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Albert Szent-Györgyi and ascorbic acid

Albert Szent-Györgyi and ascorbic acid

Research is to see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought. 

Albert Szent-Györgyi, Bioenergetics (1957). 


by Heather Fraser

Vitamins are essential organic compounds we need in small amounts for a range of functions. Vitamin C, for example, is essential for cell respiration and energy production. Unknown until the first part of the 20th century, deficiency in this water-soluble vitamin resulted in scurvy, the scourge of the British navy. By the end of the 18th century, a doctor had connected the poor starchy diets of the sailors and the illness but it wasn’t until 1928 that the compound responsible for helping prevent it was isolated by Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986).

In pursuing his interest in cellular energy production, Szent-Györgyi asked why some fruits like apples turn brown but citrus fruits do not. He discovered that when the damaged cells in some fruits cannot supply enough hydrogen to prevent oxidation, browning occurs. Ultimately, Szent-Györgyi was able to isolate the agent in the citrus juice that countered the browning naming it initially “hexuronic acid”and then, for its anti-scorbutic activity, ascorbic acid.

The potential role of therapeutic doses of vitamin C in the absence of scurvy was of great interest to Szent-Györgyi, and to his contemporary, Linus Pauling.  This application of vitamin C therapy, moving beyond treating frank deficiency to obtaining additional benefits, was later applied to other essential elements.  This formed the basis of orthomolecular medicine, and later to functional medicine and a wide range of therapeutic strategies.

Szent-Györgyi received the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion process with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid." A fuller understanding of these cellular metabolic processes in the citric acid cycle was provided in 1937 by Hans Krebs – this cyclic process is also known as the Krebs Cycle.

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