Before the emergence of the science of nutrition many millions of people in every generation, from ignorance, led lives blighted by malnutrition....The new knowledge brought about improvement of health and its attendant elevation of the status of human life above the sordid, to a degree scarcely equaled by any other agency concerned with the prevention or cure of disease.
—from the History of Nutrition by E.V. McCollum
More is probably written about Elmer Vernon McCollum than many other twentieth century nutrition scientists, and rightfully so—our understanding of human nutrition owes much to his original thinking. In 1918, McCollum was recruited as the founding chair of the Department of Chemical Hygiene (now called biochemistry) at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Although the Center for Human Nutrition did not officially launch until 1990, McCollum brought worldwide renown to Johns Hopkins nutrition research many decades earlier and laid the foundation for the Center’s mission to combine rigorous scientific inquiry with an active commitment to improve nutrition and health in underprivileged populations.
Before coming to Johns Hopkins, McCollum’s previous research focused on farm animals, and for this reason and the fact that he lacked medical knowledge, it was a risky decision for William Welch (the School’s founder) to appoint him to lead the Chemical Hygiene Department. Few physicians or public health officials at that time took the relationship between diet and health and disease seriously, and few saw the connection between animal experiments and human health. McCollum’s research would change that perception.While at the University of Wisconsin, between 1912 and 1915, McCollum and his colleagues discovered vitamin A and vitamin B while conducting experiments to determine which food rations would best promote the growth of cattle and other economically important farm animals. These discoveries helped establish the experimental study of nutrition, and had implications well beyond the feeding of farm animals. McCollum also pioneered the use of rats for experimental studies in nutrition, insisting on their unequaled value as a test animal despite the indignant reaction of the School of Hygiene and Public Health to the presence of a lab for “vermin.”
During his tenure at Johns Hopkins, McCollum studied the nutritional status of children in Baltimore’s schools and orphan homes and gave public lectures on nutrition. Some of his most important research explored the relationship between diet, sunshine, and rickets by experiments with rats. This research demonstrated the role of “a vitamin whose specific property is to regulate the metabolism of bones” (which would later be called vitamin D) in preventing childhood rickets and led to the widespread supplementation of diets with vitamin D-rich cod liver oil.
McCollum’s belief that many other diseases of unknown origin, including mental illnesses, could be traced to nutritional deficiencies motivated his research into the effects of other inorganic elements including calcium, phosphorus, fluorine, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, boron, and cobalt. A true public health advocate, McCollum wrote extensively for McCall’s magazine and influenced Americans to eat fewer refined sugars and starches and more milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables. After he discovered that milling wheat for flour destroys most of the B-soluble vitamins, legislation was passed requiring milk solids be added to “enrich” the bread.By 1951, Time magazine wrote of McCollum: “Dr. Vitamin has done more than any other man to put vitamins back in the nation’s bread and milk, to put fruit on American breakfast tables, fresh vegetables and salad greens in the daily diet.”Many others at the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine followed in McCollum’s footsteps. Bacon Chow, who also served on the faculty of the department of biochemistry, conducted pioneering research on the trans-generational effects of inadequate nutrition during pregnancy. An advocate of a high protein diet during pregnancy, Chow led public health initiatives to improve the diets of pregnant women. Bill Beisel was the first to document the dramatic nutrient losses caused by relatively minor infections. These and countless others laid an honorable foundation for our work. We humbly and enthusiastically carry their legacy into the 21st century.
Elizabeth Fee, Disease & Discovery: A History of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health 1916-1939. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Lawrence Grossman, PhD, E.V. McCollum Professor Emeritus, “History of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology,” (working paper, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2003).
Elmer Vernon McCollum, From Kansas Farm Boy to Scientist. University of Kansas Press, 1964.