Kazimierz (Casimir) Funk

Kazimierz Funk is best known for inventing the name “vitamin”, but is remembered in the field of diabetes as the man who set up insulin production in Poland as early as 1923, very shortly after the discovery of Banting and Best. The production line still continues, and has saved the lives of many people in Poland and, later, in other communist block countries.

Dr Kazimierz Funk
Dr Kazimierz Funk
Kazimierz Funk was born on February 23rd 1884 in Warsaw in a family of Jewish origin. His father, Jacob Funk, was a dermatologist. Funk finished his basic education in Warsaw, and went on to study at the University of Bern, Switzerland, where he defended his doctor dissertation entitled on the chemistry of dyes in 1904, at the age of 20. In the same year he moved to the Pasteur Institute in Paris and, two years later, to Berlin University, where he worked in Emil Fischer’s laboratory. In 1910 he moved once again to the Lister Institute in London, UK, where he published his first paper in English (on the synthesis of dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA).

Around this time Christiaan Eijkman, who had studied beriberi in the former Dutch East Indies, observed by chance that chickens fed with polished rice developed characteristic signs of the disease, but recovered when switched to unpolished rice. This important observation paved the way to feeding experiments in humans, conducted by Eijkmann and (later) Vordermann, which confirmed the initial observation.

It is not clear whether Funk learned of this discovery directly or via Charles Martin, who was then head of the Lister Institute. In all events, it stimulated Funk to make repeated attempts to isolate the substance responsable for the beneficial effect of unpolished (brown) rice. In this he finally succeeded, isolating thiamine in the year 1912. Funk named the substance “vitamine” (with “e” at the end of the word), later shortened to “vitamin”. He added the “e” because thiamine has an amine group, speculating that similar compounds might be responsible for a whole range of nutritional deficiency diseases. He initially named specific vitamins after the disease they prevented, as for example “beri-beri vitamine” or “scurvy vitamine”. Christian Eijkman received the Nobel Price in Medicine for his work in 1929. Kazimierz Funk, although nominated in 1926, never received the Prize.

The handwriting of Dr Kazimierz Funk: A dedication written in the Benjamin Harrow's book: "For the library of State Institute of Hygiene in Warsaw, as a memento of my cooperation 1923-1927. Kazimierz Funk, January 1956"
The handwriting of Dr Kazimierz Funk: A dedication written in the Benjamin Harrow's book: "For the library of State Institute of Hygiene in Warsaw, as a memento of my cooperation 1923-1927. Kazimierz Funk, January 1956"
After the World War I broke out Kazimierz Funk moved to USA. He worked there on synthesis of a range of chemical substances previously supplied by Germany but now unobtainable because of the war. Thus, he succeeded in preparing salvarsan and neo-salvarsan. He also participated in the preparation of Oscodal, the first vitamin preapration (A+D) to be accepted by the American Medical Association. In 1920 he was granted US citizenship, but he returned to Poland in 1923.

Ludwik Rajchman, at that time the first Director of the newly established State Institute of Hygiene, offered Funk a position of a leader of the Department of Biochemistry in the Institude, with his own well-equipped laboratory. The League of Nation set out to provide better health care in different countries around the world, and the Rockefeller Institute engaged Funk in Poland for 2 years to take on this challenge.

Sadly, the promises of Rajchman regarding the fully equipped laboratory were not fulfilled and Funk (not the first time, as he had faced a similar situation in the USA) found that he had space but no equipment. To fund this, he began to manufacture and sell insulin, investing his own money in this enterprise. At that time very few European countries (England, Denmark and Spain) were able to produce insulin, the demand was great and the price was high. Within a short period Funk was able to process 40 kg of bovine pancreas daily, and the institute produced more than 300.000 units of insulin in the 1924, rising to almost a million units in 1926. The work resulted also in several publications in Polish and international medical journals, and Funk was one of the first scientists who tried to administer insulin orally.

This work and the resulting publications were highly appreciated by the Rockefeller Institute, and Funk was engaged for two further years (1925-1927), which resulted in furthe publications on insulin and vitamins. However, in 1927 Funk left Poland, first for Brussels, and than for Paris, where he stayed on, working on hormones and on other areas. He also founded “Casa Biochemica”, a company that began to produce insulin. In 1939, after the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war, Funk abandoned all his possessions and left France and Europe behind. He remained in the US for the rest of his life.

The few years he spent of Poland were undoubtedly fruitful from the scientific point of view, and his personality and achievements were highly stimulating for the scientific environment in Poland. After his departure in 1927, insulin production continued under the supervision of Tomasz Spasowicz and, despite occasional problems, the quality of the product steadily increased. In 1935 the State Institute of Hygiene started to sell insulin abroad, and production of NPH insulin commenced In 1938.

Insulin production, started by Kazimierz Funk, continued during World War II and on to the present, and it is currently produced in the state-owned company Polfa. The years of communism and lack of investment did not allow Poland to form a global company that could compete with such manufacturers as Eli Lilly and Novo-Nordisk. However, the continuous production of insulin in Poland from 1923 until now is a remarkable achievement that would not have been possible without Kazimierz Funk.

His biographer and friend, Benjamin Harrow, writes that Funk had the imagination of a poet rather than a scientist. He was certainly a hard worker and a very bright man who will be remembered for coining the term “vitamine” as well as for his work on insulin, other hormones, and the methodology of pharmaceutical production.. He wrote approximately 170 scientific papers. The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America honors Polish-American Scientists each year with a Casimir Funk Natural Sciences Award.

References:

Funk C: Zur Kentniss des Brasilins und Haematoxylins. Dissertation. University of Bern, 1904.

Funk C: The etiology of the deficiency diseases. Beri-beri, polyneuritis in birds, epidemic dropsy, scurvy, experimental scurvy in animals, infantile scurvy, ship beri-beri, pellagra. J State Med 1912; 20: 341

K. Funk, Z. Kolodziejska. Dzialanie insuliny per os (Action of insulin per os). Med Dosw Spol 1924; 2: 367

K. Funk. The chemical nature of insulin. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1926; 23: 281 Griminger P. Casimir Funk (1884-1967). A biographical sketch. J Nutrition vv 102: 1105-1114

Harrow B: Casimir Funk – Pioneer in vitamins and hormones. Dodd, Mead and Co, New York 1955.

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