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Medicine: Vitamin Man

2 minute read

Singleminded research has taken Dr. Tom D. Spies (rhymes with fees) deeper and deeper into the dim regions of deficiency diseases. It has also led him to major medical discoveries. Last week in Science he announced a new one with a report that folic acid, part of the vitamin B complex, was a remedy for tropical sprue, a widespread disease in such teeming, undernourished lands as Puerto Rico.

Spies, with associates at San Juan’s School of Tropical Medicine, thinks that the efficacy of folic acid also proves decisively that sprue (symptoms: diarrhea, mouth sores, lassitude) is a result of poor diet rather than a contagious disease, as some doctors have insisted. Folic acid, Spies announced earlier this year in the A.M.A. Journal, is also a remedy for all but a few rare kinds of anemia, causing red blood cells to pour into the blood in striking numbers.*

His biggest discovery, for which he received a medal in 1939 from the American College of Physicians: nicotinic acid (part of B-2 vitamin) cures pellagra, a common affliction among poor Southerners who live on fatback and corn pone.

Out of the Suitcase. Texas-born Tom Spies is a gregarious, genial sort who can charm his charity patients into doing anything for him, and charm the better-heeled into supporting his research. Most of his work is done at the Hillman Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. during an annual eight months’ leave of absence from the University of Cincinnati. Unmarried, he refuses to own anything he cannot crowd into a suitcase, lives in hotel rooms to save bother, talks little but shop.

Spies’s flair is for clinical application of others’ spadework. Many of his discoveries have been anticipated by other researchers, who concede that he has a happy “faculty of extending the observations” of other workers, that he fights hard, for his ideas. A few years ago he tangled with official medicine, whose therapeutic policy was a single vitamin for a single deficiency. Spies insisted that deficiency diseases were best treated by vitamin complexes. Doctors now admit that Tom Spies was right.

* Yet uncertain: whether folic acid also halts the nerve degeneration common in anemia.

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