It’s hard to tell the story of niacin without also looking at the story of pellagra. Pellagra is a disease that has been around for most of human history and it mostly strikes impoverished people who find themselves eating mostly corn.
The symptoms of pellagra include diarrhea, inflamed mucous membranes, mental confusion, delusions and skin sores.
The History Pellagra
When Pellagra struck in the Middle Ages, it left physicians at the time dumbstruck. The first known description of the disease was by the physician Gaspar Casal in 1735 Spain, not long after Maize was introduced to Europe. The disease wasn’t formally named until 1771 when Italian Physician Francesco Frapolli named it.
Because maize became so common in northern Italy pellagra became such an issue that in 1784 a special hospital; called Legano, was constructed for pellagra patients. Pellagra soon spread out of Italy and entered France in 1829, Romania in 1858, and Egypt in 1874.
Pellagra began to become a major health problem in the USA at the turn of the 20th century. It was particularly prevalent in the south. The disease came shortly after a new method to process grain was introduced in which most of the vitamins in grain were removed. There was a dramatic shift in the use of ground corn meal from local, water-driven mills to the kind of finely bolted meal created by large milling companies.
Pellagra became such a widespread and severe problem that physicians believed it was caused by an infectious agent. It was finally discovered what was really causing the disease after the United States Federal Government dispatched New York doctor Joseph Goldberger to study the disease.
The Discovery of Niacin
Nicotinic acid was first synthesized in 1867 and it was created by oxidizing nicotine. It was mostly used in photography and was considered to have no nutritional value until it was discovered by German scientists that nicotinic acid would occur in yeast and rice polishing.
It was then isolated by the Polish-American biochemist Casimir Funk in 1912 as Funk was attempting to cure another disease. Funk was attempting to cure beriberi, which is a nutritional disorder caused by thiamine deficiency.
After discovering that nicotinic acid had no effect on beriberi, Funk dropped his work with nicotinic acid. Even though it turned out that he was wrong he was able to show that there was some nutritional value to nicotinic acid.
Austrian-American physician Joseph Goldberger was left to piece together the puzzle that was nicotinic acid and the deficiency disease it was known to cause.
Goldberger began conducting experiments in 1915. He performed experiments on 11 healthy prisoners from Mississippi who volunteered for the experiment. He discovered that he was able to alter their diets to induce pellagra. This led him to the conclusion that pellagra must be caused by the absence of something that was missing from corn but could be found in meat and milk. He called this mystery factor the P-P, for “pellagra-preventative” factor.
The American biochemist Conrad Arnold Elvehjem was the one who discovered the chemical structure of the P-P factor in 1937. Elvehjem induced black tongue in dogs by feeding them the diet that Goldberger gave the prisoners before supplementing their diet with nicotinic acid to cure the problem. He was also able to isolate the P-P factor from active liver extracts and proved that the factor was indeed nicotinic acid, which would later be called niacin for the nicotinic acid vitamin.
After the discovery was made grain products such as wheat and maize were enriched using nicotinic acid or nicotinamide. It still took a wide scale social reform to ensure that these dietary modifications were made. Most of the time people in developed countries contact pellagra it is due to alcoholism. There are still the occasional rare instances where people develop the disease through other means such as malabsorption or iatrogenic situations.