It is 1897 and people are dying in Java, an island in Indonesia or the Dutch East Indies. They all seemed to share
the same hideous symptoms beginning with overall muscle weakness, loss of appetite, and eventually they suffered paralysis and eventually death by heart failure. This disease was called beriberi by the indigenous people. This was a word from their native language that meant "I cannot, I cannot."
One of the scientists who had been sent to work on this mystery was a Dutch physician and pathologist named Dr. Christiaan Eijkman. One day, as he walked around the hospital compound he observed his surroundings. He noticed that the cook fed every one of the patients the staple diet of the nation - white rice. White rice is brown rice with the husk or outer layer rubbed off so that its color is white. He also noticed that the hospital staff fed the chickens (that would eventually be the chicken soup for the patients) brown rice. The chickens never developed beriberi.
Dr. Eijkman realized that this was an important observation and hypothesized that maybe the brown rice contained something that the white rice did not that prevented the disease.
So he conducted an experiment. He divided chickens into two separate groups. He fed one group of chickens only white rice and the other group only brown rice. Then he watched and waited.
The data collected revealed that the chickens fed brown rice did not get sick at all, but the chickens fed the white rice became weak, lost their appetite and eventually died from beriberi. Eureka, the case was solved!
As Dr. Eijkman and others continued to research this interesting case, they concluded that white rice lacked thiamine, a vitamin necessary for good health. This was actually the first "vital amine" or vitamin to be discovered. It is also called vitamin B1.
We've now known for more than a hundred years that brown rice is more nutritious than white rice. But most Asian cultures associate eating white rice with prosperity and eating brown rice with bad luck. Most rice is still milled or polished, both in Asia and elsewhere. In Europe and America both white rice and brown rice are consumed, but mostly white. In fact, some white rice is chemically fortified to add back the B vitamins. In 1929, Eijkman and Hopkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.
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