Ascorbic Acid

There is a molecule known as ascorbic acid that has changed the world. Ascorbic acid, more commonly known as vitamin C, is single-handedly responsible for the cure for one of the most crippling diseases, scurvy. First, the actual composition of ascorbic acid must be analyzed in order to fully understand its function. Ascorbic acid is a fairly simple molecule that does some not-so-simple things. The actual formula for vitamin C is C6H8O6; however, it is not the only molecule to have that formula, erythorbic acid or glucuronolactate share it, to name a few. Vitamin C contains a five “sided” carbon ring with an oxygen atom at the “tip” of the pentagon. Attached to that pentagon there is a variety of molecules, two OH, one O, and one C2H5O2 setup. When looking at it, ascorbic acid seems fairly simple and some would wonder why not just synthesize it? Animals, other than primates, a specific fruit bat from India, and guinea pigs, can make this molecule in their bodies. Their livers transform glucose into ascorbic acid through a complex four step reaction that would be much too hard to explain in words. Simply, they can make vitamin C and we can’t. That brings up the next question, how do we account for that and beat scurvy?
An understanding of scurvy is necessary if you want to know how vitamin C changed history. Scurvy is a disease brought on by a deficiency of ascorbic acid. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, weakness, arm and leg swelling, bruising excessively, and even death. Overall, scurvy is really bad and was killer on the high seas in the 14th to 17th centuries. On long voyages by ship, many sailors were hit with scurvy. The main reason this occurred is because if vitamin C containing foods were brought, they would go bad by the time the ship arrived in port and the sailors would have no way to prevent this deadly disease. The first step to preventing scurvy in European ships was through the use of lemon juice, high in ascorbic acid. Capt. James Lancaster was one of the first to have been reported to have used lemon juice. None of his sailors died from scurvy on that voyage. Another method to scurvy prevention was through, simply, the feeding of citrus fruit to sailors. Capt. James Cook for the UK was reported to never have lost a man to scurvy. He required hygiene and a strict diet that included citrus fruits for all of his sailors. Cook was a pioneer into the prevention of scurvy on ships and making vitamin C common among sailing vessels.
Personally, I believe ascorbic acid is less prominent in the headlines of today but still important to our well-being. I think people don’t realize that they need vitamin C because it is present in many of our processed foods. Scurvy is rarely heard of anymore thanks to important steps in refrigeration and other food storage methods. However, I believe vitamin C is extremely under respected in today’s society. On top of that, I think people take their good health for granted and they need to remember that it was people like Cook or Lancaster that helped pave the way for the current, practically scurvy-less, world and all thanks to one tiny molecule.
Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson made great points about ascorbic acid and its historical effects in their book Napoleon’s Buttons. They mention everything in a clear-cut way that makes sense and is easy to follow. I agree with them in their way of describing this important part of history. Their way of portraying the information was incredible in the fact that they talked about history first and then confused you with the chemical tidbits. This method seems so ingenious to me and I applaud them for taking the first step to making the world more aware of how chemistry has changed history.

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2 thoughts on “Ascorbic Acid

  1. hestonf03

    While I do agree with most of the points you provided in your review of “Ascorbic Acid,” I do not agree with your final statement about the author’s “incredible” portrayal of the chapter. While they do a fine job of getting some of the basic ideas out there in this chapter, their final analysis of its historical impact seems to be all based on what could have maybe happened if the right conditions were met. “If” Magellan hadn’t stopped, “maybe” he would have dominated the clove industry, thus “maybe” resulting in Spanish domination, especially over the Dutch-East India Company, which “might have” resulted in a different Indonesia that we know today.

    • sboehms2015

      While that is true for the conclusion, the real history is in the actual chapter. Try looking on pages 37-45, there you will find the historical importance of ascorbic acid.

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