New Light on the Biological Role of Vitamin E

By Herbert M. Evans

Summary: In 1922 biologists Herbert Evans and Katharine Bishop discovered that rats deprived of a certain fat-soluble substance in their diet failed to reproduce. Thanks to this research, the substance—later named vitamin E—was known initially as “the antisterility vitamin.” In subsequent years, however, researchers would discover that vitamin E is responsible for much more than fertility, its deficiency leading to muscular and neural dystrophies in various species of animals, particularly in the young. In this lecture from 1939, Dr. Evans discusses both his own research and that of others into vitamin E’s critical role in the health of muscle and nerves, adding that while a certain minimal amount of the vitamin may ward of full-blown degeneration, there are likely effects of partial inadequacy as well, such as slowed growth. While today medicine has nebulously reduced the function of vitamin E to that of an antioxidant, Dr. Evans’s discussion speaks to a role much more immediately involved in the physiology of the body. Indeed, he notes, when scientists fed rabbits a diet deficient in vitamin E but supplemented with a known antioxidant, the animals “developed the [same] dystrophy and succumbed in the usual way.” From Journal of the Mount Sinai Hospital, 1939. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 56.