A Beriberi Good Discovery


For many years a trading company known as the Dutch East India Company had been sending settlers from Holland to China, Java, and the beautiful islands of the Pacific. Then a terrible disease struck the settlers. The victims grew listless. They couldn’t eat; their muscles failed; their hearts weakened; paralysis set in. Finally death overcame them.

The disease was known as beriberi, which means "I cannot." For some reason the malady struck the European settlers especially hard. Very few of the local people came down with the disease.

By 1880 the Dutch East India Company decided something had to be done. They selected a medical team to study the disease. One of the members was Christiaan Eijkman, a young doctor from Amsterdam.

At that time scientists were excited about Louis Pasteur's dramatic proof that bacteria could cause diseases. Pasteur's germ theory of disease led to triumph after triumph. Most scientists believed that all diseases were caused by one type of germ or another.

"All we have to do," Christiaan Eijkman said, "is find the germ that causes beriberi and destroy it."

He worked on the problem at a hospital in Java. Beriberi patients filled the hospital wards. Those who lived in the Dutch enclosure had expert medical care, purer water, and better food. In that part of the world the staple food was rice. Settlers ate rice that had been machine-polished to remove the brown husks, called bran. Not only did white rice look better, but with the oily husks removed it kept longer without spoiling and cooked faster with less fuel.

Natives who lived outside the Dutch stockade knew little about modern medicine. They lived in unsanitary conditions and ate poorly processed food such as brown rice. Many diseases struck the natives, but not beriberi. Why?

Christiaan Eijkman desperately searched for the disease germ. He peered through his microscope at the patients' blood, the water they drank, and the food they ate. The distress of the people stricken by the disease left him distraught with worry. He couldn't find the germ.

Christiaan Eijkman refused to give up. The institute had a flock of chickens. One day he noticed that the chickens looked sick. They showed symptoms like those of beriberi. The chickens' wings hung limp. They stumbled around the chicken yard.

Eijkman immediately examined the blood of the chickens. He reasoned that somewhere in the sample of blood had to be the bacteria that caused beriberi. But he found nothing suspicious in the blood.

Then, mysteriously, the chickens got well. A horrible thought came to Christiaan Eijkman. Suppose a germ did not cause beriberi at all! Christiaan Eijkman became a detective. He asked the cook, "What do you feed the chickens?"

"Brown rice," the cook explained. "Except last week I ran out of brown rice and used polished rice from the hospital storeroom. The hospital director made me stop. He says white rice is too expensive for chickens."

A simple experiment led Christiaan Eijkman to find the cause of beriberi. He separated the chickens into two groups. He fed brown rice to one group and polished rice to the other. The "good" white rice caused beriberi. The poor-quality brown rice cured it! This explained why the natives, who ate brown rice, were protected from the disease. Settlers, on the other hand, ate fluffy white rice without the brown bran–and got sick.

Christiaan Eijkman explained his discovery to the hospital director. Unfortunately the majority of doctors still considered beriberi a disease caused by germs. The hospital director dismissed Christiaan's discovery as nonsense.

"What?" the director cried. "You suspect the rice? Millions of people live on rice."

"They eat brown rice," Christiaan pointed out. "I suggest you buy brown rice for the patients."


The director grew stern. "You leave the choice of food to me! I'm afraid you've been wasting your time. Haven't you ever heard of Louis Pasteur? You'd serve your patients a good deal better if you'd look for the germ that causes beriberi." The director threw Eijkman's report aside.

Years passed. American doctors struggled to end an outbreak of beriberi in the Philippines. After all other means failed, they decided to feed their patients brown rice. Within two months the disease was wiped out, except for four men who refused to eat the despised brown rice.

In 1896 Christiaan Eijkman returned to Holland to teach at a medical school. He wrote several textbooks. He peppered his lectures with practical knowledge. He also encouraged his students not to automatically accept theories as true until they had been thoroughly tested.

Scientists learned that some diseases, such as scurvy and beriberi, are caused by the lack of certain essential chemicals in the diet. In the case of beriberi the missing substance is vitamin B1, also known as thiamin. Today rice is processed so that the vitamins in the husk are put into the white part of the rice. But white rice still does not include the fiber in the husk, which is also important for health.

Christiaan Eijkman's work no longer went unnoticed. He was awarded the highest honor in the scientific world–the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Good nutrition is no accident. Lack of vitamins caused the hidden hunger. Often this results when changes are made in the natural food God has provided. God told Adam and Eve, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food" (Genesis 1:29). That's still the best diet around!  

John Hudson Tiner