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Synthesis of Vitamin C in China and in Europe in 1930s

Zhang Li (CAS, Beijing)

In the first half of the 20th century, Chinese scientists made great contributions to the establishment and development of modern sciences in China. Most of them had obtained good scientific education in Europe and America, and had outstanding ability to do scientific research. But due to the limited conditions, their achivements were always fall behind the western scientists. Synthesis of vitamin C was an example.

In 1932, a Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1893 - 1886) had isolated from the adrenal cortex and from orange juice vitamin C he named "hexuronic acid". Later, an English Walter Norman Haworth (1883 - 1950) isolated the vitamin from ample supplies of Hungarian paprika and elucidated the structure of "ascorbic acid" (the name coined by him). The synthesis, the first of any vitamin, was accomplished in 1933 by Haworth with the assistance of a large team of workers. So he won the Nobel chemistry prize in 1937. Following Haworth, some European also were doing this synthesis.

Peter Sah (Sa Bentie, 1900 - 1986) was the famous chemist in China in 1930s. During his postdoctoral studies at Yale, he had investigated the vitamin content of Chinese litchi nuts, based on continued this work, concentrating on the vitamin C content of fruits and vegetables in the Peiping market and the dietary needs of the local people. In 1933, he proposed several methods and sought to interest the European masters in his work, but when the synthesis were finally performed, they took no account of publications from China. In a paper published in 1934, Sah said those experimental results by European were apparently identical in principle with the theoretical synthesis proposed by himself. So he thought that the Chinese laboratories could only wish to compete in experimental work with foreign scientists due to lack of materials and expenses especially good scientific atmosphere in his country.

The aim of my paper is to clarify when and how Sah's study on synthesis of vitamin C, and compare the qualities of Sah's work and European. Based on this, I wish to show the process of modern chemistry development in China and the important role of Chinese chemists.

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