50th Anniversary: Death of Elmer McCollum

50th Anniversary: Death of Elmer McCollum

Author: ChemViews Magazine

Elmer Verner McCollum was born on March 3, 1879, on a farm near Fort Scott, KS, USA. He had very limited educational opportunities until the age of 17, when the family moved closer to the city. He attended the University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA, where he completed a Master’s degree in organic chemistry. He then moved to Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA, where he received his Ph.D. in 1906.

McCollum did not find a suitable university position in organic chemistry, which led him to join the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, as Instructor for agricultural chemistry. The team worked on the nutrition of cows. McCollum found that even when all known required nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals) were provided to the animals, their health deteriorated. This prompted him to find out what was missing in the animals’ diet.

Since health problems in large animals such as cows take some time to occur, McCollum proposed the use of small, fast-growing animals such as rats. However, the Dean of the university refused to fund the project because rats were not economically important. McCollum, convinced of his approach, used his own money to do the experiments anyway. Together with Marguerite Davis, he found that the rats needed a specific fat-soluble substance, contained in butter and eggs, and water-soluble substances from wheat or rice. They called the two substances “fat-soluble A” and “water-soluble B”. The team had discovered the first vitamins, which we now call vitamins A and B.

In 1917, McCollum joined Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA, as Professor and Head of the Department of Chemical Hygiene. There, he worked on the prevention of tooth decay with fluorine, vitamins D and E, as well as the nutritional effects of trace minerals. He remained at Johns Hopkins until his retirement in 1945. Elmer McCollum died on November 15, 1967.

Elmer McCollum is the answer to Guess the Chemist (71).


Selected Publications


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