The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 14, 2011


The Chinese knew of it and its cure as early as the fifth century, growing fresh ginger in pots aboard their mercantile vessels. Possibly their trade partners in Southeast Asia did as well. Possibly these passed on that knowledge to the Dutch merchantmen that later arrived on their shores in search of spices. The Dutch, in turn, may have passed on the knowledge to their European competitors.

Still, the sailors:
...began to fall sick. Failure of strength and persistent breathlessness were the first sign that the body was beginning to weaken and many could no longer climb the rigging. Next, their skin turned sallow, their gums tender and their breath rank and offensive. 'The disease that hath consumed our men hath bene the skurvie,' wrote Edmund Barker... 1
Scurvy! All caused by a lack of fresh fruit.

In 1536, French sailors under Jacques Cartier close to death of the disease were advised by the natives in coastal Canada to drink an infusion of the needles of the spruce tree. They were cured almost immediately.  In 1595, an English admiral claimed that the lives of ten thousand sailors could have been saved had the quartermasters arranged to have lemon juice available on board their ships.

The Englishman James Lancaster took a bottles of fresh lemon juice with him on his second voyage to the Orient in 1601. On his flagship, sailors showing symptoms of the dreaded disease were given some of the juice. Men on the other ships of the fleet steadily wasted away; the Red Dragon remained immune. 'And the reason why the general's men stood in better health than the men of other ships was this; he brought to sea with him certain bottles of the juice of lemons, which he gave to each one, as long as it would last, three spoonfuls every morning, fasting; not suffering them to eat anything after it till noon ... by this means the general cured many of his men and preserved the rest.'

Tragically, of course, the cure was forgotten or ignored for nearly 170 years, until James Cook's voyages around the world. This, despite there having been published accounts for the treatment of scurvy: James Woodall's The Surgeon's Mate (1617) prescribed lemon juice; William Cockburn's Sea Diseases, or their Nature, Cause and Cure (1697) recommended fresh fruit and vegetables (although, to be fair, also suggested whey and vinegar and cinnamon, which were useless).

The first clinical study to prove the efficacy of citrus juice in preventing and curing scurvy was done in 1747 by a Scots doctor James Lind. Twelve men suffering from scurvy were given identical diets of sweetened gruel, mutton broth, boiled biscuits, sago, rice, raisins, currants, barley, and wine. Two of the men were given vinegar, two diluted sulfuric acid, two seawater (half-pint twice daily), two a concoction of nutmeg, garlic, mustard seed, gum myrrh, cream of tartar and barley water. The last two were given two oranges and a lemon daily. Within six days, these men were fit for duty. Lind published his study in A Treatise of Scurvy, but  it still took the Admiralty fifty years to enforce the issue of lemon juice on board the British Navy. 2

Why did it take so long? There were chemical,  logistical and medical reasons. We know today that Vitamin C, the active ingredient preventing scurvy, is destroyed by heat or light, and decreases in fruit when they are stored for a long time. It was not clear to the navies how to keep sufficient quantities of fresh citruses for all their sailors. Concentrating the juice was time-consuming and costly. There was also the prevailing medical orthodoxy that ascribed scurvy to the excessive consumption of salted meat.

Remarkably, as late as 1911, the hapless Robert Falcon Scott believed that scurvy was caused by tainted meat. He didn't equip his South Pole expedition with enough fruit. Coupled with all the other disasters that befell him, it is unsurprising that he and his men suffered grievously on their assault of the pole. Roald Amundsen, on the other hand, took the threat of scurvy seriously, and equipped himself appropriately.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Check out:

1. Giles Milton, Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History
2. Penny Le Couteur Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History


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