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Vol. 33 No. 3
May-June 2011

Stamps International |

See also www.iupac.org/publications/ci/indexes/stamps.html


Vitamin C and the Age of Discovery

Among the stamps celebrating the International Year of Chemistry, the one issued in Switzerland on 3 March 2011 features the molecular structure of L ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This simple molecule has played a fascinating role in history, particularly since the relationship between the consumption of citrus fruits and fresh vegetables rich in vitamin C and the prevention of scurvy was realized around the mid 18th century. In this regard, Jay Burreson and Penny Le Couteur argue in their provocative book Napoleon’s Buttons that vitamin C may well be responsible for extending the trade routes to the Americas and the Far East during the 17th and 18th centuries. The exploration of the world, fueled by the Europeans’ relentless appetite for spices and precious metals, certainly accelerated when more balanced diets and healthier ship crews enabled longer maritime voyages. Nowadays, vitamin C is a common dietary supplement even though its ability to prevent or cure diseases, ranging from the common cold to cancer, has not been unequivocally demonstrated.

The stamp illustrated in this note also pays tribute to Tadeus Reichstein (1897-1996), the Polish-Swiss chemist who developed in 1933 a practical semisynthetic method for the industrial production of vitamin C while working at the Federal Institute of technology in Zurich. The Reichstein process, still widely used today, involves the hydrogenation of naturally occurring D glucose and the bacterial fermentation of the resulting D sorbitol intermediate to L sorbose in its initial steps. Interestingly, it was not Reichstein but the British chemist Sir Norman Haworth (1883-1950) who received the 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his independent (and virtually simultaneous) synthesis and structural elucidation of vitamin C and his extensive work on carbohydrates. However, it is also worth noting that Reichstein’s methodical discovery and isolation of several hormones of the adrenal cortex, including cortisone and aldosterone, were eventually rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1950.

Written by Daniel Rabinovich <drabinov@uncc.edu>.


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