by iampunha | 6/20/2008 08:00:00 AM
Without today's two honorees, we would not know why we should (and thus don't want to) eat our vegetables, and we wouldn't be able to keep much of any food fresh as long as we currently can.

These two men have changed our national diet and our society. Consider taking your daughter to the doctor because her blood isn't clotting properly. Or think about taking care of an elderly parent whose spine is compacting.

Or think about buying meat six months before you use it. Think about the supermarket — which is by no means the way things work everywhere, but which is a staple of First World countries. Sure, you can still go to the farmer's market, and when I was in France in 1995, the local market was still going strong, but you can also load up on food for the next month and not be worried that it'll go bad.

As you think about all of this, think of Nobel Prize-winner Frederick Hopkins, who helped discover vitamins, and who was born on June 20, 1861. And think of Lloyd Hall, born on June 20, 1894, whose work on preservatives has saved countless billions of pounds of food and made the stuff cheaper (and thus more available to the poor).

For Audie Murphy, who served our country with distinction, and who was born on June 20, 1924.

Often, when I look among the scientists in Wikipedia's list of births, I come across someone whose work was, y'know, pretty important to how our society operates.

Barbara McClintock's work on DNA came before DNA had that name. Someone who commented on my piece on her noted that scientists might have been confused by her work because she was working with material that didn't have standardized names.

The three scientists I highlighted here were pretty bloody important to a lot of what we know about senses and neurology.

Compare that, if you will, against the discovery of vitamins.

That thud you just heard was your jaw hitting the floor. (If not, you should really go check it out. Don't worry; I'll still be here when you get back.)

Dr. Frederick Gowland Hopkins, with Dr. Christiaan Eijkman, figured out that, y'know, vitamins are good for you. So the next time your tyke asks you, "But WHY do I have to eat my vegetables?" you can reply confidently, "Because Dr. Frederick Gowland Hopkins discovered that vitamins are good for you."

"But why did ... he discover that vitamins are good for me?"

Hopkins worked with lab rats. Literally:

Intrigued by Christiaan Eijkman's somewhat similar findings on the importance of proper diet, Hopkins then oversaw a study that proved rats' growth is impeded when fed all the known ingredients of milk -- fats, proteins and carbohydrates -- instead of milk itself. His work established that unknown trace substances he called "accessory food factors" were present in milk, and his papers on the topic were the first to explain the concept of vitamins.

In addition, there was the tiny problem of nutrition working on paper but not in practice (emphasis mine):

So fundamental an aspect of the then dominant doctrine as, for instance, the law of isodynamic equivalence among foodstuffs, is at the most approximately true, and fails entirely when the equivalence is tested by physiological results rather than by purely physical data.

Also, note the fortuitous nature of this lecture:

The circumstances of my most enviable position here today will justify me in dealing rather with the earlier history of the subject, and I will venture in virtue of that position to put before you certain personal experiences which have no place in the proper history of the subject. They have not been, and will not be, published elsewhere.

We might do to have the following included in any history of the science of vitamins:

My intention is only to point out that there is a still unknown substance in milk which even in very small quantities is of paramount importance to nutrition. If this substance is absent, the organism loses the power properly to assimilate the well-known principal parts of food, the appetite is lost and with apparent abundance the animals die of want. Undoubtedly this substance occurs not only in milk but in all sorts of foodstuffs both of vegetable and animal origin.

That is not Hopkins but Hopkins quoting Cornelis Adrianus Pekelharing (PDF) from 1905 — 24 years before Hopkins earned his share of a Nobel Prize.

Hopkins likely wouldn't have had the opportunity to discover vitamins if, as he says, the whole of nutritional science hadn't been so fanboyish over calorimetry.

That lecture is sufficiently revelatory that I will leave it to speak for itself but for noting that Hopkins' experiments were not designed as some novel idea:

In 1881 Lunin, one of the workers in that school, fed mice upon an artificial mixture of the separate constituents of milk; of all the constituents, that is, which were then known, namely the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and salts. He found that upon such a mixture the animals failed to survive and was led to conclude that "a natural food such as milk must therefore contain besides these known principal ingredients small quantities of unknown substances essential to life".

So Hopkins is credited with figuring out scientifically that man cannot live on bread alone, and why. (Vitamin data on the word of God remain inconclusive.)

Oh, and he also discovered tryptophan. Not bad for a guy who started college in his mid-20s.

It's hard to beat a man who could have said (though he never would have, as that his cited lecture indicates) "You take a multivitamin because of me," but I think today's other honoree is up to the challenge.

If you've ever cleaned out your freezer and discovered food you'd forgotten, you probably owe that food's viability to Lloyd Hall:

Hall discovered that ethylene oxide, a gas used to kill insects, would also kill the germs in the spices. He used a vacuum chamber to remove the moisture from the spices so that the gas could permeate and sterilize them when introduced into the chamber. The times and temperatures varied according to the type of bacteria, mold, or yeast to be destroyed.

The ability to sterilize spices had a major impact on the meat industry. The process also became popular in the hospital supplies industry and was used to sterilize bandages, dressings, and sutures.

The place where Hall did that research, Griffith Laboratories, was very lucky to profit so much from a man who was initially hired by Western Electric Company.

Western Electric thought Hall looked great on paper, and The Powers That Be were impressed enough talking to him on the phone. He'd served his country as a lieutenant in World War I, his academic pedigree was solid, he was everything you'd want in a recruit.

And he was black. This was news to Western Electric, and Hall was summarily told of the company's position.

So Hall proceeded to file more than 100 patents, and not just in food health and safety. Practically the only thing the man didn't work to preserve was racism:

Hall also worked as a consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and was the first black person to serve on the board of directors of the American Institute of Chemists.

There is, however, some misinformation out on Lloyd Hall. Some people, eager to find a brilliant and essential black scientist, ascribe to him everything with his name near it. And one Web site asserts that Hall was plainly not worthy of the attention paid to him and, one supposes, the elite positions he served. The site is credible, certainly, but part of the onus when one says "This isn't true" is to then say what is true. The author of the site thus falls short when saying:

To the extent that Lloyd Hall's refinement of Griffith Labs' curing composition represented an advance, it was incremental — far from a true breakthrough that could have "revolutionized the meatpacking industry."

But even if we discount Hall's work with a process he refined, we still have ... everything else.

And together with Hopkins, we have a pair of scientists who significantly shaped what we eat, when we eat it, how we can eat it, and how thoroughly our kids scrunch up their noses when they dramatize the incredible, horrible evil of being forced to eat vegetables.