Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Our health depends on vitamins, and to understand that dependency, it helps to understand the history of vitamins. As I wrote in an article in Science Times this week, our ancestors have probably needed vitamins for billions of years. By studying how we and other species make vitamins, scientists hope to find new ways to keep us healthy — perhaps even by using vitamins as a weapon against our enemies. There are two ways of getting those vitamins: making them or eating them. Our microbial ancestors probably made many of their vitamins, but later much of that ability was lost. Our primate ancestors lost the ability to make their own vitamin C about 60 million years ago. Those ancestors didn’t need to make vitamin C, however, because they regularly ate fruit. More recently, our hunter-gatherer ancestors got an abundant supply of vitamins from the game they killed and the plants they collected. But with the rise of agriculture, people began to eat more vitamin-poor starches like wheat and corn. And as we’ve transformed our diet even further, we’ve put ourselves at risk of vitamin-related diseases.
In the mid-1800s, for example, manufacturers began processing rice in steam-powered mills, which stripped off their vitamin-rich outer layer. As white rice became increasingly common, so did a disease called beriberi, which causes people to lose the feeling in their legs and begin to have trouble walking. Beriberi baffled scientists for decades. In the 1880s, a scientist named Christiaan Eijkman found that chickens could develop a beriberi-like condition and started studying them to find the cause of the disease. For years he was convinced some kind of bacteria was to blame. But then he discovered that a flock of sick chickens suddenly recovered from beriberi-like symptoms. It turned out that the chickens had initially been fed on leftover rice from the military hospital in the Netherlands where Dr. Eijkman did his research. “Then the cook was replaced and his successor refused to allow military rice to be taken for civilian chickens,” Dr. Eijkman later explained when he accepted the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research.