The History of Vitamin C in Healthcare

Vitamin C is vital for overall health, and modern medicine recognizes its many roles in your physical well-being. It’s an essential mineral, without which the body couldn’t function (vitamin C deficiency, left untreated, invariably leads to death), and high blood levels of vitamin C are associated with myriad health benefits from a slowed aging process to protection against chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

However, vitamin C’s role in health care has not always been so well-understood. In fact, there was a time when people died left and right of vitamin C deficiency (a.k.a. Scurvy) because nobody knew what it was or that it was essential for survival. Inspired by the amazing properties of vitamin C, Vine Vera decided it could be worthwhile to explore the history of vitamin C in health care, so keep reading for a detailed overview.

Sick woman drinking orange juice.

Scurvy: 15th to 20th Centuries
In truth, Scurvy was a problem for hundreds of years before the 15 century, but this is when it gained most of its prevalence, as large numbers of sailors and pirates were off at sea for months or more at a time. Curiously, those out at sea for some time would develop a mysterious condition that made those afflicted weak and lethargic, first feeling out of sorts and disoriented, and later developing symptoms such as acute bone pain, dry eyes and mouth, and serious fatigue, and ultimately dying. This enigmatic disease was called scurvy, and at the time, no one really knew what caused it.

Scurvy was, of course, a vitamin C deficiency. Since fresh fruit and vegetables (or fresh, uncooked meat, for that matter) would go bad long before a voyage was over, sailors and pirates mostly lived off a diet of grains and dried, cured meat. As such, they got precious little to no vitamin C on their voyages, and once they’d been on this limited diet for long enough, they started seeing the detrimental effects of vitamin C deficiency.

Over time, cures and preventatives were found for scurvy. Nobody knew of the existence of vitamin C or its causal relationship with scurvy yet, but they did figure out that certain types of foods—including a plant named “scurvygrass” for its ability to stave off scurvy, and citrus fruits—would cure and prevent it. By the 20th century, scurvy was well enough understood that its prevalence was beginning to fall.

Hand drawing the chemical formula of vitamin C

Discovery of Vitamin C: 20th Century
In the year 1907, a pair of Norwegian physicists (Axel Holst and Theodor Frølich) first discovered that guinea pigs were capable of contracting Scurvy. Until then, the only animal the disease had ever been seen in was humans (most animals make their own vitamin C, with only a few exceptions). The specific cause of scurvy was still unknown, but scientists now had a basis for scurvy-related testing on animals, which would pave the way for future discoveries.

In 1912, the idea of “vitamins” as a non-mineral nutrient essential for health, was first devised by Polish-American scientist Casimir Funk. Funk also discovered what is now called vitamin C, and was the first to speculate about its possible role in preventing Scurvy.


Development to Current Medical Understanding: 20th Century to Modern Day
Since then, Funk’s ideas have been expanded upon, and trials of vitamin C confirmed that it was, in fact, the essential nutrient whose lack caused scurvy. Since that discovery, a good deal of research has been conducted on its other effects on the human body, which ultimately brought us to where we are today: with a keen understanding of Vitamin C’s many roles in the body, and how an abundance of it is good for health in a huge number of ways.

So, next time you grab a vitamin C-rich food, supplement, or a skincare or hair-care product that contains the nutrient, you can thank the once-mysterious disease of scurvy for prompting all the research that’s brought us to where where are today.