Christiaan Eijkman Biography (1858-1930)


Born in the Netherlands in 1858, Eijkman received his medical degree from theUniversity of Amsterdam in 1883, then went to Germany to study under the famous bacteriologist, Robert Koch. Encouraged by Koch, in 1887 Eijkman joined acommission sent to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) to investigate beriberi--and began the work that was to make him famous.

At the time, beriberi was a widely prevalent disease, characterized by polyneuritis, the kind of nerve damage that causes numbness, paralysis and, in manycases, death. Because Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease had already ledto so many successful cures, physicians now assumed that all diseases must be caused by microorganisms. The scientific commission sent to investigate beriberi, therefore, was primarily searching for its causative organism--an organism they failed to find. Disappointed, most of the group returned home in 1887, but Eijkman remained behind to serve as director of a new bacteriology lab set up in a medical school constructed for native doctors. It was there that, around 1890, Eijkman helped solve the problem of beriberi, at least partlyby accident.

When a group of laboratory chickens suddenly developed a strange disease--onewith symptoms that resembled polyneuritis--Eijkman promptly commandeered thechickens and once again tried to find the causative germ, without success. Moreover, he was unable to transfer the disease from sick chickens to healthyones. And then, to add to his frustration, the disease vanished as suddenly as it had started.

Fortunately Eijkman refused to give up. He stubbornly continued to delve intoevery aspect of the peculiar vanishing disease. Before long, he learned that, for a brief period of time, one of the cooks had been feeding the lab chickens boiled rice from the hospital's own stores. A second cook, however, decided it was wrong to feed rice meant for people to mere chickens, and switchedback to cheaper unpolished rice. Oddly enough, Eijkman learned that the chickens had developed their illness while eating the "better" polished rice.

To determine whether the polished rice was actually responsible for causing the sickness, Eijkman began feeding it to other chickens which quickly developed the beriberi-like illness. And even more intriguing, Eijkman could then cure this new illness simply by switching the sick chickens back to the unpolished rice. Eijkman, therefore, became the first researcher to pinpoint a dietary-deficiency disease. At first, he didn't fully understand the meaning of his findings, assuming that there must be a toxin in rice grains that could beneutralized by something in the hulls. But others would quickly clarify his results.

A younger colleague, Gerrit Grijns, took over the nutrition studies when an illness compelled Eijkman to go home in 1896, and in 1901 he proposed that beriberi was caused, not by germs, but by the lack of some natural substance present in rice hulls and other foods (this substance turned out to be thiamine). Over the next decade, a number of investigators--most notably, England's Frederick Gowland Hopkins--came to similar conclusions about a number of diseases and a new era in medicine was underway. Eijkman, whose work served as thebasis for the modern theory of vitamins, shared the Nobel Prize in physiologyor medicine with Hopkins in 1929.

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