Benchley Tonight: "Announcing a New Vitamin"
If we've learned anything about Benchley, it's that not working suited him better than working. So who better to turn to to learn How to Take a Vacation? Unfortunately, our clip contains just a tease, but again, if we've learned anything about these Benchley shorts, it's that our schemer's schemes never work out the way he has them worked out in his head.
"According to the Department of Agriculture's figures for 1931 (April-September), practically every amateur gardener in the country was in some sort of fix or other, mostly due to a bumper crop of radishes. We therefore decided that radishes must contain a lot of Vitamin F, since they contain nothing else, unless possibly a corky substance which could be used only in the manufacture of life preservers."
-- Robert Benchley, in "Announcing a New Vitamin"
a New Vitamin
Dr. Arthur W. Meexus and the author of this paper take great pleasure in announcing the discovery of vitamin F on August 15, 1931. We ran across it quite by accident while poking through some old mackerel bones, trying to find a little piece of fish that we could eat.
"By George," exclaimed Dr. Meexus, "I think this is a vitamin!"
"By George," I said, examining it, "it is not only a vitamin, but it is vitamin F! See how F it looks!" And, sure enough, it was vitamin F all over, the very vitamin F which had been eluding Science since that day in 1913 when Science decided that there were such things as vitamins. (Before 1913 people had just been eating food and dying like flies.)
In honor of being the first vitamin to be discovered, this new element was called vitamin A, and a very pretty name it was, too. From then on, doctors began discovering other vitamins—B, C, D, and E, and then vitamin G. But vitamin F was missing. It is true vitamin G looked so much like vitamin B that you could hardly tell them apart, except in a strong light, and vitamin E was, for all practical purposes, the same as vitamin A (except a little more blond), but nobody seemed able to work up any discovery by which a vitamin F could be announced.
The sad suicide of Dr. Eno M. Kerk in 1930 was laid to the fact that he had just got a vitamin isolated from the E class and almost into the F, when the room suddenly got warm and it turned into a full-fledged vitamin G. The doctor was heartbroken and deliberately died of malnutrition by refusing to eat any of the other vitamins from that day on. If he couldn't have vitamin F, he wouldn't have any. The result was a fatal combination of rickets, beriberi, scurvy, East Indian flagroot, and all other diseases which come from an undersupply of vitamins (most of them diseases which nice people up North wouldn't have).
First in our search for a vitamin which would answer to the name of F, we had to figure out something that it would be good for. You can't just have a vitamin lying around doing nothing. We therefore decided that vitamin F would stimulate the salivary glands and the tear ducts. If, for instance, you happen to be a stamp licker or envelope sealer, or like to cry a lot, it will be necessary for you to eat a great deal of food which is rich in vitamin F. Otherwise your envelopes won't stay stuck, or, when you want to cry, all you can do is make a funny-looking face without getting anywhere.
For research work we decided that the natives of one of the Guianas (British-French, or French-British, or Harvard-Yale) would present a good field, so we took a little trip down there to see just what food values they were short of. Most of the food in the Guianas consists of Guiana hen in its multiple variants, with a little wild Irish rice on the side to take away the taste. The natives reverse the usual order of tribal eating, placing the hen and rice outside a large bowl and getting into the bowl themselves, from which vantage point they are able to pick up not only the food but any little bits of grass and pebbles which may be lying on the ground beside it. This method of eating is known as hariboru, or "damned inconvenient."
Naturally, a diet consisting entirely of Guiana hen and wild Irish rice is terribly, terribly short on vitamin F, with the result that the natives are scarcely able to lick their lips, much less a long envelope. And when they want to cry (as they do whenever anyone speaks crossly to them) they make a low, grinding noise with their teeth and hide their eyes with one hand to cover up their lack of tears. We played them "Silver Threads Among the Gold" one night on our ukuleles, with Dr. Meexus singing the tenor, and although every eye in the house was dry, the grinding sound was as loud as the creaking timbers on an excursion boat. (As loud, but nothing like.)
We played them "Silver Threads Among the Gold"
one night, with Dr. Meexus singing the tenor.
one night, with Dr. Meexus singing the tenor.
The next thing to do was to discover what foods contain vitamin F. Here was a stickler! We had discovered it in a mess of mackerel bones, so evidently mackerel bones contain it. But you can't tell people to eat lots of mackerel bones.
Now, from a study of vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and G, we knew that all one really needs to have, in order to stock up on any one of these strength-giving elements, is milk. Milk and cod-liver oil. Milk has vitamin A, vitamins B, E, and G -- so it is pretty certain to have vitamin F. For all we knew, it might also contain vitamin F sharp. So we picked milk as the base of our prescribed diet and set about to think up something else to go with it.
Then it occurred to Dr. Meexus that he had a lot of extra radishes growing in his garden, radishes which he was sure he had not planted. He had planted lots of other vegetables, beans, peas, Swiss chard, and corn, but radishes were the only things that had come up in any quantity. He was radish poor. And he figured out that practically six million amateur gardeners were in the same fix. Where you find one amateur gardener in a fix, you are pretty likely to find six million others in the same one. And, according to the Department of Agriculture's figures for 1931 (April-September), practically every amateur gardener in the country was in some sort of fix or other, mostly due to a bumper crop of radishes.
We therefore decided that radishes must contain a lot of Vitamin F, since they contain nothing else, unless possibly a corky substance which could be used only in the manufacture of life preservers. "Milk and radishes" was selected as the slogan for vitamin F.
We figured it out that our chief advantage over the other vitamin teams was in the choice of conditions which our vitamin would cure. The vitamin B group had taken over beriberi, but who wants to have beriberi for a disease to be avoided? Vitamin D is a cure for rickets, but most of our patients ought to know by now whether they are going to have rickets or not. (We planned to cater to the more mature, sophisticated Long Island crowd, and, if they haven't had rickets up until now, they don't care much. If they have had them, it is too late anyway, and you can always say that your legs got that way from riding horseback.)
Vitamin C is corking for scurvy, but, here again, scurvy is not in our line.
In fact, I don't know much about scurvy, except that it was always found breaking out on shipboard when sailing vessels went around the Horn. But Dr. Hess, one of the discoverers of vitamin C, has pointed out that scurvy need not always be present in cases demanding vitamin C.
According to Hess (you must always call doctors who discover something by their last names without the "Dr."), the frequency among children in which irritability can be cured by vitamin C is proof that it has more uses than one.
This was pretty smart of Hess to pick on such a common ailment as irritability among children, for, up until the discovery of vitamin C, the only cure for this had been a good swift smack on the face.
However, it looks now as if we were stuck with a perfectly good vitamin and nothing for it to cure. Licking stamps and crying aren't quite important enough functions to put a vitamin on its feet. We have announced its discovery, and have given to the world sufficient data to show that it is an item of diet which undoubtedly serves a purpose. But what purpose? We are working on that now, and ought to have something very interesting to report in a short time. If we aren't able to, we shall have to call vitamin F in, and begin all over again.
SUNDAY -- THURBER TONIGHT: Part 1 of "The Bloodhound and the Bug," and "The Cat in the Lifeboat" (from Further Fables for Our Time)
THURBER TONIGHT (now including BENCHLEY TONIGHT):
Check out the series to date
Labels: Robert Benchley