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Vitamin D scientist fatality in the 30’s

Posted on: November 7, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


In 1936, Dr Ferdinand Vowinckel was apparently experimenting on himself to see if vitamin D could cure arthritis. Reportedly, he took 2,100,000 IU/day of D2 for 18 days and died.

Too much vitamin D fatal. New York Times, March 10, 1936

Why did he take so much? Apparently, the reason he took so much was that the year before two physicians reported that megadoses of vitamin D “cured” arthritis. Dr. Reed and his colleague Dr Dreyer of the University of Illinois, reported giving as much as 3,000,000 IU/day with the average dose being 300,000 to 500,000 IU/day.

Big vitamin D doses given for arthritis. New York Times, December 9, 1935.

By the early late 1930s and early1940s, such doses were reported to be injuring patients.

Leake CD. Vitamin D Toxicity. Cal West Med. 1936 Mar;44(3):149-50

Deaths were reported. For example, nine weeks after taking 300,000 IU/day, a New Jersey woman died.

Vitamin D causes death. New York Times, June 28, 1942

However, it took a few years more until such doses were clearly known to cause death or severe toxicity. In 1947, medical convention proceedings warned that “even in doses [of vitamin D] of 50,000 to 100,000 IU/day” could cause toxicity or even death “unless carefully administered.” Apparently, at the time, a 50,000 IU tablet was the lowest dose available.

Vitamin D self-usage called dangerous. New York Times, December 10, 1947.

When I hear of people taking 50,000 IU per day I worry. Everyone is different in how they metabolize vitamin D. Some people can tolerate 50,000 IU per day and some people can’t. By the time you realize you are in the latter category, it may be too late. Make sure to follow the Council’s guidelines for adults of 5,000 IU/day, at the most 10,000 IU/day, as 10,000 IU/day is the no observed adverse effects level (NOAEL) of the 2010 Food and Nutrition Board, the amount that has never been shown to cause harm. Do not exceed 10,000 IU/day unless you have a scientific level of understanding of vitamin D metabolism and test often.

5 Responses to Vitamin D scientist fatality in the 30’s

  1. [email protected]

    Summary of Vitamin D toxicity research is summarized by graph


    Toxicity varies with how long you are taking a daily dose

    Examples: of toxic amounts/durations

    2,000,000 IU for 1 week

    200,000 IU for 2 weeks

    50,000 IU for 8 weeks

  2. rcessna

    Dr. Cannell,

    My dermatologist and I frequently discuss health related issues.

    He is a runner, serious runner. Pretty sure he uses sunscreen when he is out.

    Some time ago I asked him if he knew his Vitamin D serum level. Said he did not.

    He just doesn’t look real healthy, that however is very subjective!

    At my last appointment, when I asked about his Vitamin D, he said that every time

    he supplemented D he got cramps in his legs. And that he could not tolerate that.

    I feel that it is most likely an electrolyte problem, but not knowing where his D level

    is, and how much D he tried, I can not help him.

    Question is, is this a common problem for athletes beginning D supplementing.

    Thank you, Ray

    • Brant Cebulla

      @Ray, No reported literature on muscle cramps and vitamin D supplementation. You could tell your dermatologist that he likely just suffers from neurosis, though that might not go over so well ;).

  3. [email protected]

    Remember Dr. Vowinkel took the newly discovered D2, not D3. But the results would likely have been the same, given time, if he used D3.

  4. Rebecca Oshiro

    @rcessna, according to an expert in the field I spoke with on this topic over the summer, vitamin D supplementation can unmask a subclinical magnesium deficiency. She emphasized unmask, not cause. Magnesium citrate in the evening before bed (recommended brand “Calm”) can work wonders. When my vitamin D levels were in the high range of normal a couple years back I had leg cramps that resolved with this protocol.

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