A scurvy business

For the want of a few milligrams of vitamin C, millions of seamen and adventurers perished as they set out from Europe to explore and subdue the world. Although the cruel lash of scurvy has tormented humans for thousands of years, it was from the dawn of the 16 th to the close of the 19 th century that the disease exacted its greatest toll-one that was exacerbated rather than diminished by the emergence of scientific ideas.

Written by       Photographed by Canterbury Museum

The year was 1741, and the ship St Peter was heading for disaster off the coast of Kamchatka. Its commander, the great Danish explorer Vitus Bering, lay dy­ing in his cabin. His crew, numb with weariness and racked by disease, were hard pressed to control their vessel.

Pummelled by icy gales, the ship floundered in the heaving seas “like a piece of dead wood, with none to direct it,” as first mate Sven Waxell wrote in his memoir. “We had to drift hither and thither at the whim of the wind and waves.”

Bering had been sent by the Russian Court to explore the seas east of Siberia. His mission had been a success: he had reached Alaska and proved beyond doubt that Asia and America were separated by water. But in what should have been his hour of glory he had been struck down by scurvy. So, too, had virtually all his crew. When it came to a man’s turn at the helm he was dragged there by two of the other inva­lids who could still walk a little, and when he could sit and steer no longer, he had to be replaced by another in no better shape. The sails could not be set, and those still on their feet were dreadfully weak.

Deaths became so numerous, wrote Waxell, “that a day seldom passed without our having to throw the corpse of one of our men over­board.”

The ship was eventually wrecked on an un­inhabited Aleutian island, from which only a handful of men managed to find their way back to Russia.

Terrible though the plight of the St Peter’s crew was, it was one which was routinely suf­fered by mariners of the time. Scurvy was part of the sailor’s lot.

It was like a punishment from a Grimm brothers story: a gross and cruel retri­bution for not eating your greens.

After a few months at sea the first symptoms would appear: an awful lassitude, with terrors and depression, followed by a rash which oozed blood from hair follicles on the body and legs, and by swollen joints. About a fortnight later the gums would swell, bleed and rot, and the teeth would become loose and fall out. Suppu­rating sores might develop on the body, and the bones would be racked by a terrible pain. As often as not, men with scurvy would suddenly drop dead as they dragged themselves about their work.

Strangest of all, old, healed wounds would reopen like a ghostly vengeance. The most bi­zarre example on record occurred during a cir­cumnavigation of the world by Lord Anson from 1741 to 1744. One of the many men invalided with scurvy on Anson’s ship Centurion had been wounded over 50 years earlier at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. Although the wound had healed soon after it was received, it now broke open and looked just like a fresh wound. In the same way, the callus of a broken bone, long since healed, dissolved and the frac­ture seemed new again.

We now know that scurvy results from a deficiency of vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, but for most of human history the cause and cure of the disease were matters of great conjecture. Although sailors came to be the group worst affected by the disease, multitudes of land-dwellers were also subjected to this scourge. Scurvy was described on the Ebers Papyrus in about 1500 B.C., Hippocrates referred to the illness, and the Crusaders are said to have lost more men to scurvy than they lost in battle to the Saracens. Henry VIII may have died of it.

During the Crimean War, scurvy ravaged the allied armies-British, French and Turkish. The Turks, shown here carrying their sick to Balaclava, were poorly equipped, and scurvy was responsible for five out of six cases in their overcrowded hospitals. The British shipped fruit and vegetables to a nearby port but never managed to get them to the troops. The French Commander-in-Chief ordered his sick troops to pick dandelion plants and make salads from them.
During the Crimean War, scurvy ravaged the allied armies—British, French and Turkish. The Turks, shown here carrying their sick to Balaclava, were poorly equipped, and scurvy was responsible for five out of six cases in their overcrowded hospitals. The British shipped fruit and vegetables to a nearby port but never managed to get them to the troops. The French Commander-in-Chief ordered his sick troops to pick dandelion plants and make salads from them.

People in northern latitudes were at risk from scurvy every winter when they ran out of greens, and it beset armies and towns under siege. But it was as a disease of frontiers that scurvy became truly terrible, breaking out wherever fresh fruit and veg­etables were absent. As Europe­ans began to spill out from their homelands from the 16th cen­tury, they were stalked by this shadow of death.

European seafarers were in the front line of risk, as they sailed out on crowded little ships, wallowing interminably through the oceans on voyages between continents. With its cycle of illness and death, scurvy was the foremost occupational disease of seamen. One historian, who analysed shipping records from 1500 to 1800, estimated that between one and two million mariners died of scurvy during those three centuries.

The New Zealand scholar James Beaglehole, an authority on the exploration of the Pacific, affirmed: “All men were at sea affected by scurvy, a greater obstacle to long-distance navi­gation than all other factors, human or techni­cal. The absence of fresh food made many a voyage simply a test of endurance, with death as the preordained end for the majority of a ship’s company.”

The first recorded New Zealand death from scurvy was a Maori chief, a hostage on the St jean Baptiste, captained by the French ex­plorer Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, in 1769. Months after leaving the French enclave of Pondicherry in India in search of riches in the Pacific, de Surville put in to Doubtless Bay for provisioning. The crew were weakened by scurvy and losing morale, with over 60 deaths.

By an amazing coincidence, only 80 kilo­metres separated de Surville’s ship from Cook’s Endeavour, which had been pushed by strong winds to the north of North Cape that morning after sailing up the east coast. With his fit crew, Cook could have given valuable help to the Frenchman. In the event, neither knew of the other’s presence.

Although de Surville was able to get vital greens for his crew, he had to leave quickly after an altercation with Maori, and he took with him a chief, Ranginui, as prisoner. Ranginui died of scurvy during the voyage to South America, and de Surville himself was drowned in surf on the South American coast. The ship and a residue of the crew-79 had died—even­tually staggered back to France.

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The story of the struggle to con­quer scurvy is a fascinating and strange one. It is a story of surprises and para­doxes, of speculation, theory and counter-theory; of knowledge gained, then lost; of a clash between traditional health practices and misapplied scientific notions.

Long before scurvy came to be known as the explorer’s sickness and the sailor’s scourge, herbal cures for the disease were known—at least to some. While the value of oranges and lemons in treating scurvy had been discovered by some explorers as early as the 1500s, a vari­ety of leafy plants were the typical remedy in chilly northern Europe. These included cresses, mustards and related plants in the brassica fam­ily, among them cabbage and turnip. Some of these plants grew wild in temperate and coastal regions of the world and subsequently saved the lives of those seamen who knew of their efficacy and could locate them.

On Vitus Bering’s expedition, for example, the physician and botanist Georg Steller per­suaded the dying mariners to eat local plants such as cranberries, salmon-berries, wintergreen and cress, which saved them. The crew rem­nant survived a winter on Bering Island, and in spring were fit enough to make a boat from the remains of the St Peter and sail back to Russia.

Ferdinand Magellan treated scurvy in his crew by forcing them to eat Patagonian wild celery—and also their own ship’s rats!

Although Magellan couldn’t have known it, rats, like most other animals, are able to synthesise and store their own vitamin C.

One particular plant, the spoonwort, Cochlearia, was popularly called scurvy grass be­cause it was widely used as a remedy. John Hall, a physician who practised in Stratford-on-Avon early in the 17th century (and who happened to be the son-in-law of William Shakespeare), treated scurvy with a drink made by boiling scurvy grass and water­cress in new beer, together with a paste made by pounding the flowers of scurvy grass.

On Thomas Cavendish’s expedition to South America in 1591, the crew gathered scurvy grass on the Patagonian coast and fried it with eggs. “This herbe did so purge the blood that it . . . restored us all to perfect health of body, so that we were in as good a case as when we came out from England.”

Potatoes proved to be a good antiscorbutic, too. Introduced to Europe from South America in the late 16th century, by the 18th century potatoes were being grown throughout north­ern Europe. In Scotland and Norway, both of which suffered from endemic scurvy, the wide­spread cultivation of potatoes virtually elimi­nated the disease.

Seamen also benefited, as one Richard Dana recorded when crewing on a trader in the Car­ibbean in the 1830s. Two of the sailors had fallen seriously ill with scurvy, but were saved when another ship supplied them with onions and potatoes. Dana writes: “The freshness and crispness of the raw onion, with the earthy taste, gave it a great relish. We were ravenous after them. It was like a scent of blood to a hound. We ate them at every meal by the dozen. The chief use, however, was for the men with the scurvy. One of them was able to eat and he soon brought himself to by gnawing upon raw pota­toes and onions, but the other, by this time, was hardly able to open his mouth, and the cook took the potatoes raw and pounded them in a mortar, and gave him the juice to drink. This he swallowed, by the teaspoonful at a time. The strong earthy taste and smell of this extract of the raw potato at first produced a shuddering through his whole frame, and an acute pain which ran through all his body; but he perse­vered, drinking a spoonful every hour or so, until he became so well as to be able to open his mouth enough to eat the raw potatoes and on­ions pounded into a soft pulp. This course soon restored his appetite and strength, and in ten days he was at the masthead furling a royal.”

But potatoes came late to the scurvy story and were of no help to the early explorers and traders.

Despite problems with scurvy encountered during his 1902 expedition to the South Pole, Scott's four-man polar party of 1911-12 also lived on a vitamin C-deficient diet dominated by biscuits and tinned pemmican (a mixture of dried meat and fat here being cut up by Atkinson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard), and there remains a suspicion that scurvy contributed to their demise. To blame was the then-popular medical theory that scurvy was caused by contaminated meat.
Despite problems with scurvy encountered during his 1902 expedition to the South Pole, Scott’s four-man polar party of 1911-12 also lived on a vitamin C-deficient diet dominated by biscuits and tinned pemmican (a mixture of dried meat and fat here being cut up by Atkinson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard), and there remains a suspicion that scurvy contributed to their demise. To blame was the then-popular medical theory that scurvy was caused by contaminated meat.

Scurvy on ships got out of control when trade with Asia via the Cape of Good Hope was promoted during the 17th century. It took three months to get to the Cape from Europe, and by that time crews were crippled and dying.

The Dutch East India Company tackled the problem by planting vegetable gardens and or­chards at Mauritius and St Helena, and later at the Cape of Good Hope, where by 1661 they were reported to have 1000 citrus trees.

To ward off scurvy while on the high seas, the Dutch tried laying out small vegetable gar­dens on board ship, but this failed because in bad weather waves broke over the decks and washed the soil away. (Some 300 years later the feisty Francis Chichester adopted the idea for his solo voyage around the world in the yacht Gipsy Moth IV, growing trays of cress on a shelf in his cabin.)

From 1607, the English East India Com­pany decided to supply lemon juice for con­sumption during its expeditions. One would have expected this move to free crews from scurvy, but it didn’t. Even 80 years later, as a company ship approached Table Bay, most of the men were down sick and 30 had died.

Why did lemon juice fail? First, it was ex­pensive, and, without a clear recommended dosage, it was often skimped, especially as sea­men didn’t much like it. Second, it did not travel well, and if it was prepared by boiling to reduce its volume (as was typically the case), most of the vitamin C was lost.

When crews got scurvy despite having lemon juice on board, it was easy to believe that it was not a remedy at all, and the question of cause and cure remained firmly befogged in speculation and theory.

Vegetables, too, seemed not to be univer­sally or even widely appreciated as being able to prevent scurvy on ships. Perhaps it was only rural peasants who knew of the virtues of herbs and green vegetables, because they depended on them for food. While many vegetables did not travel well, onions were an exception and could have provided sufficient vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay, but even they were largely ignored.

Today, when news circles the globe at the speed of light, it seems incredible that some individuals and maybe even whole classes of society knew how to prevent scurvy, while their compatriots died from the disease in their thousands. Yet four or five hundred years ago, few books existed, the town crier was the media’s only representative and travelling beyond the next village qualified as an adventure. Information and communication were concepts undreamed of. The human body was a mystery, and its illnesses even more so. Life was a paro­chial affair and knowledge could only be passed on to those to whom you could speak. Given such an environment, the patchwork of knowl­edge and ignorance that seemed to surround scurvy is more understandable.


By the Beginning of the 18th cen­tury, scurvy still reigned—with ever-increasing confusion as to the cause of the disease. Rudimentary scientific discoveries started being taken up by leading doctors, who tried to apply the discoveries to medicine. For example, chemists began to discover some of the properties of gases. They found that by applying acid, carbon dioxide could be extracted from solid substances such as marble, which went chalky as a result. Physicians leaped to apply the principle to medicine, reasoning that flesh became, not chalky, but putrescent be­cause carbon dioxide was being released from the body. The remedy was clearly to restore CO, by swallowing products which would fer­ment in the body. Malt was such a product. It could be carried on ships in powdered form, and, if made into a drink, would provide carbon dioxide for reabsorption in the body, so curing scurvy—or so the argument went. Later in the 18th century, a lack of oxygen in the tissues was blamed for causing scurvy. If the ideas now seem preposterous, they were then at the fore­front of scientific knowledge.

It was about this time that medicine and herbalism parted company. Herbal treatments lost status because the medical profession had as its goal a universal theory of the nature of disease, in line with the universal laws being developed by chemists. Mere empiricists were scorned; remedies had to be drawn from the logic of theory. Centuries-old peasant knowl­edge was thrust aside as irrelevant.

By a supreme paradox, the new medicine and its erroneous remedies, instead of reducing suffering, led to a great increase in illness. In­deed, scurvy was not finally defeated until the 1930s, after scientific knowledge had advanced enough to permit some brilliant biochemical detective work which resulted in the isolation of ascorbic acid.


In the meantime, thousands continued to die because of flawed theories.

Thoughtful people were well aware of the gap which opened up between theory and prac­tice. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, put his finger on the issue in his Primitive Physick, published in 1747. “In the beginning Physick was wholly founded on experiment. You said to your neighbour, are you sick? Drink the juice of this herb, and your sickness will be at an end. But men of a philosophical turn were not satisfied with this. They began to enquire how they might account for these things? The whole order of physick came to be inverted. Men of learning began to set experience aside: to build physick upon hypotheses: to form theo­ries of diseases and their cure, until physick became an abstruse science, quite out of the reach of ordinary men.”

Wesley’s own cure for scurvy was to live on turnips for a month—not a bad prescription, since turnips contain 130 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams, more than twice the vitamin C content of oranges.

In 1747, Scottish surgeon James Lind car­ried out what was probably the first controlled trial in clinical medicine when he tested six possible remedies for scurvy on six pairs of scurvy-ridden seamen. Only those given or­anges and lemons as dietary supplements showed improvement. Seawater, cider, vinegar and sulphuric acid—all recommended treat­ments at the time—proved ineffective.

The Royal Navy introduced lemon juice to fight scurvy in 1795, but during the 1860s West Indian lime juice was substituted-here being bottled in a Victorian factory. Limes contain less vitamin C than lemons do, and losses during shipping, storage and preparation resulted in a product with little antiscorbutic activity, so scurvy surfaced yet again amongst the Jack tars.
The Royal Navy introduced lemon juice to fight scurvy in 1795, but during the 1860s West Indian lime juice was substituted—here being bottled in a Victorian factory. Limes contain less vitamin C than lemons do, and losses during shipping, storage and preparation resulted in a product with little antiscorbutic activity, so scurvy surfaced yet again amongst the Jack tars.

Despite this triumph, Lind’s ideas on what caused scurvy were typical of his epoch and almost incomprehensible, involving blocked perspiration, the consequent build-up of pu­trescence in the body and the unhealthiness of shipboard air, which had defective “spring and elasticity” leading to poor digestion among other ailments.

His theories and results became part of a 400-page treatise on scurvy published in 1753, and, though his remedy could have brought relief to tormented sailors, his work was largely ignored. From their London headquarters colloquially known as “Old Weevil,” the Commis­sioners of the Victualling Board of the Admi­ralty consistently rejected the use of citrus products (despite the East India Company’s ear­lier advocacy of citrus) on the ground that eat­ing lemons could cause enteritis.

“Oranges and lemons” may have been the message of the bells of St Clement’s, but the Admiralty wasn’t listening. The direct result was that for most of the century the British navy was a fleet of sick men.

It was as well for the British that their rivals, France and Spain, were equally crippled. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had been partly due to the ill-health of the Spanish through scurvy, and two centuries later, when a combined French and Spanish fleet bore down upon Plymouth in 1779, they were forced to retire, not by naval action but by the disease-ridden state of their crews.

One of the worst outbreaks occurred during Lord Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe during the war with Spain, when he was in­structed to ravage the Pacific coast of South America and perhaps try for the annual silver galleon which sailed from America to the Phil­ippines. He set off with an imposing force of six ships and a total of 1939 men. The expedition underwent extraordinary vicissitudes and ad­ventures, and Anson was finally reduced to one ship, the Centurion, and lost over 1300 men, most from scurvy.

Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish captain sent out to intercept Anson, fared no better. He returned to Spain with only 100 out of an origi­nal 3000 sailors.

Although Anson’s disaster was temporarily glossed over when he captured the coveted Spanish galleon with its treasure (valued at 300,000 pounds), it still made a deep impact upon the British navy.

Even as late as 1780, during the American War of Independence, 2400 men—one seventh of the crews of the English fleet—were down with scurvy. Typhus, cholera and other fevers smote an equal number again.

During Captain Nares' 1875 expedition to the Arctic, a daily ration of lime juice was dispensed to crew aboard the Alert. Despite this precaution, 60 cases of scurvy broke out among the sledging parties once they set out across the ice, four people died from the disease and the expedition had to retreat when 400 miles short of the North Pole.
During Captain Nares’ 1875 expedition to the Arctic, a daily ration of lime juice was dispensed to crew aboard the Alert. Despite this precaution, 60 cases of scurvy broke out among the sledging parties once they set out across the ice, four people died from the disease and the expedition had to retreat when 400 miles short of the North Pole.

It was not that 18th naval authorities were indifferent to the problem of scurvy, but that they were no more in a position to ignore the advice of the medical authorities then than they would be today. A leading advocate of the putrescence theories and of the use of malt in curing scurvy was no less a person than the well-connected and influential Sir John Pringle, an establishment physician and president of the Royal Society. Although the good doctor was talking hot air with his theories about carbon dioxide, the navy was clearly stuck with them, and it experimented actively with treatments which were designed to replace carbon dioxide in the body.

In addition to powdered malt (which had its little vitamin C content destroyed by the boil­ing water with which it was mixed), there were: glue-like cakes from rendered animal offal to be added to stews (with no vitamin C), saloup­the powdered root of an English variety of orchid which acted as a thickener (no vitamin C), sauerkraut (which did retain some vitamin C, but was prescribed for its fermenting proper­ties) and, finally, distilled concentrated orange juice, supplied in small amounts as a specific treatment.

Outbreaks of scurvy continued unabated.


Captain Cook’s Voyages were an exception. Cook became famous not only for his fastidious explorations but for his unparalleled success in keeping his crew largely free from scurvy, an achievement which caused astonishment and awe among his con­temporaries. The Royal Society was so im­pressed that it awarded him the prestigious Copley medal for his report on the health of his crew after the first voyage of the Reso­lution, and today Cook is popu­larly regarded as the man who turned the tide against scurvy.

The reason for his success was both incredibly simple and yet extraordinary: he knew the im­portance of fresh greens. Unlike many naval officers, he grew up a poor country boy who learned his herbs when he went ditching and hedging with his father, and they would have been a regular part of the diet.

He made his crews eat fresh vegetables at every opportunity. He wrote from Queen Char­lotte Sound in May 1773: “Knowing that sellery and scurvy grass and other vegetables were to be found in this Sound, and that when boiled with wheat or pease and portable soup makes a very nourishing and wholesome diet which is extremely beneficial both in curing and pre­venting the scurvy, I went myself at daylight in search of some and returned by breakfast with a boatload and I gave orders that it should be boiled with wheat, oatmeal or portable soup for the crew of both sloops every morning for breakfast and also with pease every day for din­ner, and I took care that this order was punctu­ally complied with, at least on my sloop.”

Seeing that the stuff actually was eaten was the nub of the difficulty. Seamen were not the most malleable lot. One 17th century descrip­tion called them “a knot of jolly, rough-hewn men who looked as if they’d been hammered into an uncouth shape upon Vulcan’s anvil; whose iron sides, and metal-coloured faces seemed to dare all weathers, spit fire at the frigid zone, and bid death defiance.”

However, Cook was not a man to be gain­said. When the Endeavour called at Madeira, outward bound from England, Cook took on fresh meat and onions. Several of the crew, preferring salted meat, refused to eat it fresh, and Cook had them flogged. Later, he opted for subtler methods such as putting greens on the officers’ table to create a demand among the crew.

Such relentless application to detail made the difference. Just how much is evident from the experience of Cook’s companion ship on the second voyage, the Adventure. Despite Cook’s advice and oversight, scurvy broke out; the difference must have been in the adminis­tration of the greens which had been collected.

James Lind never received much recognition from his contemporaries, but his experiments on scurvy and subsequent books on the health of seamen and tropical diseases earned him the title "father of nautical medicine."
James Lind never received much recognition from his contemporaries, but his experiments on scurvy and subsequent books on the health of seamen and tropical diseases earned him the title “father of nautical medicine.”

Although Cook succeeded in preventing se­rious scurvy among his own crew, neither he nor his men seemed to appreciate what lay be­hind his success. In fact, given the range of measures which Cook had imposed, he was in no position to say which of them was effica­cious against scurvy. The Admiralty had in­structed Cook to use the products which it was testing—malt, sauerkraut and the like—and he did. There were no instructions about fresh greens, and Cook’s insistence on using them stemmed from his own initiative.

In his reports to the Admiralty, he was warm in his praise of sauerkraut and wort of malt as antiscorbutics, but also thought sugar, cleanli­ness and good water were important. He men­tioned greens and citrus in passing, but with no real emphasis.

Some historians consider Cook set back the cause of treating scurvy, for his reports were used by Sir John Pringle to bolster the current fashionable theories and remedies and to stave off for another 20 years the adoption of lemon juice as the preferred antiscorbutic.

From 1780, however, individual surgeons and commanders in the West Indian fleet some­times took matters into their own hands and provided citrus juice—often lime juice, since limes were plentiful in those climes. Its success came as a revelation, so completely had the earlier knowledge of its use vanished. Thus did the commanders rediscover what their forbears had known nearly 200 years earlier.

Soon after 1790, the Board of the Admiralty bowed to the demands of their commanders, and rations of lemon juice were introduced. From 1795 to 1814, a total of 1.6 million gal­lons was issued. For a time, scurvy ceased to be a problem in the British navy.

On merchant vessels the situation improved too. From 1865, British Board of Trade regula­tions required lime juice to be provided to mer­chant crews. In 1878, William Owens was fined £2 for failing to provide sufficient lime juice to his crew to prevent an outbreak of scurvy.


Faster ships also helped save sailors in mer­chant fleets from the cycle of disease. During the 18th century, in place of the traditional rounded bottoms, V-shaped hulls were developed, which reduced the sailing time from China to England to three months and the Atlantic crossing to as little as three weeks. The scurvy timetable was largely outpaced.

But even as maritime cases of scurvy were declining, new frontiers were opening up to the ravages of the disease. The most devastat­ing was the California gold rush, 1848-1850. Up to 100,000 people travelled to the gold­fields, the great majority by mule cart or ox wagon—a six-month journey from the railhead at Kansas City. Lacking reliable access to fresh food, many died en route, while others arrived so crippled they could not move.

A recent study estimates that at least 10,000 men died of scurvy before the end of 1850, either on the goldfields or in trying to get there. Oranges imported from Tahiti and limes from Acapulco brought the disease under con­trol. The fledgling commercial citrus industry in Southern California also received a boost.

Scurvy was also rampant among the con­victs and guards arriving in Australia on the first fleet from Britain under Governor Phillip in 1789. For five years they lived on the bleak edge of starvation. Settlers were desperate for vegetables. One man was given 1000 lashes—literally skinned alive—for stealing three pounds of potatoes.

Later in the 19th century, another furore erupted in the British navy. The complacent belief that it had disposed of scurvy was igno­miniously ripped away. The issue boiled up following an 1876 expedition led by Captain Nares towards the North Pole. The expedi­tion, which had been heavily oversold to the British public, departed in a blaze of flag-wav­ing glory, and although the official instructions played down any question of attaining the Pole, it was clearly this which the public expected.

The expedition planned to spend at least one winter in the north, but there was not the least concern about scurvy, because the chief naval physician confidently told Nares that there was no danger until they had spent at least two win­ters on the ice. It came as a great shock and a scandal when four men died from scurvy.

The expedition carried lime juice, but for various reasons little use was made of it. One basic problem was that the large containers of juice proved difficult to thaw. The main sledg­ing party struggled to within 600 kilometres of the Pole, but as men fell from scurvy, they had no alternative but to return home.

The outcry caused the House of Commons to call for an inquiry, which found Nares re­sponsible for the deaths in failing to issue lime juice to the men on sledges. Some well-informed observers rejected this finding. One of them pointed to several recent outbreaks of scurvy in warships where lime juice was being taken. The British navy had recently changed from Mediterranean lemon juice to lime juice from the West Indies, unaware that lime juice has only about half the amount of vitamin C of lemon juice. Curiously, the American navy ap­preciated that limes were inferior and to be avoided, and “limey” became a derisive US term for English seamen.

Some who dismissed the efficacy of citrus juice altogether pointed out that Eskimos and private exploring parties in the far north lived largely on blubber and fresh seal meat without scurvy. A shining example was the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. He set out in 1893 to test the theory that a ship in the pack ice north of Rus­sia would move slowly west­ward to the Atlantic. After two years on board as the ship drifted with the ice, Nansen and a colleague left the ship and pressed as far north as possible. They were overtaken by the darkness of a third winter, which they spent in a crude dugout in the ice far to the north of Norway: two black, soot-stained barbarians living on the meat of polar bears and seals, with no sign of scurvy.

The blank spaces on the map of the world were slowly filled, but at vast cost: the lives of explorers and their crews. More often than not, scurvy—”the plague of the sea and the Spoyle of Mariners”—was the executioner.

The net effect was the discrediting of citrus and yet another round of debate, with even more new theories. It was like a dreadful endless refrain, stopping for a mo­ment only to start up again. Again medical experts continued to add to the confusion. During the later 19th century the germ theory of disease came into prominence, with its spec­tacular success in combating infectious dis­eases. Lord Lister, who specialised in antisep­tic procedures (and whose name was immortal­ised in a brand of mouthwash), opined, with no scientific basis, that scurvy was caused by eat­ing contaminated food, and by the end of the century the hot money was on this theory.

It was a vital issue for the man assigned to lead a British expedition to the South Pole, Robert Falcon Scott, who accepted Lister’s word. When his expedition wintered-over in 1902, they ate only medically inspected and taint-free tinned meat. Scott was understand­ably mortified when scurvy broke out. He had to conclude that, despite their best efforts, the meat was contaminated. Tinned meat was banned, and they took to killing seals for meat. The livers and kidneys, being high in vitamin C, helped clear the sickness.

At long last, after the turn of the 20th cen­tury, laboratory research moved in on the real cause of scurvy. A Norwegian team experiment­ing with guinea pigs, which, like humans, are unable to manufacture vitamin C, confirmed in 1907 that scurvy was a deficiency disease.

Even so, this finding failed to deter some emi­nent and opinionated physicians from continuing to pronounce on the matter. Sir Almroth Wright, who made major contributions to immunology, clung to his opinion that scurvy came from the blood being not alkaline enough, and did not concede his error until 1934.

As animal testing continued, products which would cure scurvy began to be identified in the laboratory. Experiment was coming to confirm the folk wisdom of earlier centuries.

By 1920, the hunt was on to isolate the chemicals involved in the deficiency and the focus moved to biochemical research which subjected raw material to chemical reduction and analysis. Hungarian scientist Albert Szent­Gyorgi was the first to isolate the pure corn-pound of vitamin C, Sir Norman Haworth led the team which discovered its chemical struc­ture and Tadeus Reichstein developed a method of manufacturing the vitamin on a commercial scale. This work was part of a wider process of discovery of biochemical structures and path­ways which, in its ingenuity, paralleled the un­locking of the secrets of the atom.

Knowing what causes scurvy and having ef­fective treatments in the form of vitamin C tablets has freed us at last from an ancient tyranny. But beyond the conquering of an in­sidious disease, the saga of scurvy contains use­ful lessons for us today. Science is usually seen as the handmaiden of medicine, the sword of enlightenment. Yet in the search for a cure for scurvy, scientific notions were a liability which cost thousands of men their lives. Although experimental research did eventually solve the problem, the abuse of science by a misguided medical elite proved worse than no science at all. Conversely, traditional herbal remedies—often pooh-poohed by physicians—were found to have real merit.

We may smugly think that the lethal tur­moil of conflicting theories which bedevilled scurvy could never happen today—we are much too sophisticated for that . . . but think of cot deaths, even cancer. Are there still more “vitamin Cs” to be found?

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