Childhood & Early Life
Christiaan Eijkman was born on 11 August 1858 in the small town of Nijkerk, located in the province of Gelderland in Netherlands. His father, also named Christiaan Eijkman, was the headmaster of a local school. His mother’s name was Johanna Alida Pool.
Christiaan, born seventh of his parents’ eight children, had several gifted brothers. One of them, a chemist, is credited with isolating shikimic acid from the Japanese flower shikimi. Another brother was a noted linguist while a third one was one of the first Dutch roentgenologists.
In 1859, his father was appointed headmaster of a school for advanced elementary education in Zaandam, a large town located in the province of North Holland. It was in this school that Christiaan began his education.
Growing up under the guidance of his father, he passed the school leaving examination in 1875. His ambition was to become a doctor; but the financial condition of the family did not permit that.
Therefore, he enrolled at the Army Medical School under the University of Amsterdam, pledging that he would join the military service on completion of the course. This enabled him to study medicine free of cost. He was a brilliant student, passing his medical examination magna cum laude.
From 1879 to 1881, he assisted Thomas Place, the Professor of Physiology at the University of Amsterdam. It was during this period that he started working on his doctoral thesis.
The dissertation, titled ‘Over Polarisatie in de Zenuwen’ (on polarization in the nerves), earned him his MD degree on 13 July 1883. Thereafter, as was stipulated, he joined the Netherland Indies Army.
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Towards the end of 1883, Christiaan Eijkman was sent to the island of Java, then known as Dutch East Indies, as an Army Surgeon. There he was posted first at Semarang and later at Tjilatjap.
At Java, he was surprised to note that a large number of soldiers, previously healthy, were debilitated by a peculiar disease, which caused peripheral neuropathy, muscle pain and atrophy, and cognitive dysfunction, leading to heart failure and death. Locally the disease was called beriberi.
However before he could do anything, he himself was inflicted with malaria. It was so severe that in November 1885, he was sent back to Netherlands on sick leave, where he decided to train himself in bacteriology, at that time a newly discovered discipline.
He first studied with Josef Förster at Amsterdam. Later, he moved to Berlin to work with Robert Koch, who had by then not only discovered the bacterium responsible for causing tuberculosis, but also the method for growing the bacterium and infecting animals with it.
At that time, it was indeed a revolutionary discovery, mainly because the doctors were clueless about the root cause of diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. With Koch’s discovery they began to see the light.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands government was worried about the large number of cases of beriberi that plagued their soldiers in the East Indies. They constructed a committee that would study the disease on the spot. It consisted among others, two young scientists, pathologist Cornelis Adrianus Pekelharing and neurologist Cornelis Winkler.
Sometime in 1886, Pekelharing and Winkler traveled to Berlin to meet Koch and learn about bacteriology. There they met Eijkman, who though not fully cured, volunteered to join the mission. Subsequently, in the month of October, he left for the East with the committee.
On reaching the Dutch East Indies, the team set up a temporary laboratory in the Military Hospital in Batavi, now renamed Djakarta. Before long, Pekelharing isolated a micrococcus, which seemed to cause polyneuritis, from the blood of beriberi patients.
However, Eijkman was skeptical about it for it did not match with Koch’s suggestions. Moreover, he tried to transmit the disease by injecting the cultured micrococcus into chickens, rabbits, dogs and monkeys, but failed.
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In 1887, Pekelharing and Winkler were called back to Netherlands; but before they left they proposed that the laboratory they had set up be made permanent, a suggestion that was readily accepted. Eijkman remained behind as its first Director.
Subsequently, Eijkman was also appointed as the Director of the Javanese Medical School, locally known as Dokter Djawa School, where he taught physiology and organic chemistry. With that, his military service came to an end and he was able to concentrate on his research.
As A Researcher
On 15 January 1888, Christiaan Eijkman became the Director of the medical laboratory, Geneeskundig Laboratorium, holding the position up to 4 March 1896. It was here that he made significant discoveries.
Initially, he tried to infect rabbits and monkeys with microorganisms; but without any success. He therefore concluded that beriberi takes a long time to develop. At the same time, it was not possible to wait too long for the disease to develop.
Therefore, he started looking for animals that would quickly develop the disease and at the same time were inexpensive to keep. He then bought a large number of chickens and kept their cages under the extended roof of the laboratory. He injected a few of them with microorganisms, keeping others as control.
Within a month all the chickens became sick. He then examined them closely through autopsy and histological examination, carefully documenting of their symptoms and disease progression. He found the disease identical to beriberi or polyneuritis endemica perniciosa and so he named it polyneuritis gallinarum.
As regarding the cause of the outbreak, he concluded that the chickens which had been injected had infected the others. To make sure, he bought a few more chickens and kept them in separate cages, but soon enough, they also became sick.
On assuming that the whole laboratory had been infected, he decided to keep new chickens in separate location. However, as he did that, all sick chickens, every one of them, got well without him administering any medicine or doing anything to cure them. He was truly puzzled.
He did find the answer, but from an unusual source; it was from the man who fed the chickens. During the outbreak, he fed them with leftover rice from the adjacent hospital. But later it became unavailable and so he fed them with rice bought from the market.
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On further enquiry, Eijkman found that the rice fed during the outbreak was polished; but the rice bought from the market was unpolished. After much trial and error, he realized that unpolished rice must contain certain nutrient that went missing when the rice is polished.
He called this to be ‘the anti-beriberi factor’ that both prevented and cured the disease. He however did not known what it exactly was and thought that it must be a toxin in the rice grain that is neutralized by some ingredient in the hull.
On further research, he came to the conclusion that the disease must be caused by some kind of bacteria. He ruled out factors like blood contamination, respiratory metabolism, perspiration, or temperature variation.
In 1895, he was ready for human trial and for that purpose contacted A. G. Vorderman, the supervisor of the Civil Health Department of Java. With his help, he conducted a massive survey on the inmates of the prison and many cases of beriberi were cured.
Concurrently, he also worked on fermentation and wrote two textbooks for his students of the Medical College. In 1896, he became ill and returned to the Netherlands, again on sick leave. However, before going home, he asked his friend Adolphe Vorderman to continue the research work.
Return To Home
On returning home, Christiaan Eijkman first joined the University of Utrecht as an instructor. Subsequently in 1898, he was appointed Professor in Hygiene and Forensic Medicine at Utrecht, a position he held until 1928. During this long period, he worked mainly on bacteriology, guiding many research projects in his laboratory.
Among the research projects of this period, the fermentation test that helped to establish if any water body has been polluted with coli bacilli through human or animal defecation was of prime importance. Later he worked on the rate of mortality of bacteria and as well as its growth in solid substance.
He was also a successful teacher and was known for his practical knowledge as well as his clarity of speech. He encouraged free thoughts in his students and warned them against accepting dogmas.
However, he did not confine himself to academic life alone. He was also a member of many governmental organizations and involved himself in public welfare measures like water supply, housing, school hygiene, and physical education.
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In addition, as member of Gezondheidsraad and Gezondheidscommissie, he took active part in campaigns against alcoholism. He also participated in struggle against tuberculosis and established Vereeniging tot Bestrijding van de Tuberculose (Society for the struggle against tuberculosis).
Christiaan Eijkman is best remembered for his work on beriberi, which for the first time, demonstrated that the disease is linked to one’s diet and that unpolished rice had both a preventive and curative effect in it.
Although he could not finish the work due to ill health, his initial discoveries in this field led to a series of experiments which culminated in the discovery of thiamin – vitamin B1 in the pericarp of the unpolished rice grains as the preventive agent for beriberi.
Awards & Achievements
In 1907, he was appointed Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he was a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington and an honorary fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute in London.
In 1929, Christiaan Eijkman was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discovery of the antineuritic vitamin.” The co-recipient of the award was Sir Frederick Hopkins who received his share "for his discovery of the growth-stimulating vitamins."
He was also the recipient of several orders of knighthood conferred upon him by the Dutch Government.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1883, before leaving for the Dutch East Indies, Eijkman married Aaltje Wigeri van Edema. She died three years later in 1886. The couple did not have any children.
Later in 1888, he married Bertha Julie Louise van der Kemp. The couple had a son, Pieter Hendrik, born in 1890. He also grew up to become a physician.
After retiring in 1928, Eijkman began to suffer from various illnesses and by 1929 he was so ill that he could not travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Prize in person. He died on 5 November 1930, after a long period of illness in Utrecht.
The Eijkman Medal, established on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his professorship, carries his legacy even today.
The research center at Djakarta, where he once worked, has now been renamed Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology by the Government of Indonesia.