Field of Science

Repackaging Vitamins: Niacin

Vitamins are small molecules (where small is relative to proteins!) that a living organism cannot synthesize, but are nevertheless required. The word vitamin was coined by a Polish biochemist, Kazimierz Funk by sandwiching together "vital" and "amine". Not all vitamins turned out to be amines (molecules with an NH2 group in them), however the name stuck.

One such non-amine "vital amine" has the structure shown below. It's a carboxylic acid (the COOH group). Originally designated as vitamin PP, it is now better known as the third of the B vitamin complex or B3. PP stood for pellagra preventing factor. Pellagra is a nutritional deficiency, once common in Italy, that results in rough skin - pella is Italian for skin.

The original common chemical name for B3 was nicotinic acid. (The synthetic form can be made by oxidizing nicotine with nitric acid.) In the late 1930s, niacin (NIcotinic ACid vitamIN) was adopted as the preferred name, to avoid confusion with nicotine. (I'm unclear why this was undesirable; smoking was pervasive.)

Repackaging scientific terms to make them less frightening for the general public is not just a historical phenomenon. Much more recently the application of NMR (nuclear magnet resonance) to medical imaging saw its "nuclear" dropped (thus forestalling any potential association with nuclear radiation) to become MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). It should be made clear, that like nicotinic acid, which contains no nicotine, NMR does not require nuclear radiation.


  1. Hello Michelle,
    Thank you so much for your interesting chemistry posts. I am a high school chemistry teacher in the metro Detroit Area and I have been sharing your posts with my students. It brings some variety to our class. I also like finding video clips to augment the lessons and I saw a great little snippet about Dr. Funk and his vita amines on Alton Brown's "Good Eats" that featured Broccoli! Also - Oprah had a snippet on the "blue man"!

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for sharing the pointers to the video clips. I'm glad you and your students enjoy the blog!

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