Please login or create an account to join the discussion.
collage of historical adverts for protein foods

Primed for power: a short cultural history of protein. Section 1: The primary substance

1. The primary substance

Scientific claims can leave a cultural imprint which lasts long after expert consensus has moved on.13 This pattern will prove important in understanding several episodes in the history of protein, not least the story of its ‘discovery’.

The word protein (more specifically Protéin) was first used in a publications by Dutch chemist Gerrit Mulder in 1838.14 Mulder had been working on the elemental compositions of various organic substances believed to be major constituents of animal tissues (fibrine, gelatine, egg albumen) as well as similar substances found in plants. These all contained nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen—but since it was the presence of nitrogen that distinguished them from other plant and animal substances, they were often referred to as the ‘nitrogenous substances’. Mulder had discovered that the proportions of these component elements in all these substances were nearly identical; by this measure, the nitrogenous substances differed from each other only in very small quantities of phosphorus and sulphur. He hypothesised, reasonably enough, that they were in fact all the same compound: he envisaged a radical15 produced by plants, consumed by animals and passed up the food chain, being modified only slightly in each body. This hypothetical substance he named protein, and claimed it was possible to remove the phosphorus and sulphur from any of the nitrogenous substances and so create pure protein.

This choice of name was significant. Letters from the time show that the idea had come from the far more famous chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius.16 Writing to Mulder, Berzelius explained that he had derived the word protéine from Greek—but the details are a little confused. Authors in the following decades gave different accounts, mentioning several related Greek words meaning ‘good quality, best’17, ‘supremacy, first prize’18, ‘take first prize, hold supremacy, be first’19 and simply ‘first’20. It is not entirely clear from Mulder and Berzelius’ writings which of these words they had in mind21 and which particular meaning they intended to invoke—Mulder himself usually referred to the Latin word primarius in explanation. The logic could have been that this was “the first nutrient in the food chain”, or “the highest quality foodstuff”, or “the food of the foremost people” or “the most important component of food”. Instead of a clear explanatory story, the etymology offered a cloud of connotative links between the new word protein and notions of firstness, quality, primacy and supremacy.22

This idea of a single substance which underlay the food chain and was the building block of all animal tissues came to be called ‘protein theory’. It was, however, short lived. The theory was briefly taken up by celebrity scientist Justus von Liebig, who claimed in his response to Mulder to have reproduced his results and created pure protein in the lab.23 Liebig and his graduate students focused intensely on protein theory from 1838 onwards so that it could be included and elaborated upon in Liebig’s Animal Chemistry (1842).24 Where Mulder’s papers had presented a hypothesis, Liebig’s book offered settled scientific facts: ‘proteine’ was a single compound, synthesised in plants, consumed by herbivores and passed up the food chain; it was carried throughout the body by blood, where all other animal tissues (generally compounds of proteine with small quantities of phosphates, other salts, sulphur and phosphorus) were produced.

For a short period, protein theory was popular—but Liebig received a mixed response to Animal Chemistry, and became embroiled in a bitter conflict with Berzelius over criticisms of it.25 Liebig’s initial optimism about removing the ‘impurities’ from albumen, fibrine and caseine and so creating ‘pure protein’—the experimental proof that the theory needed—faltered as his students failed to make progress.26 He went on to claim that Mulder had misled him and by 1847 was attacking both the theory and its originator in no uncertain terms, saying that “Mulder’s theory of proteine is fallacious”, that “proteine does not exist”, and that “so-called proteine theory” should not even be regarded as a scientific theory.27 This resulted in an angry exchange of public recriminations with Mulder of a kind that punctuated the whole of Liebig’s scientific career.

For the following three decades, protein theory remained contentious and most writers in English returned to using terms like ‘albuminoids’, ‘albuminous substances’ or ‘nitrogenous substances’ as a shorthand for albumin, fibrin, casein and so on.28 29 The word protein and its variants (proteine, protein-bodies, proteinous substances, proteid; German Proteine, French protéine) continued to crop up in texts on organic chemistry, generally when making reference to protein theory,30 alongside occasional use as a synonym for ‘nitrogenous substances’ or ‘albuminous substances’.31 We also find instances of protein being used as a term for the ‘nutritive’ (nitrogen- containing) component of crops.32 Since protein remained a relatively unusual, technical term, many of these authors felt it necessary to introduce it in some way — typically by making reference to Mulder and offering some version of the etymological story. In this way, even though Mulder’s theory never gained any lasting acceptance, a set of impressionistic associations between the word protein and firstness, quality and supremacy were firmly established.

13  Geoffrey Cannon, ‘Nutrition: The New World Map’, Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 11 (December 2002): S486,

14  G.J. Mulder, ‘Sur la composition de quelques substances animales’, in Des science physiques et naturalles en Néerlande, by F.A.W. Miquel, G.J. Mulder, and W. Wenkebach (Leyde: P. H. van den Heuvell, 1838), 104–19; Gerardus Johannes Mulder, ‘Zusammensetzung von fibrin, albumin, leimzucker, leucin usw.’, Annalen der Pharmacie 28, no. 1 (1838): 73–82.

15  A ‘radical’ in the chemistry of the time was a connected series of atoms which could exist as a compound or as a subpart of a larger compound. This has a relatively distant historical relationship with the use of the word ‘radical’ in modern chemistry to refer to a molecule or atom with an unpaired electron.

16  Hubert Bradford Vickery, ‘The Origin of the Word Protein’, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 22, no. 5 (1950): 387–93; Harold Hartley, ‘Origin of the Word “Protein”’, Nature 168, no. 4267 (August 1951): 244–244,

17  Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), ‘πρώτειος’.

18  Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie, ‘πρωτεῖον’.

19  Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie, ‘πρωτεύω’. It is clear that this is not the word intended by Mulder or Berzelius, but many other scholars seem to have believed it to be; e.g. George E. Day, Chemistry and Its Relation to Physiology and Medicine (London: Hippolyte Baillière, 1860), 101; Frederic R. Rees, Scientific Teetotalism. Appendices to The Illustrated History of Alcohol; Exhibiting a View of the Accordance
of Teetotalism with Recent Discoveries in Organic Chemistry, and Explaining the Modus Operandi of Alcohol; Firstly, on the Function of Respiration, and, Secondly, in the Formation of Fat (London: W. Brittain, 1843), ii; Justus Liebig, Animal Chemistry, Or Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Physiology and Pathology, ed. William Gregory (London: Taylor and Walton, 1842), 146; Robert Bentley Todd and William Bowman, The Physiological Anatomy and Physiology of Man (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1850), 56; Benjamin Silliman, First Principles of Chemistry For the Use of Colleges and Schools (Philadelphia: H.C. Peck & T. Bliss, 1850), 454.

20  Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the Assistance of Roderick McKenzie, ‘πρῶτος’; similarly clearly not the word intended by Mulder and Berzelius, this more basic form was nevertheless probably evoked for many people by the word protéine, as well as occasionally being interpreted as the etymon—e.g. J. M. F. Browne, ‘The Protein Compounds’, American Eclectic Medical Review IV (1869): 444.

21  Berzelius seems to have meant πρώτειος, but wrote πρωτειος without an accent (which was not uncommon); Mulder wrote πρωτεῖος—either meaning the same but getting the accent wrong, or really intending πρωτεῖον and getting the ending wrong.

22  For example, Wilson (1854) explains that protein ‘is so called because, itself a primary substance, it originates so many dissimilar substances’; Erasmus Wilson, A System of Human Anatomy (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1854), 35.

23  Charles Tanford and Jacqueline Reynolds, Nature’s Robots: A History of Proteins, 1. issued in paperback (New York, NY Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

24  Liebig, Animal Chemistry, Or Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Physiology and Pathology; W. H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 183–85.

25  Brock, Justus von Liebig, 183–86, 193–95.

26  Brock, 195–96.

27  Justus Liebig, Researches on the Chemistry of Food, ed. William Gregory (London: Taylor and Walton, 1847), 15, 18, 23, 27.

28  Kenneth J. Carpenter, Protein and Energy: A Study of Changing Ideas in Nutrition (Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 56.

29  Similar catch-alls were used in other languages, such as German Eiweiß and Dutch eiwit (literally ‘egg-white’) and French albumine.

30  e.g. as late as Browne 1869; Browne, ‘The Protein Compounds’, 444.

31  e.g. in Day 1860, who uses the term ‘Protein-bodies’ as a catch-all; Day, Chemistry and Its Relation to Physiology and Medicine, 101.

32  A clear example is found in Browne 1847. Browne compares the proportions of ‘proteine’, ‘fatty matter’, starch and water in wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, rice and maize, ranking their ‘nutritive values’ by protein content: wheat, oats, barley > maize > rice > potatoes. J. Browne, ‘A Memoir on Maize or Indian Corn’, in The Hasty-Pudding; A Poem, in Three Cantos. Written at Chamrery, in Savoy, January, 1793, by Joel Barlow, Minister Plenipotentiary to France. With A Memoir on Maize or Indian Corn (New York: W.H. Graham, 1847), 38.


< Previous: Introduction                                                                                          Next: Section 2 >

Post a new comment »

Login or register to comment with your personal account. Anonymous comments require approval to be visible.