Sunday, July 21, 2013

Adolf Windaus and Vitamin D

Are you a big fan of Vitamin D? Who isn't these days?  Vitamin D, originally valued for its ability to ward off rickets, has turned out to the be a nutritional super star. People who have high levels of serum Vitamin D ( high levels in the blood) are thinner, healthier with better immune systems, resistant to heart disease, cancer and other illnesses (including diabetes) and live longer.  You can do a search on Vitamin D and learn a lot about this super nutrient.

But this is Culinary Historian, where we look at things a little differently.  In our normal style, we will talk a little about the history of Vitamin D.

The first scientific publication that described something like Vitamin D came out in 1650. Of course, nobody knew exactly what it was, but they could describe its effects.  In the 1880s, scientists first started to suspect that something that would come to be known as "vitamins" must exist.

But it took the great Adolf Windaus to isolate the substance and give it a name. He didn't really work alone, but he got the 1928 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work. He also discovered tryptophan.

Windaus was also a humanitarian and was willing to sacrifice money and prestige for his principles, and for that, I admire him as much as for his research.  He was a professor in Germany during both World Wars I and II.  During World War I he refused to do research on poison gas or weapons. He wanted to use science to help people, not kill them.

After the Nazis came to power, he put his own life and career in jeopardy to protect his Jewish students. Despite his prodigious talent as a researcher, he stopped doing scientific research in 1938 in open opposition to the Nazis. He retired in 1944.  It is saddening to think of all he could have done in the intervening years, but I am deeply appreciative of his values.

So, next time you go out in the sun to soak up the rays, or pop a high-dosage vitamin D capsule, think of Adolf Windaus and his contributions to science and society.

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