Suspected but elusive

Vitamin C was long posited. Researchers Axel Holst and Alfred Frohlich, for instance, had proposed its existence as early as 1907, but no definitive agent emerged as the likely candidate. As researchers struggled to identify the unique substance, one, Albert Szent-Györgyi, in the 1920s, was making experimental connections others did not.

Born to a family that already included three generations of scientists, Szent-Györgyi was interested in science from an early age. He enrolled at the University of Budapest, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Fervently anti-war throughout his life, Szent-Györgyi wounded himself to escape combat and returned to the university to finish his studies in 1917. He was reputed to have said that he was "overcome with such a mad desire to return to science that one day I grabbed my revolver and in my despair put a shot through my upper arm."

Szent-Györgyi received a medical degree upon graduation, thereafter studying at various European universities. He began his scientific career by studying the chemical changes that occur when cells utilize foodstuffs, such as carbohydrates, fats, and protein, a process sometimes known as biological combustion. In the course of his studies Szent-Györgyi isolated a molecule from adrenal glands that lost and regained hydrogen atoms. This "hydrogen carrier," containing six carbon atoms, had the properties of a sugar and an acid. Szent-Györgyi christened it "hexuronic acid."

In the 1920s, he became interested in cell respiration and energy production in plants, closely investigating the "browning" processes that interrupted or impeded growth and normal functioning. Szent-Györgyi discovered that as plants brown, they do so as a result of damage at the cellular level: a breakdown in the mechanism that supplies enough hydrogen to prevent excessive oxidation.

While conducting a series of experiments on citrus plants, he found that browning could be induced with peroxidase, a plant enzyme active in oxidation. Szent-Györgyi was then able to delay the browning with the addition of citrus juice to the peroxidase. Further experiments allowed Szent-Györgyi to isolate the protective hexuronic-acid agent he believed was active in citrus juice.


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