Herbs, Snails and Chickens, Louise Fresco, Prometheus, 65 pages, €4.99.
October is History Month, and to mark the occasion, Louise Fresco, writer, food expert and former chair of the board of directors of Wageningen University, has written a booklet entitled: “Herbs, shells and chickens. Science as a voyage of discovery.” It shows that progress in science never depends on brilliant inspirations from isolated people working in isolation and that the path forward is rarely straight.
Examples include two scientists who worked in the Dutch East Indies: the 17th-century botanist Rumphius, and the brilliant physician Christian Ekman, who investigated the cause of beriberi at the end of the 19th century. After ingenious experiments with chickens, he initially concluded that they must be contaminated, but later realized that nutrition was crucial. He slowly developed the idea that milled white rice was missing a substance, but for decades he stubbornly clung to the hypothesis of a toxin (the starch in the grain that caused “something” in the intestines) and an antidote (in the coating). Much research in Europe and the United States was needed to convince Ekman of a different explanation. Eventually, vitamin deficiencies turned out to be crucial: in 1926, thiamin/vitamin B1 was discovered. Ekman held on to the idea of a pathogen to explain beriberi for nearly thirty years. It’s not so strange, Fresco says, after all he was a bacteriologist: he looked right up his alley, you could say. In 1929, Ekman shared the Nobel Prize with biochemist Sir Frederick Hopkins. Message from Frisco: Science and technology inevitably follow winding paths. But what is good and works will eventually show.
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