Kazimierz Funk – The Elixir of Life
portrait, Kazimierz Funk, photo: Alamy Stock Photo/PAP, center, kazimierz_funk_-portret-pap.jpg
A magician of biochemistry and the forefather of food science. He staved off death in Java. Promoted a healthy lifestyle before it was fashionable.
Course of events – Part 1
It is the winter of 1884. A genius is born in Warsaw: Kazimierz Funk.
The son of two doctors, he suffers from hip dysplasia. As a child, he is sent to a clinic in Germany for orthopaedic treatment. The side effects of his convalescence include the increase in his thirst for knowledge and fluency in German.
When Funk returns to Warsaw, he graduates from a gymnasium and passes his final matura school exams. He’s 16 and talented.
Autumn, 1900: Funk leaves for Switzerland and studies Biology at the University of Geneva. Then he continues his education at the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Bern, under the supervision of Prof. Stanisław Kostanecki. There, he successfully attempts to advance studies on hormones by demonstrating the synthesis of oestrogen.
He graduates with a PhD. He is 20 and knowledgeable.
Between 1904 and 1906 he works at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Then, he moves to Berlin (1906-1910), where he analyses the effects of the canine diet. He already suspects there is more to food than proteins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals. He will later discover the missing link, in London.
The substance of life
While Funk is working at the Lister Institute in London, researchers in Java are looking for the causes of beriberi fever. They suspect it comes from polished rice: the main component of the patients’ diet. Christiaan Eijkman’s experiment with chickens confirms this theory. Birds that are fed only with polished rice end up with paralysis.
In 1911, Funk conducts experiments on pigeons, refuting Eijkman’s theory linking the condition with protein deficiency. He isolates a previously unknown substance from rice bran: it’s a chemical compound containing nitrogen (amine in Latin). He proves it to have a significant influence on life (vita in Latin). He calls the new substance vitamine.
The Lister Institute is not ready to embrace Funk’s discovery. Ludwik Rajchman, the publisher of the Journal of State Medicine, decides to help. In 1912, Funk publishes an article on the effect vitamins, a balanced and varied diet, as well as physical activity have on human health. Fitness becomes fashionable.
In 1914, a German publishing house prints Funk’s book, Die Vitamine. The bibliography consists of 385 records. After World War I, the book is translated into several languages. The bibliography in the English edition from 1922 features a staggering 1,595 source texts.
Course of events – Part 2
Early 1915. Funk arrives in New York with his wife to take up a position at the Harriman Research Laboratory. Work conditions are primitive, just as they were in London. The salary is unreliable. His health deteriorates.
Funk continues his research at the Calco Company, and subsequently at Metz and Company (from 1917). He improves a drug used to fight the syphilis epidemic, introduces the first cod liver oil vitamin concentrate and starts production of synthetic adrenaline. As Funk’s finances grow, so do his ambitions.
In 1920, Funk is granted American citizenship. Earlier, he rejected an opportunity to receive a German passport, even though it would have helped him to speed up his career. He always insists that he is Polish. In 1923, he returns to his independent homeland with his wife and son.
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Vitamins, photo:SSPL/Science Museu/East News
Nourishing the world
Poland. In Warsaw, Funk becomes the director of the Department of Biochemistry at the State Hygiene Institute (PZH), established by Rajchman. He receives a research grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, but he buys the equipment for insulin production with his own money. Poland becomes the world’s third largest supplier of this hormone.
The research requires Funk to travel around the country: one such trip results in pneumonia. The crisis is averted thanks to the Polish government: Funk is given a new laboratory and a house in the Warsaw suburbs. His contract with PZH expires in 1927.
France. After short cooperation with a vaccine company, Funk builds his private laboratory Casa Biochemica. During the next 12 years, he runs his laboratory in a chaotic fashion (using unlabelled solutions, for example), but it doesn’t stop him from researching male and female hormones. He promotes healthy nutrition and discovers more letters in the health alphabet: B3 for the nerves, B12 to prevent anaemia.
USA. After World War II begins, Funk moves to the other side of the Atlantic. He works with several pharmaceutical companies, and in 1947, he becomes head of the Funk Foundation for Medical Research. In the 1950s, Funk researches cancer causes. He dies from this disease, aged 83.
The Funk effect
Funk is nominated for the Nobel Prize four times, but never receives it. In 1929, the accolade is awarded to Eijkman and Hopkins for the discovery of vitamin A. Funk’s name is only mentioned in the eulogy.
From 1995, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America annually presents the Casimir Funk Award to Polish-American scientists.
In 2007, a group of American musicians start a band they call Casimir Funk. They play rock and blues.
Translated by Agata Zano