Ascorbic Acid, and Its Chemistry
Ascorbic acid is also known as Vitamin C. It was the third vitamin ever identified, hence the label “C”. Many mammals make Vitamin C in the liver, by a series of reactions. Out of all mammals, only primates, guinea pigs, and Indian fruit bats must consume the Vitamin C they need.
In 1928, a Hungarian biochemist named Albert Szent-Györgyi became the first person to isolate a sample of pure Vitamin C. He removed it from the fatty part of the endocrine glands near a cow’s kidney. He did not initially recognize it as Vitamin C, and therefore he resolved to name the substance hexuronic acid. The hex prefix was because of the six Carbon atoms present in the molecule: its chemical formula was C6H8O6. Hexuronic acid was finally recognized as Vitamin C four years later. Szent-Györgyi’s next task was determine the structure of Vitamin C, so he used Hungarian paprika (high in ascorbic acid) to separate over a kilogram of pure Vitamin C crystals. Haworth, a professor of chemistry, successfully helped Szent-Györgyi find ascorbic acid’s structure. Both men received Nobel Prizes for their groundbreaking work.
Its been more than seventy years, but scientists still don’t know everything about ascorbic acid and its interaction with our bodies. One important protein we have found that Vitamin C helps produce is collagen. Collagen is the most prevalent protein and one of the most important proteins in the animal kingdom. A lack of collagen can cause many of the initial symptoms of scurvy. Ascorbic acid has left its mark on history by being a cure for scurvy.
Ascorbic Acid’s Impact on History
As a crucial human Vitamin, ascorbic acid has many positive effects and much potential. However, its biggest contribution to history has been as a cure for scurvy. It is a disease, caused by Vitamin C deficiency, which has been around since ancient times. Most often scurvy has appeared in sailors who take relatively long voyages without any Vitamin C-rich foods. These long journeys became more frequent and longer near the end of the fifteenth century and through the Age of Discovery, and as a result scurvy became a bigger issue. When sailors were going to be at sea for months, they packed foods that could be easily stored and preserved. There were no refrigerators on the ships, so often the crew would only bring things like bread, cheese, butter, vinegar, dried peas, beer, and rum. These items would eventually go bad, but not as quickly as the fruits and vegetables that happen to have Vitamin C. After as little as six weeks at sea, sailors would begin to show signs of scurvy. On De Gama’s trip around the southern tip of Africa in 1497, about 100 of his 160 crew members perished from scurvy. It was 1601 before English ships, a small fleet under the direction of Captain James Lancaster, would first stop mid-journey and collect oranges and lemons to prevent scurvy. Of the four ships in this group, only the one being run by Lancaster was free of scurvy.
The benefits of ascorbic acid for scurvy victims was not clinically proven until 1747, when Scottish surgeon James Lind used twelve crew members aboard his ship for an experiment. However, another forty years passed before the British navy made lemon juice mandatory. This was because of the expense and inconvenience of keeping fresh fruits on board all long voyages. British Royal Navy Captain James Cook was the first to prevent each crew he ever manned from contracting scurvy. This success was due to high standards for hygiene, and, more importantly, diet. Cook had a very low mortality rate aboard his ships, even of diseases unrelated to scurvy and Vitamin C.
The impact ascorbic acid had as a cure changed the Age of Discovery. What if we had known the cure sooner? Would the world have turned out differently due to ships that could travel farther and more often? What if we had never discovered that ascorbic acid is the cure? Would we have ever successfully colonized America if the supply ships didn’t always return? While history likes to cheat Vitamin C of its rightful place, it is ever so important to recognize ascorbic acid’s impact both on our past and our bodies today.
My Opinion and the Authors’ Argument
It is my opinion that Vitamin C is just as important now as it ever was. Our bodies still need ascorbic acid to be healthy and happy. Though it may go unrecognized by most, ascorbic acid has a massive effect on our daily lives. If anything, Vitamin C’s influence has gone up as more people have been educated about its usefulness.
The authors’ argument is difficult to dispute because it makes so much sense. Le Couteur and Burreson explain thoroughly yet concisely how ascorbic acid is valuable to all humans. They outline how it has obviously impacted history and how it continues to be of importance. If they could provide more evidence, it would top the cake, but as it is I believe that their explanation clearly and effectively shows how Vitamin C has changed history.