Today In Science History – November 15 – Elmer McCollum and Vitamin Letters

Elmer Verner McCollum
Elmer Verner McCollum (1879 – 1967)

November 15 marks the passing of Elmer McCollum. McCollum was the American biochemist who introduced the letter designations for vitamins. He was working on a project to investigate why animals fed only wheat, oats or corn would not develop normally. In order to accomplish this task, he collected several wild rats. This collection of rats was the first lab rat colony in the United States. The wild rats did not work out as well as he had hoped for the project so he ended up purchasing several white rats.

McCollum initially believed his rats weren’t eating enough of the grains to maintain their health. He thought he could get them to eat more if he added a variety of flavors to enhance their diet. When either butterfat or protein free milk was added to the mix the rats did significantly better. Further investigations discovered a fat-soluble nutrient which turned out to be necessary for general health. To distinguish it from Casimir Funk’s previously discovered ‘vital amine’ that prevented beriberi, he established the letter designation for vitamins. He labeled his fat soluble vitamin “vitamin A” and called Funk’s water-soluble vitamin “vitamin B”.

He discovered another vitamin, vitamin D while investigating cod liver oil and established its antirachitic properties. A British physician, Edward Mellanby had shown dogs that were fed cod liver oil would not develop rickets. Cod liver oil contains McCollum’s vitamin A and Mellanby felt vitamin A could prevent the disease. McCollum prepared samples of cod liver oil with the vitamin A removed and found rickets could still be prevented. Something else was in cod liver oil. When isolated, he called this compound vitamin D since it was the fourth vitamin to be found.

Notable Science History Events for November 15

1988 – Soviets launch their first space shuttle.

Buran - Soviet Space Shuttle
Buran – Soviet Space Shuttle

The Soviet Union launched their Buran (Snowstorm) space shuttle on its first and only flight. The shuttle was unmanned and orbited the Earth for 206 minutes before returning to Earth for an automated landing. The Soviet shuttle program was shut down before another flight could be launched. Buran was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002.

1967 – Elmer Verner McCollum died.

1959 – Charles Thomson Rees Wilson died.

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson
Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869 – 1959)
Nobel Foundation

Wilson was a Scottish physicist who was awarded half the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cloud chamber radiation detector. A cloud chamber consists of a glass box backed by a movable piston. The front panel was used to view the inside of the box and the side panels were lit to increase viewing. The piston back would pull back, changing the volume and pressure of the gases in the box. When charged particle radiation would enter the chamber, a vapor trail would condense along the path of the particle leaving small ‘cloud’ streaks. The streaks would last long enough to be photographed for study. This device was a great improvement over the previous methods to detect radioactivity.

1938 – André-Eugène Blondel died.

Andre Blondel (1863 - 1938)
Andre Blondel (1863 – 1938) in his student days.

Blondel was a French physicist who made contributions to the study of photometry. He proposed the Violle candle unit as a measure of light intensity. The Violle was equal to the light intensity of 1 cm2 of platinum at 1042 K. This unit was later deprecated to the current unit of a candela (cd). He also introduced the unit of the lumen for luminous flux which is still used.

In the course of his research, he invented a device called an oscillograph that was the precursor to the oscilloscope to measure the intensity of alternating currents and voltages.

1919 – Alfred Werner died.

Alfred Werner
Alfred Werner (1866 – 1919)

Alfred Werner was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work describing the linkage of complex ions around a central transition metal atom. This explained several unknown geometries of complex ions. He later used this to explain the differences between complexes with optical isomers and why they appear different from each other.

Werner was the first inorganic chemist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The next inorganic chemist was Ernst Fischer and Geoffrey Wilkinson in 1973.

1874 – August Krogh was born.

August Krogh Bain
August Krogh Bain (1874 – 1949)

Krogh was a Danish physiologist who was awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery on how the body regulates the flow of blood through capillaries in skeletal muscle tissue.

He is also known for the Krogh principle that describes that for large numbers of problems, there will be some animal of choice that will make them most conveniently studied.

1738 – Frederick William Herschel was born.

William Herschel
William Herschel (1738-1822) English astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus.

Herschel was a German-born British astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus and two of its moons. He also discovered infrared radiation and two moons of Saturn. He constructed over 400 telescopes over his career including a 40-foot focal length reflecting telescope that was the largest telescope in the world for nearly 50 years.

Read more about Herschel on August 25 in Science History.

1630 – Johannes Kepler died.

Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)

Kepler was a German mathematician and astronomer who outlined the Kepler three laws of planetary motion. The first law says planets have elliptical orbits with the Sun at a focus. The second states a line joining the Sun and the planet sweeps out an equal area during an equal amount of time and the third law relates the orbital period of a planet and the semi-major axis of its orbit. These laws were instrumental in Newton’s theory of gravitation.