Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause, and a Cure

Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause, and a Cure

Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause, and a Cure

Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause, and a Cure


In this comprehensive account of the history and treatment of beriberi, Kenneth J. Carpenter traces the decades of medical and chemical research that solved the puzzle posed by this mysterious disease. Caused by the lack of a minute quantity of the chemical thiamin, or vitamin B1, in the diet, beriberi is characterized by weakness and loss of feeling in the feet and legs, then swelling from fluid retention, and finally heart failure.

Western doctors working in Asia after 1870 saw it as the major disease in native armed forces and prisons. It was at first attributed to miasmas (poisonous vapors from damp soil) or to bacterial infections. In Java, chickens fed by chance on white rice lost the use of their legs. On brown rice, where the grain still contained its bran and germ, they remained healthy. Studies in Javanese prisons then showed beriberi also occurring where white (rather than brown) rice was the staple food. Birds were used to assay the potency of fractions extracted from rice bran and,after twenty years, highly active crystals were obtained. In another ten years their structure was determined and "thiamin" was synthesized. White rice and flour are now enriched with thiamin in most technically advanced countries, but not in poorer countries where the disease has been endemic.

Beriberi is a story of contested knowledge and erratic scientific pathways. It offers a fascinating chronicle of the development of scientific thought, a history that encompasses public health, science, diet, trade, expanding empires, war, and technology.


This is a medical detective story: beginning with the investigation of a disease that has killed or crippled at least a million people, and then following up clues that ranged much wider. One outcome was the production of a synthetic chemical that we now, nearly all of us, consume in small quantities each day in our food. The detectives had a variety of professions and spoke different languages. Their work ranged from studying the health of laborers in a primitive jungle to the painstaking dissection of individual grains of rice under a microscope. The integrated story of their struggles and successes, culled from old volumes in scattered libraries, forms the subject of this book.

The disease under investigation was not a fever, but began with a weakness and loss of feeling in the legs, commonly proceeded to a swelling (or dropsy) of the lower half of the body, and could end in heart failure and death. This sequence was first encountered by Western doctors in Indonesia, where the natives called it beriberi. It then became clear that the same condition was known in Japan as kakké, in Brazil as perneiras (disease of the feet), in Louisiana as maladie des jambes (disease of the legs) and was occurring among fishermen off the coast of Labrador, and described by physicians as polyneuritis.

For the administrators of the European colonies in Southeast Asia toward the end of the nineteenth century, one of the worrying things was that the disease was a particularly serious and increasing problem among the men in their employ, whether as soldiers or civilians. Why should these men be more at risk in hygienically designed barracks than in their own villages, where modern ideas of hygiene were disregarded? The Japanese army, too, in Japan's short war with Russia, had to ship home from Manchuria over ninety thousand men who were suffering from the disease.

In the 1880s and 1890s, germ theory was providing the explanation, and also treatment with vaccines, for a considerable number of . . .

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