A short history of scurvy

A short history of scurvy

Scurvy is an ancient disease; its principal cause is now known to be an ascorbic acid (vitamin C) deficiency, but when scurvy devastated civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, no one suspected that the deadly “plague” was caused by a diet of inadequate nutrients.

Scurvy influenced the course of history, especially the destiny of nations who depended upon military might. Because rations during military campaigns and long ocean voyages seldom contained adequate amounts of vitamin C, armies and navies were devastated by as much as 50 percent. Between 1556 and 1857, for example, more than 100 scurvy epidemics spread through Europe.

The first clue to the treatment of the disease occurred during Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Newfoundland in 1536. The French explorer was advised by the native Indians to give his men, who were dying from an epidemic, a potion made from spruce tree needles. The foliage, rich in vitamin C, cured most members of Cartier’s crew.

Although numerous indications began to appear that linked scurvy with diet, this knowledge had to be rediscovered many times until the nineteenth century.

In 1742, the British naval commander James Lind begged the British Navy to institute a program for making citrus foods available on all voyages. In a book he wrote after an especially long journey with many fatalities, he described miracle cures encountered with the use of lemon juice. Lind was practically ignored for his advice. But 62 years later, the British Navy did adopt the procedure when Captain Cook succeeded in avoiding scurvy altogether by giving his sailors lime juice on three successive voyages (between 1768 and 1779). No one knew why citrus juice had so miraculous an effect.

The history of scurvy research leading to the discovery of vitamin C actually began in 1907, when two German scientists realized that the guinea pig was also susceptible to the disease.

In 1497, Vasco de Gama, seeking to find a passage to the East Indies through the Cape of Good Hope, lost 100 of his 160-man crew to scurvy. A few years later, in 1519, Magellan started out to circumnavigate the globe. His fleet consisted of five ships. When he returned three years later, only one ship, with 18 sailors of the original crew, returned to Spain.

Historical evidence in the naval logs of the eighteenth-century voyages recounts the horrors of scurvy. By the, the disease was no mystery for many ship masters. Others, under the influence of the bureaucracy of their time, gave no attention to the value of stocking fresh vegetables, fruit, or sauerkraut for long journeys. Other stopped at various islands for restocking of supplies. Captain Cook, of the British Navy (1772-1775), was especially diligent in providing supplies of known foods that could prevent scurvy. He was eventually presented with the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his success in bringing back as many sailors as departed.

Armies didn’t fare any better. During the late sixteenth-century and into the the eighteenth-century, epidemics of scurvy broke out among Prussian armies, Russians at war between the Russians and the Turks, the English troops at Quebec in 1959, and French soldiers attempting to cross the Alps in 1795.

How has vitamin C changed history? There are many challenging probabilities. The lemons-oranges-sauerkraut regimen instituted by James Lind before he retired in 1748 may have proved to be the “secret weapon” against Napoleon. It might have assisted Lord Nelson to break the power of Napoleon because the English Navy was able to blockade the coast of France without the necessity of constant refueling for fresh food to maintain the health of its crews.

The history of scurvy is not unlike the tragedy of our time in which many in the medical profession and administrators in public institutions ridicule the idea that nutritious food and vitamin-mineral supplements can save million of lives, making many inmates and the general population healthy and productive.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Vegetus Publications

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