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Part 1

July 10th, 1886, a mysterious illness breaks out in the chicken house attached to a small laboratory in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. The lab has been set up to investigate the causes of beri-beri, an illness that is causing concern to the Dutch government. They are battling guerillas in the Malaysian archipelago and their troops have been ravaged by the disease. A team from Utrecht attempting to define the causative organism had not made much progress. The neurologist on the team has established that the disease is some form of polyneuritis. The senior investigators have returned to Europe, leaving Christiann Eijkman, a military medical doctor in charge of a small unit.

Eijkman is intrigued. The disease amongst the chickens appears similar to the human condition. The birds become unsteady, have difficulty in perching and frequently fall over while walking. The wing muscles become weak and the paralysis continues. Attempts to transmit the disease from an affected bird to another fail. Mysteriously the disease disappears by the end of November. The affected chickens recover.


Part 2

The laboratory has been housed provisionally at the military hospital, although it had been administered by the civilian authorities. Eijkman discovers that for a period, the laboratory keeper, for reasons of economy, had been feeding the chickens with cooked rice from the hospital kitchen. But a new cook refuses to allow civilian chickens from eating military rations and so the normal chicken diet had resumed by the end of November. The suspicion that something in the food was responsible leads Eijkman to undertake feeding experiments. Chickens fed cooked rice develop the disease, whereas controls fed unpolished rice do not. The condition seems easily treatable by altering the diet.


Part 3

In 1929, Eijkman is awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. He is unable to attend the ceremony due to illness, but his co-recipient Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins does. They are recognised for their contributions to the role of accessory food factors (now known as vitamins). Casimir Funk who has coined the term and has isolated the active principle that cured beri-beri does not get a share of the Prize.



The discovery of accessory food factors later termed vitamins provides students an opportunity to explore many aspects of research in practice. With this problem, students discussed the nature of beriberi, the role of experimental models, the current awareness of dietary deficiencies and Nobel Prizes. The role of dominant paradigms in delaying recognition of new ideas was discussed given that proponents of deficiency diseases had to counter the prevalent paradigm of germs as major causative factors.

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