Elmer Verner McCollum was born on a farm near Fort Scott, Kansas. He attended the University of Kansas, graduating in 1903, and the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in 1906. After completing his Ph.D. work, McCollum stayed at Yale for another year working with Thomas B. Osborne and Lafayette B. Mendel on problems of plant protein composition and diet. Mendel then helped McCollum secure a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin.
Upon arrival at Wisconsin, McCollum started his research on nutritional biochemistry and established the country's first colony of albino laboratory rats specifically for use in nutritional research. This work included an analysis of the growth-promoting factor(s) in protein-free milk, which led to the isolation of the first known fat-soluble vitamin, later to be called vitamin A. In the years that followed, McCollum contributed to the discovery of other fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D, and did important work in the field of trace minerals. In 1916, McCollum and Cornelia Kennedy, concerned with the growing confusion about nomenclature for dietary factors, proposed an alphabetical designation preceded by a notation of the solubility of the factor, thus fat-soluble A and water-soluble B. This system was the beginning of the common nomenclature for vitamins. McCollum's discovery of the vitamins was the subject of a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).
In 1917, McCollum accepted the position of professor and headed the Department of Chemical Hygiene, later Biochemistry, in the newly formed School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Through his research and public service, McCollum influenced human dietary policy and practices. He was involved in many policy debates including one over the best strategy to fortify bread. McCollum was a member of the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board and from 1927 to 1928 was president of the American Society of Biological Chemists. His awards and honors include the Howard N. Potts Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute, the John Scott Medal from the City of Philadelphia, the Osborne and Mendal Award of the American Institute of Nutrition, the Borden Federation Centenary Award, the Charles F. Spencer Award of the American Chemical Society, the Modern Medicine Award, and the New York Academy of Medicine Medal and citation.
1. Simoni, R. D., Hill, R. L., and Vaughan, M. (2002) Nutritional biochemistry and the discovery of vitamins. The work of Elmer Verner McCollum. J. Biol. Chem. 277 (19)