Kanehiro Takaki: A Pioneer in the Investigation of Beriberi

Kanehiro Takaki (高木 兼寛) was a pioneer in the investigation of beriberi in the late 19 century.
He was the first to discover that beriberi was caused by nutritional deficiency.

At the time, soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered from beriberi. Takaki, Director General of Japanese Naval Medical Services, noticed a correlation between the diet of sailors and beriberi. In the course of improving the diet, he succeeded in eradicating the disease in the Japanese Navy.

Kanehiro Takaki (高木 兼寛) was born Oct. 30, 1849. The young Takaki studied Western medicine under a British physician William Willis. In 1875, he went to England to continue his medical education as a naval officer. After having 5 years’ training at St. Thomas’s Medical School in London, he returned to Japan and started research on beriberi.

At the time, beriberi was considered endemic to Japan and a serious problem on warships affecting naval efficiency. However, Takaki noticed that the incident of beriberi was considerably low among the Japanese naval officers. He observed that living conditions on warship were similar throughout the navy, except that there was considerable variation in the diet.

Takaki noticed that naval officers who ate various types of vegetables and meat rarely suffered from beriberi, whereas ordinary crewmen who ate only white rice were the victims. From what he had observed, Takaki assumed that the cause of beriberi was dietary deficiency.

Although beriberi was a common issue to the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, Takaki’s dietary theory was not accepted by the Army. To prove his theory, therefore, Takaki developed an enriched diet with barley mixed rice that was tested on the training ship Tsukuba in 1884 as it sailed to New Zealand, South America, and Hawaii.

This voyage experimentally reproduced an 1883 cruise of the training ship Ryujo that resulted in 161 cases of beriberi, 25 of which were fatal, among the 376 crewmen who were eating the white-rice diet. The cruise of Tsukuba, in contrast, ended up with no beriberi victims.

Due to the success of the experiment, Takaki’s diet plan was adopted in the Imperial Navy. As a result, the incidence of beriberi in the fleet dropped from 30 % to 0 % in six years.

Despite the success in the navy, Japanese medical community and the army doctors believed in the infectious theory of beriberi and held onto the white-rice diet for decades. In 1884, more than one-fourth of soldiers in the army suffered from beriberi. During the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese War, soldiers were more likely to die from beriberi than from combat trauma.
Takaki’s findings came 10 years before Dutch medical officer Christian Eijkman discovered that beriberi was caused by nutritional deficiency, substance lacked in polished rice, which would be later identified as vitamin B1.
Takaki founded the Jikei University School of Medicine, the first private medical college in Japan. He also founded the first nursing training school. He put more emphasis on the prevention and treatment of disease than research of disease. He told his students to see a patient as a human being suffering from illness.
Kanehiro Takaki (高木 兼寛) died on April 13, 1920.

A peninsula in Antarctica at 65 deg 33 min south; 64 de 34 min west is names Takaki Promontory after Kanehiro Takaki (高木 兼寛), which is the only peninsula in Antarctica named after a Japanese.