One of the reasons I enjoy learning about history is that human nature doesn’t change much. For example, there will always be a good number of people who believe that if a little bit of something is good, then a lot of that something is even better. As you can imagine, this happens a lot with cures for various ailments.
A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland. Sometimes really, really enlarged. People have suffered from goiters throughout history, but it was hard to cure them when the cause was unknown. Historically marine sponges have been used where they were available, although they didn’t completely solve the problem.
During the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907), goiters were treated with the thyroid glands of various animals, which were dried, crushed into a powder and consumed. I don’t know if they knew why it worked, just that it worked. Then, as now, medical treatment included a whole lot of trial and error.
We now know that goiters are the result of iodine deficiency. Those marine sponges and animal thyroid glands worked because they were rich in iodine.
Iodine is a trace element and an essential nutrient for us humans. It is found naturally in food in some regions, primarily coastal regions. Today iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause not only of goiters, but also intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it still effects approximately two billion people worldwide. Knowing the cause of a problem doesn’t always mean it gets fixed.
But back to iodine. Like so many things, iodine was discovered accidentally. In 1811 French chemist Bernard Courtois (1777-1838) was working with seaweed ash to get what he needed to make gunpowder. Don’t worry, I don’t understand the science well enough to tell you more than that. He made a little mistake and suddenly he had iodine. Unfortunately, this was during the Napoleonic Wars, France didn’t have the money to fund any of his experiments, so he went on to other things.
But others were able to work with the newly discovered iodine, including a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean Francois Coindet (1774-1834). In a series of papers published in 1820, only nine years after Courtois’ discovery, he announced that he could reduce goiters. He also mentioned other symptoms and ailments that could be helped with the use of iodine.
Iodine became all the rage. It was the fashionable new drug, easily available and seen as a bit of a global cure. But iodine is a funny thing. Too little, a deficiency, causes problems, but there are also major side effects if you have too much. And back to that human nature thing, some people had too much. Iodine, used incorrectly, was more a poison than a cure and became a semi-controlled substance.
It wasn’t until several decades later that it was discovered why iodine worked on goiters. It took that long to realize that humans need iodine and there are consequences when they don’t have it. Like goiters.
And it wasn’t until 1922 that the Swiss once again led the way and found a way to ensure that more people had enough iodine in their diets. They added it to table salt. The United States followed their example two years later.
Table salt has said “iodized” on the carton for so long that we don’t really notice it anymore. Salt was decided on as the vehicle for iodine because it does not spoil and is used by most people. It’s also simple and cost-effective. Unfortunately, iodine deficiency hasn’t been eliminated.
The World Health Organization and other agencies are still working on it.