A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Joseph Goldberger
1874 - 1929

Joseph Goldberger was born in the Austria-Hungary, in a town now located in the Czech Republic. In 1881, when he was six, his family emigrated to the United States. They settled in Manhattan's East Side where his parents ran a grocery store. Young Goldberger was the store's delivery boy.

At age 16, he entered City College in New York, intent on studying engineering. After dropping in one day on a lecture at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, he changed his mind. He obtained a medical degree from Bellevue in 1895. He had a private practice in a small city in Pennsylvania, but after two years realized he was bored. He took the competitive exam to enter the Marine Hospital Service, and in 1899 joined its ranks. In 1906 he married -- a mixed marriage, unusual in his day, for he was Jewish and his wife was not.

The Marine Hospital Service was established by Congress in 1798 to care for merchant seamen who were sick, and its main goal was fighting epidemics. By the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of medical discoveries about germs, the Service's officers considered themselves "microbe hunters." In 1902 the Marine Hospital Service was renamed the Public Health Service, and over the decades, it turned more and more to basic science. In 1912, Congress re-formed the Service, expanding its duties to include investigating human diseases.

By 1912, Goldberger had been fighting tropical fevers, typhus, typhoid, and other infectious outbreaks throughout the United States and the Caribbean. The surgeon general took note of his energy and success and in 1914, appointed him to tackle the crisis of pellagra, a disease recently reaching epidemic proportions in the South. Through extensive observation of healthy and pellagra-stricken people, Goldberger noticed that diet seemed to be the key. People who subsisted on the common diet of poverty -- cornbread and molasses -- seemed to get the disease. Goldberger conducted experiments with volunteers at a Mississippi prison, which offered conclusive evidence that poor nutrition was the culprit in causing pellagra. But what was the missing dietary ingredient that brought on the disease? Goldberger spent the rest of his life trying to figure it out. Some people resisted his ideas because of their implied social criticism -- he was a northerner pointing out flaws in Southern society -- and some just found it hard to believe diet could cause disease.

Goldberger died of cancer in 1929 before his questions were answered. In 1937, researcher Conrad Elvehjem picked up Goldberger's question, and after much experimenting found that nicotinic acid, or niacin, prevented and cured pellagra in dogs and in humans. The study and understanding of vitamins and cell chemistry advanced markedly during the 1930s.

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