Teaching Science through History

Christian Eijkman & the Cause of Beriberi

by Douglas Allchin

eijkmanChirstian Eijkman shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of vitamins. His research on beriberi in the Dutch East Indies in 1890s highlighted the role of rice diet, leading to the understanding of specific nutrient deficiencies. Yet originally Eijkman was convinced that beriberi was caused by a microorganism and this assumption guided his work. This case study delves into the fruitfulness of his work, even as his preconceptions guided him into error. The context of Dutch Colonialism also helps frame reflection on funding and ethics in science.

Major NOS features include:

  • the role of chance or accident
  • theoretical perspectives in interpreting data
  • the distinction between causation and correlation
  • growth of knowledge through small cumulative additions versus through major conceptual reinterpretations
  • the role of individual versus groups in making a discovery
  • scientific communication and communities of researchers
  • the cultural and economic contexts of science

Download illustrated text.
Download teaching notes.
Download ALL: HTML presentation, text & notes [4MB].

beriberi patients