Today, we talk about sick chickens and creativity.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The word beriberi
comes from the Singhalese word for extreme
weakness. Weakness is the first symptom of
beriberi. After that, neuritis, edema, paralysis
and heart failure! It's no fun.
Beriberi became a great horror in colonial Asia
during the nineteenth century. Finally Pasteur
found that microbes cause disease. So, in 1886, the
Dutch East India Company sent a team to Djakarta to
find the offending beriberi germ.
The team put blood, saliva, and urine under the
microscope. They tried everything and found out
nothing. Finally, after nine months, they left
their youngest member in charge of a tiny permanent
station. They gave up and went home.
The young man was Christian Eijkman. For ten years
he kept working on the problem. At one point, the
chickens at the station came down with
beriberi-like symptoms. They were sick for several
months. Several even died. Then the rest recovered.
At first Eijkman shrugged that off. Then something
caught his eye. The chickens got sick after a usual
shipment of brown rice hadn't shown up. The cook
had provided white rice for them. After a while,
the superintendent found out. He said, "Stop this!
White rice costs too much!" They switched the
chickens back to brown rice. That was when they got
Polished white rice was a 19th-century refinement.
Maybe it held the secret. So Eijkman went to local
jails to check menus. Where they served brown rice,
there was little beriberi. Where they served white
rice, beriberi was a terrible problem.
What'd that mean? Eijkman decided that germs didn't
cause beriberi after all. The rice must hold some
kind of poison. The brown colored bran must carry
the antidote. That solved the immediate problem.
But his explanation was far off the mark.
Years later, a Pole named Casimir Funk realized
what was going on. The husks contained a nutrient
that we must have, but which the body can't
produce. He found these nutrients come in other
foods as well. Funk gave them a name. He called
them vitamins. The vitamin in rice bran is thiamine
or vitamin B-1.
That was in 1936. By now, Eijkman had the Nobel
Prize for finding a nonbacterial disease. Maybe
Funk didn't get his due, but I can't begrudge
Christian Eijkman. After all, we've seen over and
over in this series that the heart of creativity is
recognition. And that's what Eijkman did. When he
recognized what'd happened to those chickens, the
rest of the discovery followed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds