Holst was born in Christiania. He gained his medical degree in 1884 and gained his doctors degree in 1892 involving the bacterium streptococcus, both at the Royal Frederick University. He was a professor of hygiene and bacteriology until his retirement in 1930.
Along with Theodor Frolich, a pediatrician, Holst suspected a nutritional deficiency for scurvy in the Norwegian fishing fleet, then called "shipboard beriberi," and thought to be a variant of beri-beri.
Holst and Frølich established an animal model that allowed systematic study of factors that led to the ship-related dietary disease, as well as the preventive value of different substances. Substituting guinea pigs for pigeons (a traditional beriberi research model) as the experimental animal for these studies was a lucky coincidence, as the guinea pig was later shown to be among the very few mammals capable of showing scurvy-like symptoms, while pigeons, as seed-eating birds, were later shown to make their own vitamin C in the liver, and could not develop scurvy.
Scurvy occurred in guinea pigs when a diet was fed consisting of various types of grain, either whole or baked into bread, and these symptoms were prevented when the diet was supplemented with known antiscorbutics like fresh cabbage or lemon juice. Their findings were published in 1907 in the Journal of Hygiene, but was unpopular with the scientific community as the concepts of nutritional deficiencies was unheard of at the time (the concept and word "vitamine" did not arrive until 1912, and was in part based upon Holst and Frølich's work). However, in the later work which led up to the isolation of vitamin C as the antiscorbutic factor in 1932-33, Holst and Frølich's guinea pig model of scurvy proved to be the key biological assay which allowed identification of the chemical substance (hexuronic acid, later called ascorbic acid) which was ascorbutic vitamin.
Throughout his career, Holst made many other contributions, writing out numerous medical books and articles related to sanitation, health and practical hygiene.  He was the brother of the linguist Clara Holst. He died in his home city of Oslo, aged 70.
- PMID 12555613 Tidsskrift for Den norske legeforening. 2002 Jun 30;122(17):1686-7. [Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich--pioneers in the combat of scurvy][Article in Norwegian] Norum KR, Grav HJ.
- Axel Holst: (September 6, 1860-April 26, 1931) - Johnson 53 (1): 1 - Journal of Nutrition
- Jahr, Ernst Håkon (2001). "Clara Holst". In Helle, Knut. Norsk biografisk leksikon (in Norwegian). 4 (2nd ed.). Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget. Retrieved 18 March 2012.
Bredo Henrik von Munthe af Morgenstierne
|Rector of the University of Oslo