Christiaan Eijkman

Born 1858
Died 1930

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Dutch physician and pathologist, born August 11, 1858, Nijkerk, province of Gelderland; died November 5, 1930, Utrecht.

Biography of Christiaan Eijkman

Christiaan Eijkman is famous for his nutritional research. In 1893 he discovered that a diet of polished (overkvernet) rice causes beriberi, and was able to produce the disease experimentally in birds. He discovered vitamin B. Together with Sir Frederick Hopkins from Great Britain, he was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for his discovery of the antineuritic vitamin.

Christiaan Eijkman was the seventh child of Johanna Alida Pool and Christiaan Eijkman, a boarding-school proprietor in the small Gelderland town of Nijkerk, situated at the northern border of the Veluwe region. Eijkman had several gifted brothers. One became a chemist and a professor at Tokyo and Groningen; another was a linguist; and a third was one of the first roentgenologists in the Netherlands. A year later, in 1859, the Eijkman family moved to Zaandam, where his father was appointed head of a newly founded school for advanced elementary education. It was here that Christiaan and his brothers received their early education.

In 1875 he passed the examination that enabled him to enter the University of Amsterdam as a student at the Military Medical School, where he was trained as a medical officer for the Netherlands Indies Army. His most important teachers were the professor of physiology, Thomas Place (1842-1910), and Barend Joseph Stokvis (1834-1902), professor of general pathology, pharmacodynamics and clinical medicine. As a student, for two years Eijkman was assistant to Thomas Place. His ability soon became apparent; he passed three examinations cum laude or magna cum laude. He qualified as a physician, and on July 31, 1883, he received his medical doctorate after defending a thesis on polarization in the nerves. The costs of his study were defrayed by the government because he enrolled for later service as an army physician.

Eijkman was immediately sent as a medical officer to the Dutch East Indies, where he was made medical officer of health first in Semarang later at Tjilatjap, a small village on the south coast of Java, and at Padang Sidempoean in W. Sumatra. A severe attack of malaria forced him to repatriate on sick leave in November 1885. Two months later his young wife of three years, Aaltje Wigeri van Edema, died. After his recovery Eijkman decided to train himself in bacteriology, then a new and rising science. After studying under Joseph Forster (1844–) at Amsterdam, he went to work with Robert Koch (1843-1910) at Berlin. Here he made some acquaintances that were decisive for his future career.

Go east, young man
In the Dutch East Indies and other eastern countries a disease called beriberi was spreading, especially in closed communities - the army, the navy, prisons, and so on. In some cases cardiac insufficiency with massive oedema of the legs dominated the clinical picture, in others a progressive paralysis of the legs (hydropid and «dry» forms»). In view of its apparent epidemic character, a bacteriological origin seemed obvious. The Dutch government appointed a committee to study the disease on the spot. The committee consisted of Cornelis Adrianus Pekelharing (1848-1922) and Cornelis Winkler (1855-1941), then a young reader and later a well-known neurologist. Before undertaking their difficult mission, both men went to Koch at Berlin to learn something of bacteriology. As a result, Christiaan Eijkman, at his own request, was seconded as assistant to the Pekelharing-Winkler mission, together with his colleague M. B. Romeny. They left for the East in 1886.

In 1887, Pekelharing and Winkler were recalled, but before their departure Pekelharing proposed to the Governor General that the laboratory which had been temporarily set up for the Commission in the Military Hospital in Batavia should be made permanent. This proposal was readily accepted, and Christiaan Eijkman was appointed the first director of the "Geneeskundig Laboratorium" (Medical Laboratory). He held this position from January 15, 1888 to March 4, 1896, and during that time he made a number of his most important researches. At the same time he was made Director of the "Dokter Djawa School" (Javanese Medical School). Thus ended Eijkman's short military career - now he was able to devote himself entirely to science.

Eijkman's studies dealt first of all with the physiology of people living in tropical regions. He was able to demonstrate that a number of theories had no factual basis. Firstly he proved that in the blood of Europeans living in the tropics the number of red corpuscles, the specific gravity, the serum, and the water content, undergo no change, at least when the blood is not affected by disease which will ultimately lead to anaemia. Comparing the metabolism of the European with that of the native, he found that in the tropics as well in the temperate zone, this is entirely governed by the work carried out. Neither could he find any disparity in respiratory metabolism, perspiration, and temperature regulation. Thus Eijkman put an end to a number of speculations on the acclimatization of Europeans in the tropics which had hitherto necessitated the taking of various precautions.

Unpolished, please
At the time of Pekelharing and Winkler's departure, Eijkman still considered beriberi to be an infectious disease, but he did not succeed in producing the disease in animals by inoculation with the micrococci.

In 1890 Eijkman had the good fortune to see a similar disease develop spontaneous in laboratory chicken. The animals shoved paresis or paralysis of the legs with dyspnoea and cyanosis; microscopic examination of the nerves confirmed the presence of polyneuritis. Eijkman considered this polyneuritis gallinarum to be the equivalent of the polyneuritis in beriberi.

In order to extend the observations, the fowls were removed to another place; but then, unexpectedly, the disease inexplicably disappeared. Eijkman noticed that at the same time a slight change had occurred in the blood of the fowls: the original food was obtained from the leavings of the boiled rice from the officer’s table in the military hospital; later they received unpolished rice, or «paddy», because a new cook had refused military rice to «civilian» fowls. Eijkman now supposed that the causative factor must be sought in the food, especially the polished and boiled rice.

Eijkman discovered that the real cause of beriberi was the deficiency of some vital substance in the staple food of the natives, which is located in the so-called "silver skin" (pericarpium) of the rice. This vital substance is thiamine - vitamin B1, found in the pericarp of the unpolished rice grains, as the substance protecting against beriberi.

In addition to his work on beriberi, he occupied himself with other problems such as arach fermentation, and indeed still had time to write two textbooks for his students at the Java Medical School, one on physiology and the other on organic chemistry. From 1894 Eijkman was a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in Amsterdam.

In 1896 Eijkman, who had married Berthe Julie Louise van der Kemp in 1888, returned home again on sick leave. He made statistical studies on beriberi, on osmosis in the blood, and on the influence of summer and winter on metabolism. In comparing the metabolism of Europeans in the tropics and natives, he had found no disparities in respiratory metabolism, perspiration, and temperature metabolism.

Professor
In 1898 Eijkman was appointed professor of public health and forensic medicine at the University of Utrecht, succeeding G. Van Overbeek de Meyer. His inaugural speech was entitled Over Gezondheid en Ziekten in Tropische Gewesten (On health and diseases in tropical regions).

At Utrecht, Eijkman turned to the study of bacteriology, and carried out his well-known fermentation test. Another research was into the rate of mortality of bacteria as a result of various external factors, whereby he was able to show that this process could not be represented by a logarithmic curve. This was followed by his investigation of the phenomenon that the rate of growth of bacteria on solid substratum often decreases, finally coming to a halt. Beyerinck's auxanographic method was applied on several occasions by Eijkman, as for example during the secretion of enzymes which break down casein or bring about haemolysis, whereby he could demonstrate the hydrolysis of fats under the influence of lipases.

During the thirty years of his professorship Eijkman guided many research projects in his laboratory. In the academic year 1912-1913 he acted as rector magnificus, leaving this office with a rectorial oration entitled «Simplex non veri sigillum.» He was also a member of several governmental committees in the field of public health and of many national and foreign societies, including the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands, to which he was appointed in 1907. He was a recipient of the John Scott Medal and a foreign associate of National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.

As a lecturer he was known for his clarity of speech and demonstration, his great practical knowledge standing him in good stead. He had a pre-eminently critical mind and he continuously warned his students against the acceptance of dogmas. But Eijkman did not confine himself to the University he also engaged himself in problems of water supply, housing, school hygiene, physical education; as a member of the Gezondheidsraad (Health Council) and the Gezondheidscommissie (Health Commission) he participated in the struggle against alcoholism and tuberculosis. He was the founder of the Vereeniging tot Bestrijding van de Tuberculose (Society for the struggle against tuberculosis ).

His unassuming personality has contributed to the fact that his great merits were at first not really appreciated in his own country; but anyone who had the privilege of coming into close contact with him, quickly perceived his keen intellect and extensive knowledge.

In 1907, Eijkman was appointed Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences (The Netherlands), after having been Correspondent since 1895. The Dutch Government conferred upon him several orders of knighthood, whereas on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his professorship a fund has been established to enable the awarding of the Eijkman Medal. In 1928, seventy years old, Eijkman retired.

The crown of all his work was the award of the Nobel Prize in 1929. The state of his health did not allow him to accept the Nobel Prize personally, but the address he had intended to deliver was published in Le Prix Nobel. His name is pronounced as kristyän ikmän.

About the man himself little information is obtainable. By his second marriage, to Bertha Julie Louise van der Kemp he had one son, Pieter Hendrik, born 1890, who became a physician.

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