Elmer McCollum

Elmer McCollum (1879-1967), an American biochemist at the University of Kansas, contributed greatly to the early work on vitamins A and D. In 1913, McCollum and a colleague noted that rats fed a diet of purified carbohydrate (lactose) and protein did not grow unless some butterfat was added to their diet.


The substance in butterfat could be extracted into olive oil and was thus called fat-soluble A. They also established the presence of another nutritionally essential but entirely different substance in water extracts of wheat germ and boiled eggs, and called it water-soluble B. (This substance turned out to be the compound now known as thiamine.) It was soon recognized that deficiency of vitamin A caused, among other findings, visual problems (night-blindness and xerophthalmia, which results in drying of the cornea, in particular). As is the case for vitamin D, milk is now supplemented with this vitamin.

Physicians first systematically described rickets, characterized mainly by impaired development of the bones of the body, in the 17th century.(Figure B) In 1919-1920, Edward Mellanby (1884-1955), an English pharmacologist, showed unequivocally that rickets in dogs was caused by a deficiency of a dietary compound. Elmer McCollum then found that there was a second substance present in butterfat, and that it had anti-rickets activity. This led to the isolation of the different forms of vitamin D (e.g. ergocalciferol, cholecalciferol, etc.), to elucidation of the important role of the skin and sunlight in its formation and to much further work on its actions at the organ and cellular level.

Basically, its major effects have been found to be the regulation of absorption of calcium from the intestine and the promotion of normal bone growth. Fortification of milk with this vitamin has helped eradicate rickets from many parts of the world. Also, the findings that cod liver oil was rich in vitamins A and D condemned several generations of school children to consumption of that unsavory extract.

Elmer McCollum is buried in the famous Pioneer Cemetary on the grounds of the University of Kansas.

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