a common illness in the Far East that causes peripheral nerve damage and eventually heart failure. Scientists thought that the disease might be due toinsufficient dietary protein, but Funk disregarded this notion and began experiments to determine what was absent in the typical Far Eastern diet of polished rice.
Funk discovered in 1911 that the bran, the partly ground husk of the rice grain that was usually thrown out in Far Eastern cultures, contained a vital substance called thiamine that prevents beriberi. Later that year, he isolated asubstance now known as niacin (vitamin B1), but he stopped researching it when he realized it did not prevent beriberi. He named thiamine andniacin "vitamines" after the Latin word for "life" and "amine" because he believed (incorrectly) that all these vital ingredients contained nitrogen. Theword later became "vitamins." When he published his findings in 1912, Funk immediately became well known in the scientific world, while people around theworld soon began asking about these seemingly miraculous substances. Funk's famous book The Vitamin was published in 1913.
Funk left the Lister Institute later in 1913 to become head of the Biochemistry Department at the Cancer Hospital Research Institute in London. He remained there for two years, then moving to the United States after accepting a better paying job at New York's Cornell Medical College as a chemical researcherin cancer. In 1917, Funk became head of research at H. A. Metz and Company,where he remained until 1921. While at Metz, Funk developed Oscodol (a vitamin A and D concentrate) and Salvarsan (an arsenic-based treatment for syphilis).
After working as a biochemistry associate at Columbia University's College ofPhysicians and Surgeons from 1921 to 1923, Funk decided to return to his native country. He took a post in Warsaw as director of the State Institute of Hygiene's Biochemical Department, where he became interested in the function of hormones. In 1924 he showed that the pituitary gland's posterior portion produces hormones that regulate water balance and affect muscles.
Funk left Poland again in 1927 as the country's political climate worsened. At his own private laboratory called Casa Biochemica in Paris, he soon discovered that the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are effective in treatingsome diseases. He also managed to extract the male hormone androsterone fromhuman urine in 1929. Despite the progress he was making, Funk returned permanently to the United States when World War II started. He began a job in NewYork as a consulting scientist for the U.S. Vitamin Corporation, and in 1940he became president of the Funk Foundation for Medical Research. He died in 1967.