Fun fact: ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, means “anti-scurvy.” Although for centuries sailors observed that lemons and oranges had some curative effects on this scourge, it took until the 20th century before scurvy’s connection to diet, and vitamin C, was fully established.
Vitamin C was first discovered in 1912. Later, in 1928, Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi was able to isolate it, meaning that vitamin C could be extracted from natural products. The significance of this discovery, however, didn’t leave the lab until a few years later, at the height of the Great Depression.
The early 1930s had left many businesses floundering, leading to drastic unemployment rates and severe malnourishment. Roche, too, had been hit hard, despite having enjoyed financial success starting with its first blockbuster medicine in 1898, the orange-flavoured cough syrup, Sirolin. Although a relatively new concept at the time, it had become clear that there was no way of treating the new wave of diseases caused by dietary deficiencies – rickets, beriberi and scurvy – if there wasn’t enough food to go around.
It took five years after vitamin C’s isolation for Tadeusz Reichstein, a Polish-Swiss chemist, to figure out a way to artificially create the vitamin. It was an ingenious method that relied on chemical reactions (chemical synthesis) as well as living organisms (biotechnology) to synthesise vitamin C. The “Reichstein process,” as it became known, could be scaled up for industrial manufacture. And he offered it to Roche.
A year after Roche purchased this key to its first truly complex chemical process, 50 kg of vitamin C were produced. This was what finally set Roche on the path to becoming a chemical engineering company. Although not fully understood at the time, the Reichstein process was one of the earliest forays into biotechnology, almost prophesying how important it would become to our research today.
Roche quickly became the leading supplier of vitamins, having also mastered the industrial synthesis of vitamins A, B1, E and K1. They were safe, properly dosed, produced in a sterile environment and – most important during the food shortages – affordable. This upsurge in vitamin production brought prosperity, and Roche was finally able to resume Fritz Hoffmann’s vision to expand internationally. From that moment on, Roche could recommit to the US market, starting with a new investment in Nutley, New Jersey.
Roche sold its vitamin unit in 2002 so as to further focus on unlocking the potential of biotechnology and personalised healthcare, but along the way, Tadeusz Reichstein’s incredible innovation, combined with Roche’s production know-how, helped millions of people. Today, vitamin C is on the WHO’s List of Essential Medicines. While there’s no substitute for a full, well-balanced diet, it’s good to know that if your ship runs out of oranges, you can still keep scurvy at bay.
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