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Rickets before the discovery of vitamin D and calcium was a widespread but mysterious condition which bought bout early death and severe deformity.
Now recognised as being fairly rare in the western world, there are still some cases that are widely reported in the media.
It was the discovery of vitamin D and its relationship with calcium in the body that changed the way the condition was treated in young people.
Some of the earliest evidence of rickets was in the discovery of the Medici children buried in a family vault in Florence from 1547 – 1602. English scribes describe it as a relatively new condition in the middle of the 17th century.
Some theories point out that the rise in rickets correlated with a period of industry in the UK, where smog and poor air conditions often blocked out natural daylight. However, this argument is not completely proven.
What it was, however, was a condition that affected both the rich and the poor. King Charles I had rickets, and his daughter died from it.
From the early 18th century through to the 19th century, work was done to establish a link between cod liver oil, and later on, sunlight and their effects on rickets.
According to Jeffrey L H O’Riordan & Olav L M Bijvoet in their report on rickets, the first proven, controlled study on rickets came about just after the second world war in Vienna.
“At that time it was found that rickets was a major problem in Vienna but its cause was not known. A group from the British Medical Research Council led by Harriet Chick went to Vienna to study the problem. The possibility that rickets might be caused by something in the water or a feature of the diet, or something in the air, or possibly an infection, were all considered. The children with rickets at the Kinderklinic in Vienna were divided into four groups. Two of these groups were kept in the ward and the other two groups were kept out on the balcony which must have been very cold in the Viennese winter. In the ward, one group was given the normal diet only while the other group was also given supplementary cod liver oil. The rickets in the latter group of children was healed as demonstrated radiologically, while the first group remained sick. On the veranda one group was kept well covered while the other group of children, wearing remarkably little clothing, was exposed to sunlight. This second group got better. Thus it was shown that cod liver oil and exposure to sunlight both healed rickets. However, it was not clear at that time whether the effectiveness of cod liver oil was due to vitamin D or to vitamin A, both of which had been discovered by then. In 1921, Hess and Unger showed the importance of sunlight in curing rickets.”