Manual Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause, and a Cure

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Extraordinary medical history of a nutritional deficiency that we do not see anymore. The presentation of the illness in various settings from poverty to prisoners. Beriberi, white rice, and vitamin B: a disease, a cause, and a cure. Reviewed by Sanjoy Bhattacharya. Author information Copyright and License information.

Beriberi, white rice, and vitamin B: a disease, a cause, and a cure

Dry beriberi causes wasting and partial paralysis resulting from damaged peripheral nerves. It is also referred to as endemic neuritis. Treatment Treatment is with thiamine hydrochloride, either in tablet form or injection. A rapid and dramatic recovery can be made when this is administered to patients with beriberi, and their health can be transformed within an hour of administration of the treatment.

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Thiamine occurs naturally in fresh foods and cereals , particularly fresh meat , legumes, green vegetables , fruit , and milk. History The discovery of the cause of beriberi started in Japan , where the disease was a national epidemic.

Beriberi, white rice, and vitamin B: a disease, a cause, and a cure

The poor often mixed rice with barley , while the upper class ate only white rice. Therefore, during the feudal period, beriberi was commonly found among the upper class of Japan. However, the introduction of mechanical polishing of rice, and increased standards of living, allowed the poor to eat the more highly regarded diet of white rice without barley.

This shift made beriberi widespread in urban Japan. The problem of beriberi was particularly acute in the Japanese military, where conscripts' diet often consisted of white rice and little else.

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Kanehiro Takaki, a Japanese naval physician, who was originally a doctor in Chinese medicine and who was later educated as a doctor in Britain, came to believe that diet was the cause of beriberi, which conflicted with the prevailing idea among medical scientists that beriberi was an infectious disease.

Takaki knew that beriberi was not common among Western navies. He also noticed that Japanese naval officers, whose diet consisted of various types of vegetables and meat, rarely suffered from beriberi.


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On the other hand, for ordinary crewmen rice was free, while other foods had to be purchased. Those from poor families, who had to send money back home, often tried to save money by eating nothing but rice. Takaki, while serving on a battleship, experimented by providing a western style diet to his crew.

How Sick Chickens and Rice Led Scientists to Vitamin B1

As in Malaya, it occurred mainly among the inmates of institutions prisons and asylums , and in the army. The prevailing dogma was that the disease was infectious, so Eijkman had fed chickens with potentially infective material from inmates, to no avail — up to the day in that the chickens suddenly started to develop a neuropathy that might resemble beriberi, but which disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

This observation prompted him and his successors in the Dutch East Indies to set in motion new animal experiments, which were later supplemented by observations and interventions in humans.

Thanks to the subsequent work of many others in many laboratories over the world, this led to the isolation of one of the vitamins of the B-group, a substance that has to be present in our food to preserve health. If they are deficient in vitamins of the B-group, people develop neuropathies such as beriberi or pellagra.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine) Medical biochemistry - medical animation

The story is a more tortuous one than is often thought, however. Many of these studies paid due attention to the potential of allocation bias and observation bias.


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  • One of these stands out: an observational study on prison inmates done by Adolphe Vorderman, a government physician of the Dutch health inspectorate. He paid scrupulous attention to avoiding bias in his investigations, even the bias of his own memory Vorderman ; Vandenbroucke