The Surprising Story of a Beriberi Bad Disease

For Slate, I write about thiamin deficiencies, chickens, and the long and fascinating path to the discovery of the vitamins. 

In the mid-1800s, a strange sickness was devastating parts of Southeast Asia. Known as beriberi, it began with intense swelling of the legs and feet and a general sense of numbness, especially in the extremities. Victims developed a distinctive gait, lifting their knees high in the air and swinging their legs forward so that their drooping toes wouldn’t catch on the ground. Their urine became concentrated and their appetites waned, even as their bodies wasted away. Eventually, they lost their voices and died in suffocating convulsions. Its cause was a mystery; no one knew a prevention, let alone a cure.