Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that is essential to the function of the human body. Vitamin C is an anti-oxidant and neutralizes the tissue-damaging effects of free radicals. It also plays a role in the formation of collagen, which is a major structural protein in the body.
Vitamin C can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables. It is especially rich in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. Green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach are also rich sources of vitamin C. However, boiling and other forms of cooking and processing the foods can destroy vitamin C.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was discovered that citrus fruits could cure a disease known as scurvy. Scurvy was a common disease among sailors at that time. The sailors had bleeding and swollen gums, loose teeth, easy bleeding and poorly healing wounds. A Scottish physician named James Lind conducted the first clinical trial, where he showed that eating oranges and lemons could cure sailors of scurvy. He wrote about his work in a Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. But it was only much later when it was discovered that vitamin C was the therapeutic ingredient in oranges and lemons and scurvy was a nutritional disease of vitamin C deficiency.
In 1937, Albert von Szent-Gyorgi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of vitamin C. Dr. Szent-Gyorgi started working on isolating and identifying the molecular structure of anti-oxidants involved in 1925. He isolated and purified vitamin C from orange juice but did not know what the compound was. He called it ignose from the Latin ignoso (I don’t know). When he submitted a paper on this work, the editor of the journal suggested he name the compound hexuronic acid.
Later, Dr. Szent-Gyorgi managed to crystallize 30 grams of what he thought then was hexuronic acid from paprika. He sent some of this compound to Dr. Walter Norman Haworth, a chemist. Dr. Haworth showed that the compound was not hexuronic acid but ascorbic acid, or vitamin C. Dr. Haworth also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1937 for his work on carbohydrates and vitamin C.
Dr. Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize twice in his life, became a proponent of vitamin C. He advocated the consumption of megadoses of vitamin C to prevent heart disease. Today vitamin C is produced in large quantities and vitamin C supplements are consumed by many. Scurvy has become a rare, if not non-existent, disease.