By the end of the nineteenth century it was known that carbohydrates, fats, mineral salts and water are essential constituents of a healthy diet. At that time these substances were thought to provide all that the body needs to remain healthy. But Frederick Gowland Hopkins, working at Cambridge, showed that additional substances were necessary. He kept young rats on an artificial diet. After a time they stopped growing and showed obvious signs of disease. However, when he added traces of natural foods such as yeast and mil to their diet, they soon recovered and growth started again. Frederick Gowland Hopkins surmised that these natural foods contain minute quantities of substances that are vital for a balanced diet. He called them ‘accessory food factors’; we now know them as vitamins.
Following Frederick Gowland Hopkins’ discovery it was recognised that many deficiency diseases are the result of a lack of certain vitamins in the diet. A new understanding of nutrition emerged. Beri-beri, scurvy, pellagra, rickets, night blindness, and many other diseases were found to be due to vitamin deficiency. Many of the known vitamins have been made by man, and, in most of the western hemisphere at least, we take our vitamin pills very much for granted.
Frederick Gowland Hopkins was born at Eastbourne in Sussex in 1861. He studied at Guy’s Hospital and obtained his Ph.D. at London University. In 1898 he took a teaching appointment at Cambridge University, and during his stay there he made many valuable discoveries. His investigations led to the discovery of the essential amino acids, and he later isolated and identified the amino acid, tryptophane. He also isolated glutathione, a compound built up of three amino acids, glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid, and which seems to be closely concerned with the building up of proteins in the tissues.
In 1914 he became Professor of Biochemistry, a post especially created for him. His work on the chemical changes that take place in muscle during its contraction were of outstanding merit. He showed that lactic acid accumulates in the muscle when it contracts in the absence of oxygen (excessive accumulation of this substance, such as occurs during a cross-country run, causes the familiar stiffness and aching of the leg muscles).
Frederick Gowland Hopkins was knighted in 1925 and the following year he was awarded the coveted Copley medal. Three years later he shared the Nobel prize for medicine with Christiaan Eijkman, the distinguished Dutch physician. Eijkman was the first to produce disease experimentally in animals. He fed fowls on a diet of polished rice. As a result they developed a disease similar to beri-beri in man. In 1935 Frederick Gowland Hopkins became a member of the Order of Merit having been president of the Royal Society from 1930 until then.
In May 1947, Frederick Gowland Hopkins died after a long and distinguished career during which he provided the keys to many unsolved problems. He will be especially remembered for his work on vitamins which indirectly has done much to relieve the suffering of many of the world’s people from malnutrition.