Dr. Lind and the Cure for Scurvy

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. 1841/2

Scurvy is a disease Dr. Maturin encounters several times in the course of his journeys with Captain Aubrey, despite the fact that it was a disease with a known cure. At least in those instances Stephen knew what was necessary to solve the problem, thanks both to his native brilliance but also to Dr. James Lind. The lovely people of Wired are kind enough to break it down for us.

Seafaring in the age of sail was backbreaking work and fraught with peril, but the sailor’s real scourge was scurvy. The symptoms of the disease, caused by vitamin C deficiency, include fatigue, anemia, swollen and bleeding gums, loose teeth, slow-healing wounds, and subcutaneous hemorrhaging and other bleeding.

A debilitating condition at any time, in the 18th century scurvy often proved fatal to sailors a long way from shore and the curative properties of fresh citrus. Of course, no one understood the curative powers of fresh citrus in those days.

Although scurvy had been documented by Europeans since the Crusades, its precise cause remained a mystery. (Vitamin C, in fact, wasn’t discovered until the 20th century.) Although sailing ships had always included plenty of fruit and vegetables in their stores, lack of refrigeration meant they had to be eaten early in the voyage. As European empires expanded and voyages lengthened during the 17th and 18th centuries, scurvy became more prevalent.

Dr. James Lind, a Royal Navy surgeon, had a hunch that diet was involved, and he got to put his theory to the test when he shipped aboard the Salisbury in 1747. Taking a dozen men stricken with scurvy, Lind divided them into six groups of two and administered specific dietetic supplements to each group. The two lucky sailors who were fed lemon and oranges for six days recovered, and one was even declared fit for duty before the Salisbury reached port.

Writing about his experiment in A Treatise of the Scurvy, Lind described the remarkable improvement in the two men:

The consequence was, that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of the oranges and lemons; one of those who had taken them being at the end of six days fit for duty. The spots were not at the same time quite off his body, nor his gums sound, but without any other medicine he became quite healthy before we came into Plymouth. The other was the best recovered of any in his condition, and being deemed pretty well, was appointed nurse to the rest of the sick.

Although the Salisbury experiment is still widely regarded as the pivotal moment in the conquest of scurvy, Capt. James Cook is also credited with mitigating the disease by careful management of his crews’ diets. Later scholarship turns up other dissenting views as well.

One reason for that may be that the Royal Navy, even then the hidebound institution whose traditions Winston Churchill apocryphally dismissed, in a fit of pique, as “rum, sodomy and the lash,” was slow to react to Lind’s evidence. It would take nearly a half century before the Admiralty accepted Lind’s findings and began issuing lemon or lime juice to its sailors as a standard ration. When it was finally done, scurvy all but vanished from the fleet.

Courtesy of WiReD.

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