How Vitamin C Really Works
— Or Does It?

If one of the world’s most profound meditators
on the fundamentals of the world’s most controversial
nutrients is right, a new era is a-dawning. If he’s wrong, his
contemplations may spark an idea in the mind of some
bright thinker somewhere that will help us find our way.

This article is the result of the combined efforts of
Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D.,
Peter Stone,
Herbert L. Hartley, M.D.,
and Cortez F. Enloe, Jr., M.D.
It was written by Dr. Enloe.


As Winston Churchill said of the Russians in October 1939, so can we say of vitamin C today: it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. We know what it looks like chemically. It is ascorbic acid. We know too that it is necessary for the formation of collagen, the glue that holds our cells next to one another. We also recognize that all the visible signs and symptoms of a lack of vitamin C are due to the breakdown of collagen. Beyond that, all is mystery. Some are content to rest at the boundary of our present vitamin C horizons. Others are eager to look farther. They believe, and belief, or call it intuition if you like, is all that they have to go on, that vitamin C is not a vitamin at all; that it is a substance, ascorbic acid, that is active at the very basis of life itself.

Albert Szent-Györgyi is the principal prophet of this school of thought. This is the concept he was expressing in his opening statement at the vitamin C debate Nutrition Today conducted in California. (The color video film of this debate is now available. See announcement page 8, this issue.)

Since this intuitive concept about the role that ascorbic acid plays in humans is not only new but quite revolutionary, we decided to persuade. Dr. Szent-Györgyi to explain it while our own Peter Stone, with the counsel and advice of our consulting editor Herbert L. Hartley, struggled to paint a picture of what Szent-Györgyi has in mind. If there’s a revolution coming in vitamin C, we want our readers to be the first to know about it. The effort has taken more than a year and not an inch of Our progress was easy.

One thing that first aroused Szent-Györgyi’s curiosity is the fact that when animals that don’t produce their own vitamin C ingest a great deal more vitamin C than they would seem to require — whatever that amount is — the fate of that excess is a mystery. A great deal comes out in the urine. Some can be found in exhaled air, but what happens to the remainder? It’s not stored so far as anyone knows. It simply vanishes in the body. Or does it? Does it end up in the cells creating more furious electron exchanges, as Albert Szent-Györgyi believes?

Readers of the debate transcript, which appeared in the March/April 1978 issue of Nutrition Today, will recall the lengthy discussion. Those who see the new film just released will be even more impressed by the riddle of vitamin C that’s wrapped a mystery inside an enigma — a riddle this charming genius thinks he has solved.

To grasp what he means, Szent-Györgyi proposes that first of all we stop thinking of vitamin C as a vitamin. To be sure, he says, it has all the qualifications of a vitamin. It is found in food. Its lack prompts the appearance of a disease with well-defined symptoms. The vitamin is furthermore a specific remedy for the symptoms. But says this charming man, winner of awards everywhere and one never to be discounted no matter how fanciful his speculations, “Maybe the substance, ascorbic acid, is not a vitamin, but life’s most important chemical.” Well, for one thing, you’d pause to consider it.

Szent-Györgyi says that when we think of vitamin C only as a vitamin we are looking only at its action at the molecular level. He contends that, in trying to solve the mystery of ascorbic acid, and of the way the body uses all nutrients, we have to look beyond the molecules — the smallest quantity of a substance — and peer even deeper than the level of the ultimate particle of a substance — the atom — and gaze down on the intense activity that’s constantly taking place at the electronic level in the life of the cell. Here, Szent-Györgyi says, is where the secret of the action of all nutrients lies. Here and only here will we find the secret of life itself. Here is where we’ll solve the mystery of vitamin C.

Once we become familiar with the role ascorbic acid plays in the exchange of energy busily occurring in the atoms within body cells, we will see a true picture of how vitamin C works.

And this is what we should do now, Szent-Györgyi says. Invoking an ancient principle of medical research, he contends that until we know the cause of diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer our chances of finding a cure are slim. By spending all our time drawing conclusions from statistics and searching for cures, we have not made any real progress in understanding the cause of cancer in the past one hundred years. He believes that when we learn how vitamin C really works may we hold the key to the secret of the cause of cancer, for example. This is quite a claim. Don’t discount it, though. Not a few wise scientists think that he is on the trail of something momentous. Many more are, at least, unready to slough off these ideas.

Here’s how he reasons.

Protein, he says, is the main bearer of life. The protein that we eat — as say, a steak — is dead protein. Then in the intestine we break it down so that it is absorbed as amino acid. Thus we make it come alive again. However, the molecules that are then put back together are in fact, large and clumsy. It is, however, the place, the stage upon which the drama of life unfolds. These molecules of protein are stable, entirely unreactive and they so as long as the atoms within remain in electronic balance.

Now suppose one electron is removed from an atom in an amino molecule. Well, then energy transfer commences. The activity is suddenly intense. The atom and its parent molecule can be said to become alive and begin to contribute to its destined activity in the body. It is alive because there can be no life without energy exchange. Energy exchange occurs only when there is an imbalance of electrons.

To put it another way, each cell (cells contain the protein molecules) is inactive so long as the electrons in each atom within it are in electronic balance. The electrons are paired off, spinning in opposite directions on different planes. They keep their host atom — an atom in the protein molecule in the cell — in balance. To picture how they do this, think of a gyroscope. As it spins it sits upright, in perfect balance. Put the tiniest piece of dirt on one side, however, and it will tumble out of balance. Or, to use a metaphor Szent-Györgyi likes, picture the electrons in the cell as so many automobiles in a parking lot — their atom. Now imagine that the lot is chockablock full. Well, in that case there can be no activity, not a car can move. The lot is then inactive.

Now suppose we want to bring the lot to life. Well, to do so all we have to do is to remove one car — electron. That makes it possible for every other automobile to move. This is where ascorbic acid comes in, according to Dr. Szent-Györgyi. It is the force that removes the electron. It is the prime, the fundamental electron remover in the human body.

Here is what happens when an electron is removed. This is the before and after pandemonium of the life of a cell that Peter Stone and Dr. Hartley have valiantly attempted to depict.

The loss of an electron throws the entire quiet, contented intracellular system out of balance. Is this instability the basis of life? Or is it? Is it the difference between life and inertness? Albert Szent-Györgyi thinks so.

The electron, whose stabilizing partner vanishes, then becomes a maverick, a free radical. It’s like a lone, handsome bachelor at a dance where all the couples are neatly paired. Not only that, the departure of an electron leaves a “hole” in the entire charged field. Furious activity results as the electrons struggle to regain balance. It is as if in a square dance one partner were to suddenly vanish but the orchestra continued to play. The orderly routine is thus thrown into disarray. That disarray is what Szent-Györgyi pictures as life, lively life in a cell.

According to this concept most body protein molecules (and their atoms), are in a dormant state within the body. This is because they are in harmonious electronic balance. To bring them to life they have to be “desaturated.” This is his way of saying that we can give them life by removing an electron. If, therefore, one can take out a single electron the atom becomes alive, divides properly (hence doesn’t become cancerous), and the host tissue is healthier than it would otherwise be. But how do we desaturate the electrons, remove one car from the packed lot, one dancer from the square dance? What is the sequence of events wherein ascorbic acid — no longer playing its role or even fitting the description of a vitamin — achieves the ability, the power to enter a cell and take out an electron and, thus, create life?

Well, Szent-Györgyi contends that we must realize that the main electron acceptor is methylglyoxal, a substance we are certain to hear a great deal about as our knowledge of basic nutrition expands. (How much more basic can it get than this concept?) That methylglyoxal, the existence of which everyone or just about everyone agrees upon, whether they accept the Szent-Györgyi hypothesis or not, is derived from the enzyme glyoxalase. The chemical is well known although the precise action of methylglyoxal in the cell is still a mystery. Szent-Györgyi thinks he knows (another Nobel Prize?) its action.

Ascorbic acid is present as its salt, ascorbate, in the cell. Ascorbate has an affinity for oxygen. There is oxygen in every cell. Hence, when the ascorbate gives up an electron to oxygen, as it is always wont to do, the ascorbate becomes the handsome bachelor. It thus becomes a free radical and an eager receptor. It is, therefore, only too ready to draw an electron from methylglyoxal in cellular protein, desaturate it, and give protein life — the life of the intracellular party.

This then is how Albert Szent-Györgyi has concluded that ascorbic acid acts at the very center of life. It gives cells their liveliness. It promotes normal division — not cellular division that is arrested, sick, that makes the half-divided, half-united cell go berserk, invade other cells, wreak havoc, in two words — become cancerous.

Dr. Szent-Györgyi sees ascorbate as essential to the exchange of energy in the fashion described. It is this exchange that enables the cell to divide and reassemble its structure in a sequence that results in two healthy cells where formerly there was one. When this normal division is arrested, cancer is the result. In other words, the degree of electron saturation and desaturation determines whether the cell remains or divides abnormally and becomes cancerous.

To keep the cell alive, active, and behaving normally, vitamin C is required to draw electrons out of balance and desaturate the cellular proteins. Because it is busy at this work, we cannot completely account for all the vitamin C we ingest.

To be scrupulously fair to this great and entrancing man, one should not jump from the picture he has extracted from his mind (at excruciating effort, no doubt) of this complex and still not quite certain view of the function of ascorbic acid to the conclusion that vitamin C is a cancer cure. There is no evidence of that yet, and Dr. Szent-Györgyi is not saying that there is. This is only a theory. It seems plausible. It may turn out to be one of the most revolutionary theories, despite the fact that it is as yet only a theory born of intuition. It is a theory that explains where life begins in our cells. Dr. Szent-Györgyi has named this the “bioelectronic theory of life.”

Of course not everyone agrees with this concept. Almost no one could understand and even fewer agreed with Albert Einstein, let it be remembered. Now we know that that Albert was right. This Albert — a man of equal stature and intellect — may be too. If he is, we and you of the Nutrition Today Society can say we were present at the creation of the new concept of life.

As yet, no one has completely refuted Szent-Györgyi either. It can be said that the whole idea might be ignored entirely if it were put forward by a lesser person. From experience, the leaders of scientific thought have learned that exciting, unusual thoughts seem to generate in the mind of this great man. They take him seriously. And so do we. Constance Holden recently summed it up in an article about Albert Szent-Györgyi in Science. She said that he is a “prolific theorizer whose contributions could easily have added up to a couple of more Nobels,” and for good reason. Dr. Szent-Györgyi not only got the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of vitamin C in 1937, in 1954 he was awarded the Albert Lasker award for developing the first workable theory of muscle contraction. In addition, he was the co-discoverer (with Sir Hans Krebs) of the citric acid cycle, one of the most fundamental mechanisms in human metabolism — the Krebs Cycle that every student of dietetics, medicine, and biochemistry has to learn forwards and backwards. For the past eighteen years Dr. Szent-Györgyi has been working in his small rented laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the hub of Cape Cod and strolling the nearby beaches and dunes in deep meditation as he struggles to polish and correct this new theory of life.


A few comments are necessary on the turbulent and frustrating experience that we had in getting Dr. Szent-Györgyi’s theory into pictures. Bringing an idea to life in pictures is seldom an easy task. Frequently it is impossible, as this nearly was. The only reason we succeeded was that everyone (except your editor) was infinitely patient. (Your editor was insistent, browbeating, cajoling, and worse. Apologies to all.) The effort was one of trial and error and trial again. No tally was kept on how many sketches Peter Stone made or how many left out some detail that only the theory’s father could see, and even he could capture only a fleeting glimpse of each detail in his mind’s eye.

At one point last year we very nearly gave up the struggle. (The project began over eighteen months ago.) It was then that Dr. Szent-Györgyi tired of the effort it was taking him to pull out of his mind what he knew was there, and to put it into words so fashioned that they would guide Hartley’s thinking and Stone’s brush. Almost in desperation we slaved to read his mind and produced what we were certain was the ultimate and accurate picture of the abstract thought that were loose in the glorious receptacle of though of this genius.

Albert Einstein put his E = MC2 on a scrap of paper and carried it around in his coat pocket — looking at it while riding in trolley cars as he struggled to make sense of it. Ultimately it was the key to the power of the atom.

Confidence renewed, we waited. Then came a letter to Peter Stone with these shattering blows:

I thank you for sending me the beautiful drawings. I have thought myself about such illustrations and called my first assistant to help me, but we came to the result that we are unable to produce anything useful, and the problem is insoluble. The great difficulty is that these electronic dimensions are far beyond what any human has ever seen or felt. It is a weird dimension, beyond human experience and any clear symbolism would make it more obscure. I think that Dr. Enloe asked the impossible from you. Anyway, I am unable to help you. I have never seen in any book really good drawings which make electronic events more interesting and understandable [than those which you have provided].

That was very nearly the death knell of our effort to describe this new idea about vitamin C. However, months passed until we resolved to make one final effort. It succeeded. Dr. Szent-Györgyi is pleased. Stone and Hartley triumphed. Nutrition Today readers can now look into one of the most glorious intellects in today’s world.

Perhaps seeing these illustrations will excite other fertile minds. Perhaps they will give the Nobel Prize committee a winning clue. Albert Szent-Györgyi, at the age of eighty-six, is a national treasure. We’re proud that he put up with our insistence that he look inward and give us a sketch of what he perceived. Proud too, that readers of Nutrition Today will be the first ever to see what he is thinking about. His thoughts may be momentous. If our long effort to picture them stirs new ideas about vitamin C in others, our arduous task will have been worth the effort. If not — well, we’ll try again.

Dr. Szent-Györgyi’s work is supported solely by a private foundation, the National Foundation for Cancer Research. 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland, 20014, to whom contributions may be sent.

(Photo Caption: Laboratory without walls)

(Photo Caption: The very center of life — ascorbic acid)

(Photo Caption: Dr. Szent-Györgyi and Dr. Terence W. Anderson debate the bioelectric theory of life)


A. A large protein molecule or macromolecule (light blue) contains many pairs of electrons spinning in opposite orbits. Each spinning electron is a minute magnet which counterbalances the electrical force of its partner. In this state, the spinning pair of electrons is very stable and unreactive; thus the molecule as a whole is very stable and unreactive.

B. A coupled pair or electrons each spinning in its opposite orbit, is electrically very stable with a negative charge.

C. A methylglyoxal molecule (light purple) with an uncoupled electron pair, i.e. an electron is missing from one of the orbital rings. In this state, the methylglyoxal molecule is a free radical and is highly reactive. It can now pull or accept an electron to fill its empty orbital ring from another molecule. Once methylglyoxal accepts an electron from another molecule, it is termed an ACCEPTOR and the other molecule the DONOR.


A. On the right side of the figure, an ascorbate molecule (light blue tristar) meets an oxygen molecule (light blue globe) and passes on to it one of its electrons. With this exchange, the oxygen molecule gains an electron and the ascorbate molecule becomes a highly reactive tree radical. On the left side of the figure, methylglyoxal (light purple) lies in contact with the protein molecule. At this stage methylglyoxal is a very weak acceptor unable to pull electrons from the protein molecule.

B. On the right side, the oxygen molecule moves on with its gained electron. On the left side, the highly reactive ascorbate moves to lie against the methylglyoxal molecule. In this position it and pulls electrons from methylglyoxal, which in turn pulls electrons from the protein molecule. This sets off a chain reaction, electronically desaturating the protein molecule, making it very active and conductive.

C. Methylglyoxal and ascorbate are incorporated into the protein molecule; thus, the protein is activated by incorporating into it the acceptor.

[Note: The subject’s proper name was corrected from the original text by adding the Hungarian umlaut; thus Szent-Györgyi.
NB the pronunciation may be approximated by English speakers as “Saint George”.]

From Nutrition Today, September/October 1979, Volume 14, Number 5, pp. 6-7, 15-19

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