Elmer McCollum, born in 1879 in Kansas, nearly died of vitamin deficiency, though no one knew it at the time, because no one knew what vitamins were. When he was 7 months old, his mother was forced to wean him. Elmer was fed only boiled milk and mashed potatoes. He fell ill and no one knew why. Then one day he was sitting in his mother’s lap as she peeled apples. He grabbed the peels and began sucking on them. Afterwards, he healed rapidly. Only later did Elmer himself discover that he had been suffering from scurvy, because boiling destroys vitamin C. But first, Elmer McCollum had to discover what vitamins were.

After earning a PhD in biochemistry from Yale, McCollum got a job at the University of Wisconsin teaching agricultural chemistry. The question was whether wheat, oats, or corn was the best feed for cows. His method was to feed three different groups of cows the three different feeds and see what happened. The wheat-fed cows went blind. The oat-fed cows gave birth to dead calves. Only the corn-fed cows were healthy.    Why?

McCollum wanted to do dietary experiments with rats, which were easier to work with than cows, but the administration balked. Cattle were the life-blood of Wisconsin’s economy, and at the time, no one had ever used rats as lab animals. McCollum insisted that it would be far quicker to breed rats, far easier to test rats, and far cheaper to feed and care for rats. He prevailed, and he set up the first lab rat experiments in the U.S. using 12 albino rats he purchased from a Chicago pet store for $12.

He fed his rats a mixture of protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and fat. Then he made an important discovery: when the source of fat was butter or egg yolk, the rats remained healthy. But when he switched the fat to olive oil, the rats died. Why?

In 1911, Polish scientist Casimir Funk theorized that diseases such as beriberi and scurvy were caused by a lack of substances he dubbed “vital amines.” This term was shortened to “vitamins.”

Elmer McCollum was the first to isolate what was dubbed “vitamin factor A” because it was the first one found.    He hated the term “vitamin” because he knew what he discovered was not an amine, which is made of protein. In fact, none of the vitamins are proteins. He preferred “growth promoting factor.”

The lack of factor A caused blindness; the lack of factor B caused beriberi; the lack of factor C caused scurvy; the lack of factor D caused rickets; the lack of factor E caused miscarriage, and so on.

McCollum found that vitamin A was found not only in eggs and butter, but also in leafy greens. He solved the riddle of why cows fed only corn lived while cows fed only wheat went blind: corn was harvested in a manner that included lots of stems and leaves (rich in vitamin A), while the way of harvesting wheat left only seeds and chaff (no vitamin A).

Together, Funk and McCollum’s discoveries opened the door for nutritional science. Further research resulted in vitamins B through P, which have since been condensed to vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, and K.

McCollum spent 25 years at Johns Hopkins University, researching fluoridated water for tooth decay, and the effects of trace minerals. He advocated for vitamin D to be added to milk, which was largely responsible for wiping out rickets. He created a recipe for infant formula. Furthermore, he encouraged the government to enrich bread and flour to make up for the vitamins that were stripped due to the milling process. McCollum died at the age of 88. He said, “Eat whatever you want, after you have eaten what you should.”