Chasing a cure for beriberi

Before the Dutch scientist and physician Christiaan Eijkman discovered the cause of beriberi in 1896 (for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1929), the treatment of patients with this condition in colonial societies in Netherlands Indies, Malaya and Singapore had been left to trial and error, mostly leading to dead ends. After Pasteur and Koch revolutionised medicine with the germ theory of disease in 1870, attempts were made to find the germ responsible for the spread of beriberi. For many decades, these approaches would ultimately see ongoing suffering particularly among communities on the margins of society – coolies, soldiers, and prisoners in the colonies – even in the midst of significant medical endeavour.

One disease among many
A severe outbreak of beriberi in Malaya was first observed in 1848. Two decades earlier, Bankier, a naval surgeon in India, had listed the symptoms of the disease to include paralysis of the muscular and nervous system, chest pain, spinal cord problems, chronic cough, kidney failure, water retention, fever, and bowel conditions. British colonial reports issued between 1886 and 1901 noted tens of thousands of deaths in Sumatra, Malaya and Singapore during that time. These included reports from Dr A. W. Sinclair, who served as the Selangor State surgeon from 1882-1888, and Dr Leonard Braddon serving in that state as District Surgeon. Both reported a particularly heavy toll amongst foreign workers, known as coolies, largely brought in to work on the colonies’ plantations, where they were supplied with food as cheaply as possible.

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