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Beri-Beri - History of Science

Using history to teach science

Observation: An disease is killing millions throughout the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a colony of the Netherlands. The disease is unkown in the Netherlands.


    • weight loss
    • impaired sensory perceptoin
    • pain in the limbs
    • shuffling gait
    • edema (swelling of bodily tissues)

Relevant Observations
Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist, has just made significant breakthroughs in the causes and preventions of diseases.  His discoveries have supported the germ theory of disease and he has created  vaccines for rabies and anthrax.  He has also demonstrated that through the process of pasteurization, milk and wine can be ridded of micro-organisms that cause disease. 

The Republic of Indonesia encompasses the world's largest archipelago, a chain of islands on the equator north of Australia, stretching one-eighth of the Earth's circumference.  Indonesia is the fifth most populated country in the world and was the largest Dutch colony before it gained its independence in 1949.  In 1602  (18 years before the Mayflower sailed to America) Dutch merchants formed the Dutch East Indies Company to protect a lucrative trade that they had established with the people of those islands.  The Dutch who came to live or trade in the Indonesian archipelago soon learned of numerous diseases never seen in their native Holland.  One of the most famous diseases was beriberi, an often fatal condition marked by extreme weakness.  The Dutch wanted to find the cause of this dreaded disease so they might also be able to find a cure.


By the mid-nineteenth century, French scientist Louis Pasteur (figure 5.13A) had demonstrated that fermentation (the production of alcohol in aging plant material) and putrefaction (the rotting of food) were caused by microscopic organisms in the air.   The work of Pasteur and others lead to the establishment of germ theory, which suggests that many diseases are caused by microorganisms.  The Dutch East Indies Company was aware of Pasteur’s work and commissioned a team of scientists to go to the archipelago  to identify the germ causing beriberi.   Assume that you were one of the researchers on this team as you address the following questions.

Task: What is the research question to be answered?  Enter your ideas in the quickwrite. 

Source of images:  Wikipedia, public domain

Subpages (1): Causes of Disease - 2