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Umetaro Suzuki

discoverer of vitamin B1

Umetaro Suzuki

Umetaro Suzuki was born in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, on April 7, 1874. After graduating from the Faculty of Agricultural Technology of the Tokyo Imperial University, he did postgraduate research in Switzerland and Germany, including a stint under German chemist Emil Fisher. He then returned to Japan and became a professor at his alma mater.

Suzuki is best known for his research into beriberi, a disease characterized by stiffness of the lower limbs, paralysis, and pain that in severe cases can cause failure of the nervous system. Because the disease was most common in countries where rice was a principal part of the diet, most of the research into its cause and prevention centered on rice. After Dutch military physician Christiaan Eijkman discovered that rice bran cured chickens’ beriberi-like polyneuritis many scientists, including Suzuki, began to extract substances from rice bran that could be used to treat victims of beriberi. Suzuki successfully isolated the active factor in rice bran, which he called “aberic acid” (Vitamin B1, aka thiamine). He received the patent rights to his isolation process, which was then used for the first time worldwide for the extraction of what are now known as vitamins. In addition, he also confirmed through experiments with animals that "aberic acid" was an indispensable nutritional component, thus founding the basis for the vitamin science of today.

Suzuki presented his discovery before the Tokyo Chemical Society in 1910, but as most of the medical community thought beriberi was the result of a microbial infection his findings were ignored. The paper he published in Germany the following year was also initially ignored, primarily because he did not determine the chemical composition of aberic acid, nor did he identify it as a new nutritional substance. He finally got notice after Polish biochemist Casimir Funk reported he had crystallized an amine substance from rice bran and named it “vitamin.”

Suzuki's contribution to vitamin research did not end with B1. Working at what is now RIKEN Vitamin, Ltd. Co. as Director of the Chemistry Division, he succeeded in isolating and extracting vitamin A from cod liver oil. He also invented a type of synthetic sake made from materials other than rice and which needs no preservatives.

Umetaro Suzuki died on September 20, 1943.

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This page was last updated on 04/06/2018.