Henrik Dam Biography (1895-1976)


Henrik Dam is best known for his discovery of vitamin K, which gives blood the ability to clot, or coagulate. The discovery of vitamin K dramatically reduced the number of deaths by bleeding during surgery, and for the discovery Dam received the 1943 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. (Edward A. Doisy,the American biochemist who isolated and synthetically produced vitamin K, shared this prize with Dam.)

Carl Peter Henrik Dam was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on February 21, 1895.His father, Emil Dam, was a pharmaceutical chemist who wrote a history of pharmacies in Denmark. His mother, Emilie Peterson Dam, was a schoolteacher. Heattended the Polytechnic Institute in Copenhagen, from which he received hismaster of science degree in 1920. He was associated with the Royal School ofAgriculture and Veterinary Medicine in Copenhagen for the next three years, after which he spent five years as an assistant at the University of Copenhagen's physiological laboratory. He became assistant professor of biochemistry in 1928 and associate professor in 1929 (a post he held until 1941).

During these years Dam studied microchemistry under Fritz Pregl in Austria (1925) at the University of Graz, and collaborated with biochemist Rudolf Schoenheimer in Freiburg, Germany (on a Rockefeller Fellowship) from 1932 to 1933.He was awarded a doctorate in biochemistry by the University of Copenhagen in 1934. Afterwards, he worked with the Swiss chemist Paul Xarrer at the University of Zurich in 1935. Dam specialized in nutrition, which became his areaof expertise.

While Dam was studying in Copenhagen he became interested in what would become the vitamin K factor. In the late 1920s he began experimenting with hens inan attempt to discover how the animals synthesized cholesterol. Providing them with a synthetic diet, Dam discovered that they developed internal bleeding in the form of hemorrhages under the skin--lesions similar to those found in the disease scurvy. He added lemon juice to the diet (citrus fruits, high in vitamin C, had been found by the18th-century Scottish physician James Lindto cure scurvy in sailors), but the supplement did little to reverse the hens' condition.

After experimenting with a variety of food additives, Dam came to the conclusion that some vitamin must exist to give blood the ability to clot--and thatthis vitamin was what was missing from his synthetic hen diet. He made his findings known in 1934, naming the vitamin "K" from the German word Koagulation. Dam's continued research, along with the work of Doisy and other biochemists, led to the isolation of vitamin K and its synthetic production.

Dam's discovery proved vitally important in two areas: in surgical proceduresand in treatment of newborn babies. Prior to surgery, patients are given vitamin K to assist in clotting the blood and reduce the risk of death by hemorrhage. Newborns are born deficient in vitamin K. Normally, beneficial bacteriathat exist in the environment enter the intestinal tracts of infants and induce production of vitamin K. Modern hospitals are disinfected to such an extreme, however, that they kill these good bacteria along with the harmful ones.Mothers are injected with vitamin K shortly before giving birth to ensure that adequate amounts of the vitamin will be in the newborn's system.

Dam's discovery led not only to the Nobel Prize but also the Christian Bohr Award in Denmark in 1939. Dam came to the United States in 1940 for a series of lectures in the U.S. and Canada under the auspices of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. During his visit Nazi Germany invaded Denmark. Dam chose notto return to his native country and accepted a position as senior research associate at the University of Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital. Because of the war, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to present the awards in New York in 1943. The Nobel recipients of that year, including Dam, were the first to be awarded their prize in the United States. In 1945, Dam became an associate member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

After Denmark was liberated, Dam returned in 1946 to accept the position of head of the biology department at the Polytechnic Institute (the position hadbeen awarded to him in absentia in 1941). He returned to the U.S. in 1949 fora three-month lecture tour, this time to discuss vitamin E. In 1956, he wasnamed head of the Danish Public Research Institute. He was a member of numerous organizations including the American Institute of Nutrition, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, the Royal Danish Academy of Science, the Société Chimique of Zurich, and the American Botanical Society. During his career he published more than 100 articles in scientific journals on vitamin K, vitamin E, cholesterol, and a variety of other topics. Dam married Inger Olsen in 1925. Dam died in Copenhagen at the age of 81 on April17, 1976.

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