The Scourge Of Scurvy

CULTURE | November 20, 2019

Corpses of Dutch scurvy victims in 1634, drawing by V Foulquier, Spitsbergen, Norway, from Il Giro del mondo (World Tour), Journal of geography, travel and costumes, Volume IV, Issue 8, August 24, 1865. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Scurvy was a scourge of sailors from the 16th to 18th centuries. This disease killed more mariners than battle, sinkings, or any other sickness. Centuries were spent trying to find a cure, which in the end was simple.

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Symptoms of Scurvy

Typically scurvy begins with lethargy and malaise. This soon develops into soreness, short breath, and soft and bleeding gums. Conditions grow worse, eventually leading to jaundice, the reopening of old wounds, and then death. Scurvy was not a pleasant disease.

One English surgeon recorded some of the symptoms:

“...their gums were rotten even to the very roots of their teeth, and their cheeks hard and swollen, the teeth were loose neere ready to fall out...their breath a filthy savour. The legs were ffeble and so weak, that they were not scarce able to carry their bodies. Moreover they were full of aches and paines, with many blewish and reddish staines or spots, some broad and some small like flea-biting.”

A ship's biscuit—purportedly (circa 1852) the oldest in the world—displayed at the maritime museum in Kronborg, Denmark. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Cause of Scurvy

Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the diet. Curiously, most animals are able to produce their own vitamin C. Humans along with other primates, guinea pigs, bats, and other animals have to ingest ascorbic acid from outside sources. Not having the vitamin in the diet was literally a killer.

Scurvy has been known since at least the development of agricultural since there was a greater dependence on stored grain which lacks sufficient concentrations of vitamin C. Scurvy, however, is most closely associated with the voyages of the so-called Age of Discovery. There is a good reason for this, scurvy killed more sailors than any other cause. This was due to the exhaustive work performed by sailors matched with a sea diet that while calorie-rich, including an abundance of salted meats and dried grains pounded into cakes called ship's biscuit, lacked vitamin C.

Victoria, the only ship of Magellan's fleet to survive the circumnavigation. Source: (Wikipedia)

Scurvy Deaths

The statistics and incidents are staggering. In the 1497 voyage of Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope, some 100 of his 160 men crew died of scurvy. Da Gama ordered his men to cure themselves by washing their mouths with their own urine. This did not work.

Scurvy killed half of the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s 250 crew during his circumnavigation of the globe from 1519 to 1522. This would have been more if some of the sailors hadn’t died of other reasons. During the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763, over 133,000 British sailors died of disease, the majority from scurvy.

Perhaps the worst outbreak was during the expedition of Sir George Anson against the Spanish in 1740. Anson’s fleet circumnavigated the world and when it was over well over a thousand were dead, the vast majority from scurvy.

Evergreen trees. Source: (Wikipedia)


Sometimes cures were found, but it was not readily seen why these would work over. For example, on Jacques Cartier’s second voyage of exploration to Canada from 1535 to 1536 his men were laid low with scurvy. However, a decoction from Native Iroquois made from bark and needles of evergreen trees miraculously cured them. The tree, called by the Iroquois aneda was called by Cartier the Tree of Live, it was most likely a northern white cedar. This cure was largely forgotten.

Physicians at the time worked on the teachings of Hippocrates and the four humors which essentially dealt with imbalances in the body.  Cures usually recommended doing the wrong thing -- such as bleeding or to make the afflicted work more to get over their lethargy.

James Lind Giving Citrus Fruits to Sailors with Scurvy. Source: (gettyimages.com)


But it was Anson’s tragic voyage that brought the attention of scurvy to the forefront. The British were expanding their maritime empire, and they knew that they needed to figure out how to cure the disease. 

The truth (sort of) was figured out by James Lind (1716-1794) who believed that the disease was caused by the rotting of food within the body and needed acids to stabilize it. In May 1747, as a ship’s surgeon, he conducted an experiment on a dozen men stricken with advanced scurvy. He divided the men into groups of two and experimented giving them vinegar, sulfuric acid, lemons and oranges, seawater, and barley water. He found that those given lemons and oranges (fruit with high concentrations of vitamin C) recovered.

Source: (Wikipedia)

A Cure

Much of the medical community was slow to accept this since Lind was a mere surgeon as opposed to a true physician. However, the three multi-year voyages of Captain James Cook around the world was the first systematic attempt to eradicate scurvy through diet. Cook used sauerkraut, forcing his crews to eat it, but what was really effective was the obtaining of indigenous greens at the ports and islands at which his ships stopped.

While the medical community was still wedded to its own ideas about scurvy, practical-minded naval personnel knew that citrus fruits worked. Therefore, in 1794, the Physician of the Fleet, Sir Gilbert Blane, arranged for a scurvy experiment ordered by Rear Admiral Alan Gardner. The experiment directed that lemon juice be mixed with the sailor's grog (rum rations) aboard HMS Suffolk on a 23-week voyage to India. There were hardly any outbreaks of scurvy.

Seeing this success, in 1795 the Royal Navy ordered that citrus juice be implemented as the primary antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) agent. From this point, while scurvy still occurred, it was never the debilitating problem that it had been throughout history. Interestingly, the nickname for British sailors as “limeys” came from this, the cure for scurvy.

Tags: Scurvy

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