WTF Is Wellness? Part 4: Vitamins In View

WTF Is Wellness? Part 4: Vitamins In View

The groundwork’s been laid. We’re now in the territory of almost familiar (1900ish).

The “idea” of vitamins was first identified during the Siege of Paris in 1870 by way of a French chemist called Jean Baptiste Dumas. As a result of the fighting, infants and toddlers were cut off from the milk supply of the countryside - resulting in many deaths.

As is unfortunately the case with humanity, certain individuals saw this as an opportunity to make a quick Franc. So they created artificial substitutes of milk to be sold to families across the city. But the deaths still continued to occur.

This led Dumas to posit that there were “indefinite substances employed in the sustenance of life, in which the smallest and most insignificant traces of matter may prove to not only be efficacious, but even indispensable.”

If you hadn’t guessed, he was describing vitamins.

The Originators

It wasn’t until 1912, that the term vitamin was coined. Building on the work of Lunin, Gustav Von Bunge, Socin and Stepp amongst others, Dr Casimir Funk was the first to refer to active properties in unpolished rice husks as “vitamines.” He posited that the beriberi disease was a result of the absence of an essential nutrient or vitamine, in rice, as opposed to being caused by the presence of something negative in the grain.

One year later, two American chemists by the name of Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered the first isolated vitamin: “factor A.”

Long story short, the two fed a group of rats pure casein, carbohydrates, agar-agar and salt. They grew for about 120 days before stopping their growth entirely. Only with the addition of small amounts of egg or butter extract were they able to restart the growth of the rats.

The pair concluded that “there are certain accessory articles in certain food-stuffs which are essential for normal growth for extended periods.” It wasn’t isolated to butter and egg, though. They also found this “factor” in extracts of alfalfa leaves and organ meat. Later, this would be renamed “Vitamin A.”

Society was on a roll in the 1910s. Just a few years later in 1916, the first “vitamon” tablet was developed by a company called Mastin. The supplement included vitamins A, B, C, iron, calcium and something called nux vomica, ostensibly to combat heartburn which is derived from a tree of the same name. Whilst the supposed benefits were as wide-ranging as you can imagine, this was the first product commercially sold with the intention of providing your body with supplementary nutrients outside of food.

The War on Deficiency

Next, as you may well know, a couple of World Wars occurred, and the UK government was keen to educate the nation on the importance of nutrition as a means to maintain a healthy, functioning population. This culminated in the 1941 Welfare Food Scheme, which guaranteed children, mothers and the elderly additional nutritional supplementation throughout rationing. Individuals deemed in need of the extra support were provided cod liver oil, blackcurrant syrup (later replaced with concentrated orange juice) and vitamin A and D tablets.

With the government now onboard with the benefits of supplementing the population’s diet, the wider idea of wellness began to be embraced by people of all creeds and classes.

This acceleration of adoption continued when, in 1948, the World Health Organisation altered their definition of health to the following, “a state of complete, physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This marked a shift in the understanding of health, as individuals sought to strive towards a destination of wellness, or wellbeing, as opposed to simply the absence of sickness, as a definition for what it means to be healthy.

Wellness, Dunn

This was elaborated on and defined by a man named Halbert Dunn, an American Doctor who began delivering lectures on the culture surrounding health and wellbeing in the 1950s. He’s widely understood as the person who coined the term “wellness,” defining it in opposition to illness. Building on the success of his lectures, Dunn released his seminal work “High Level Wellness” in 1961, expanding the definition of wellness through concentrating on the same three areas of life as highlighted by TCM and Ayurvedic practitioners thousands of years ago: the mind, body and spirit. To quote Dunn, “wellbeing must consist more than a simple state of ‘unsickness’, as it were. There must be degrees in well-being.

Not So Underground

Dunn espoused the benefits of individual responsibility for health, including regular exercise, good diet, moderation of vices, regular stress management and the importance of the environment. Similar lines of thought to Max Bircher-Benner half a decade before, but Dunn’s ideas were grounded in the advancement of science and served to inspire the next generation of wellness pioneers. Whilst Dunn is generally overlooked in the canon of wellness, the way in which he promulgated his ideas served to provide a foundation for the industry as a whole.

The following decades would see retreats and centres pop up far more frequently the world over, typically located in more liberal leaning areas of Western society, as the idea of what it means to be “healthy” broadened to incorporate the additive elements of wellness. Names like John Travis, Don Ardell and Bill Hettler all continued to flick the needle of wellness as they added to the canon of literature and thought through books, speeches and research papers. By the end of the 90s, workplaces began to introduce wellness programs of their own in order to encourage their employees to maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle in order to maximise their productivity.

The rest, as no one says, is contemporary.

At this point, you should feel relatively up to date!

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