The Age of Scurvy

various citrus fruits.

After the 1600s, evidence that Vitamin C could cure scurvy started to appear but was ignored. (Image: Dora Cavallo via Unsplash)

In a time of warring empires and transoceanic voyages, sailors dreaded scurvy more than any other disease.

Citrus fruit is packed with ascorbic acid, which is a water-soluble vitamin C that prevents illness. Not eating a nutritionally balanced diet that has little or no vitamin C can make a person develop the symptoms of scurvy. The signs of the sickness are weakness, unexplained exhaustion, loss of appetite, aching legs, feeling irritable, and experiencing a slight fever. 

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If left untreated, symptoms worsen and include anemia, gingivitis with bleeding gums, tooth decay, bleeding under the skin, not breathing properly, chest pains and swollen joints, eye problems, depression, headaches, and gastrointestinal bleeding. Wounds also don’t heal and individuals can soon die if not given immediate medical help. 

Scorbutic gums due to scurvy.
Scorbutic gums due to scurvy. (Image: via Public Domain)

Today scurvy is uncommon throughout developed countries that have ample food supplies. For people with serious mental health disabilities that are unable to eat correctly, the sickness might occur. Also, those that have a poor diet consisting of junk food, or who don’t eat much food, might find that scurvy symptoms may start to show in their bodies.

The following is a timeline of the history of scurvy.

Ancient Egyptians to the Age of Exploration

  • The ancient Egyptian first recorded scurvy as an illness in 1550 BCE. The Greek physician, Hippocrates (470-370 BCE) noted that scurvy was, ‘swelling and was an obstruction of the spleen’. In ancient China 406 CE, a Buddhist monk, Faxian (337-422 CE) traveled from China to India. He returned by ship back to China and documented how sailors consumed ginger on board to prevent scurvy. Ginger contains vitamin C.
The Age of Exploration was between 1500 and 1800 and during this period the number of deaths because of scurvy is estimated to be two million. (Image: via Public Domain)

Fast fact: The Age of Exploration was between 1500 and 1800 and during this period the number of deaths that occurred because of scurvy is estimated to be two million.

  • In 1507 the Portuguese explorer and military commander, Pedro Álvares Cabral and his crewman learned that citrus fruit prevented scurvy. Discovering this, they planted fruit trees and vegetables at their anchorage on the island of St. Helena.
  • In 1536 Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, journeyed along the St. Lawrence River in North America where he boiled the needles of the arborvitae tree (Eastern White Cedar) to make tea. The tea produced 50mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. However, this treatment was not readily available or convenient. 
  • Sir Richard Hawkins (1562-1622) was an English seaman and explorer in the 17th century. In 1593 he spoke out about the benefits of drinking orange and lemon juice to prevent scurvy.
  • 1601 Captain James Lancaster took a voyage to Sumatra with four ships and purposefully landed at the North Coast of Madagascar to source lemons to keep his crew ships from getting sick with scurvy. He experimented by only giving one ship fruit juice while crew members on the other three ships began to show symptoms of scurvy and the majority died.

Scurvy in the early age of sail

Fast fact: In the 1600s and 1700s, the majority of captains from England, France, Portugal, and Spain were aware of how to cure scurvy with fresh fruit. However, the English Navy continued not to take fruit with Vitamin C aboard their ships.

  • John Woodall an English military surgeon and chemist, was known for his book, The Surgeon’s Mate, published in 1614. In it, he emphasizes how important it was for the ship’s crewmen to eat limes, lemons, oranges, and tamarinds to prevent scurvy. With no explanation for his statement, the physicians of the day did not follow his advice. 
On land in Great Britain, scurvy was a common illness that surfaced in late winter when fruit and vegetables were not available easily. (Image: Public Domain)

Fast fact: On land in Great Britain, scurvy was a common illness that surfaced in late winter when fruit and vegetables were not available easily.

  • James Lind, a Scottish doctor conducted research and clinical trials on sailors in 1747 consuming limes and lemon juice to ward off scurvy. He proved it to be an effective cure for the disease. He argued for better conditions aboard naval ships with better cleaning methods and ventilation. He also advised the British Navy to obtain fresh drinking water by distilling seawater and that sailors needed vitamin C when out at sea. 

Fast fact: During the Seven Year War from 1756 to 1763 Despite James Lind’s research, the English Navy enlisted 184,899 sailors with 133,708 missings or dead. The cause of 65 percent of death among sailors during the Seven Year War period was scurvy. That’s a great number of lives lost without a single shot fired by French sailors.

  • In 1764, Dr. David MacBride and Sir John Pringle, the Surgeon General of the Army put forward a scientific explanation of scurvy is the result of ‘fixed air’ in the tissues of the human body. They determined that symptoms are avoided by drinking infusions of malt and wort whose fermentation within the body would stimulate digestion and restore the missing gases.

Captain Cook sets the standard

Fast Fact: Captain James Cook navigated throughout the world from 1768 to 1777 with no major outbreaks of scurvy aboard his ship. Following the advice from past researchers and sailors, he took malt, wort, beer, sauerkraut (source of vitamin C), and syrup with oranges and lemons on board.

  • Cook kept his ship clean with his crewman following a strict hygiene regime and frequently stopping for fresh fruit, vegetables, and water. He also stopped the practice of eating the salt fat that was lifted from the ship’s copper boiling pans. The copper formed compounds that halted the body’s absorption of vitamins. 
captain cook painting
Captain James Cook navigated throughout the world from 1768to 1777 with no major occurrences of scurvy aboard his ship. (Image: via Public Domain)

The British medical establishment and government took over 200 years to realize the importance of fruits onboard their naval ships at sea to prevent scurvy. 

The British Navy made changes in hygiene and lime and lemon drinks were taken on board their ships following Cook’s recommendations. Drinking the juice became so popular onboard England’s ships that in the mid-1900s that anyone traveling from English-speaking countries earned the nickname “Limey.” 

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