“Purely Swiss” Vitamin C

“Purely Swiss” Vitamin C: The Cultural History of a Sociotechnical Project (1933–1953)

Beat Bächi

Synthetic vitamin C—and its triumphal procession—are science and technology in action. The success of the Reichstein procedure to synthesize vitamin C was highly unlikely. In fact, the “vitamin successes” appeared even to Hoffmann-La Roche’s general director to be “surprising.” What has to be understood, and therefore analyzed, to explain the emergence and success of this sociotechnical project? There are mainly three fields of observation: corporate research, academic research, and the formation of demand for this new chemical substance. To answer these questions, the most important sources are those of Hoffmann-La Roche’s historical archives and the bequest of Tadeus Reichstein, the inventor of the eponymous procedure.

On the one hand, the case of capitalizing on the knowledge of how to synthesize vitamin C is a study on social shaping of technology. The translation of the vitamin C laboratory synthesis into an industrial synthesis as well as the negotiations concerning the patent rights transformed the synthesis itself. Furthermore, as the production of ascorbic acid includes micro-organisms, Hoffmann-La Roche, which long clung to organic chemistry as the magic bullet, became an enterprise receptive to new trends in biosynthesis and later on biotechnology.

At the same time, it is an analysis of technology as a medium of social change. Technology is neither the cause nor the effect of social change, but technology can be used by the social system as a means to transform itself. Hence, what Beat Bächi mainly focused upon in this project was the way in which synthetic vitamin C catalyzed social change. The chemical substance, called l-ascorbic acid, had to be transformed into a social commodity suited to the Zeitgeist. This process was not, as Roche’s scientific propagandists knew, a top-down process. Effective propaganda, they recognized, had to be derived from the “Zeitgeist in statu nascendi” or expressed differently: “Zeitgeist plus five minutes head start.”

Beat Bächi therefore followed vitamins through research laboratories, head offices, industrial plants, and (Swiss) society and looked at vitamin C as metaphor. This broadened the context from economy in a narrower sense to science, technology, and society. To create a demand for the “magic bullet” called vitamin C—for which no clear-cut medical indication existed—its meaning had to be made compatible with contemporary fears and hopes. Furthermore, ascorbic acid became, in the context of the emergence of a statistical notion of health, a “means of function” for physiological bodies transformed into statistical functions of the body politic.

  • “’Rein schweizerisches’ Vitamin C aus Basel. Zur Kulturgeschichte einer soziotechnischen Innovation,” in: Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 105 (2005), pp. 79–113.

Funding Institutions

H. A. Vögelin-Bienz-Stiftung für das Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt