curvy was a mysterious disease that was understood and forgotten. Cures were discovered and lost or not shared. Even when treatments were well-documented, their effectiveness was misunderstood. Incorrect theories of the disease included the imbalance of the Humors, escaped putrid air, and rotten meat.
A severe deficiency of Vitamin C causes Scurvy. The main symptoms of Scurvy are fatigue, depression, and then the physical signs proceed, including spongy gums, loose teeth, bleeding skin, and scaly skin. Low Vitamin C does cause fatigue. According to Margaret Ward’s” Behavioral and Monoamine changes following severe Vitamin C deficiency,” without Vitamin C, iron cannot be regulated in the body, causing anemia. The body’s muscles cannot be maintained, leading to lethargy, muscle ache, and fatigue. Mice with extremely low Vitamin C have exhibited signs of despair and other changes in social functions.
According to Jason Mayberry’s “Scurvy and Vitamin C,” Vitamin C is essential for collagen production on the formation and the genetic expression. Without Vitamin C the connective tissue of the body does not form. Eventually, this leads to weakened gums, loose teeth, edema, soreness in muscles, pain in old injuries and blackness behind the joints.
Scurvy is an ancient condition dating back as early as 3800–3600 BCE. Any time there were periods of famine or poor nutrition, an outbreak of Scurvy was possible. It was particularly common among soldiers during the Crusades from 1096 to 1271. The term Scurvy “started off as an adjective in the 1540s, meaning ‘covered with scabs’, and is apparently related to ‘scurf’, as in dandruff.” Thus, the term at times covered all sorts of conditions.
According to De Luca and Norum, Scurvy was present during the time of the Vikings. Long voyages and long cold winters of Scandinavia created perfect conditions for Scurvy.
Nautical and Land Exploration Brought a Wave of Medical Speculation
Although Scurvy wasn’t a new disease, the considerable boom of Nautical and Land Exploration from the 1500s to the 1800s saw vast amounts of Scurvy cases. Unfortunately, for most of this time, Physicians and Scientists lacked an understanding of what caused and prevented the disease. According to Mayberry, one of the more popular theories of the time was Hippocrates’ theory of the four Humors governing the body’s health by being balanced or imbalanced. The four body fluids in the human body were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.
Under this theory, black bile caused depression and fatigue. This Humor was controlled by the spleen. It was a logical conclusion than in the 16th century for a Dutchman named John Echth to believe an excess of black bile and a blockage in the spleen caused Scurvy.
According to Peter Stark in Last Breath: The Limits of Adventure, an expedition of inland Maine chronicler attributed the 36 of 80 deaths of the journey to “gross, cold and melancholy meats” in the 1600s. Although the gross meats could not have helped the men’s nutrition, raw seal meat kept Innuits well-nourished in similar climates, the meat was not solely to blame.
Another prominent physician in the early 1800th century, Richard Mead (1673–1754), believed poor ventilation systems in ships caused Scurvy. In all reality, this poor ventilation did not contribute to the crew’s health but didn’t cause a Vitamin C deficiency.
Mark Harrison’s, “Scurvy on sea and land: political economy and natural history, c. 1780-c. 1850.” explains other popular theories of the age of exploration. A physician of the time, Dr. Seguin believed ”scurvy arose from an accumulation of ‘phlogiston’ in the blood (an element which was reckoned by some to impart combustibility to the air) and could be relieved by any number of methods, such as the provision of pure drinking water.” Scurvy was correctly associated with the sailor’s diet but for the wrong reasons.
An Irish physician David MacBride looked outward to the “fixed air” between all living organisms. Because Scurvy was considered a disease of putrefaction, the “fixed air” would escape during the illness. He theorized by replacing the air with the fermented food stopped this putrefaction. A popular choice because of its cheapness and shelf life was malted barley. Although fermented food does offer individuals some health benefits, Vitamin C is not one of them.
Lind and Trotter: The right cure for the wrong reasons
Earlier, I mentioned that Physicians and Scientists didn’t understand Scurvy’s cause, but regardless, they discovered the cure. As soon as the 1497 expedition of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvarez Cabral in 1507, the crew had well documented the success of citrus fruits in curing Scurvy.
Back Scandinavia, they knew cloudberries would ward of Scurvy in the long winters. The berries were rich in Vitamin C, and when preserve in a jam, they could be enjoyed all winter. Scurvy was kept well at bay. The Vikings thought the disease was a result of drinking too much sour milk. This rotten or spoiled food theory accompanies Scurvy through much of its rise.
According to Marcus White’s’ “James Lind: The man who helped to cure scurvy with lemons,” Lind is often credited with advancing the lemons’ cure. He had a relationship and experience with the Royal Navy. He was a Surgeon mate in the Royal Navy in the 1730s and witnessed experience the wrath of Scurvy.
In 1747, onboard HMS Salisbury, he carried out one of the first controlled clinical trials recorded in medical science. He was testing the effectiveness of lemon juice on patients. This was a considerable advance in medicine and the Royal Navy. Although Lind did not understand the disease either. He thought that Scurvy was due to the body’s putrefaction, which could be helped by acids.
According to Anneta Blacks’ “Scurvy: By the End, Death is a Mercy” in Atlas Obscura, “The British establishment grasped onto the concept of citrus, and then did it really wrong.” They opted for the cheaper limes, which contained half the Vitamin C as lemons. Then the limes were boiled down, further reducing their Vitamin c content. Nevertheless, this inferior cure became mainstream, and thus sailors were often referred to limeys because they consumed limes.
In 1792 the Physician Thomas Trotter also advocated the healing powers of citrus fruit. However, according to Mark Harrison’s “Scurvy on sea and land: political economy and natural history, c. 1780-c. 1850.]” he also did not understand why. He stated fresh vegetables and citrus fruits “were rich in ‘vital air’ (oxygen), which explained why ships well provisioned with such victuals had been able to protect their crews from Scurvy.”
The Franklin Expedition
Even with the advance in citrus fruit, the age of exploration continued to be marred by Scurvy. One of the most mysterious cases was the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition. In 1848 traveling on two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror 129 officers and men either died or disappeared. Two dozen, including the ship’s captain Franklin, had died on the boat before the rest took off for mainland Canada. Even though the crew took precautions of the time to ward off Scurvy, they became grounded in the ice, and their voyage outlasted their rations. Scurvy and other diseases likely compounded starvation and hypothermia.
In Andrew Whalen ‘The Terror’ Expedition: Scurvy, Consumption and the Many Diseases Plaguing Franklin’s Crew.” Lead poisoning may have further played in their dear. He stated that “when the real sailors from the lost Franklin Expedition were exhumed, they were found to have 10 times the normal lead concentration in their bones.”. Both lead poisoning and Scurvy have effects on mental health. The results on this crew are terrifying.
As long sea and land voyages decreased, so did the risk of Scurvy. Coupled with the advance in using citrus fruit as a deterrent, it became rare. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that Scurvy’s cause was recognized as Vitamin C deficiency. According to Mayberry, Vitamin C was not even discovered until the late 1930s and the name “Ascorbic acid actually comes from antiscorbutic power (Scurvy fighter.)”
Controller and Total Compensation Administrator and a full-time history enthusiast. In her free time, she likes to research, write and puzzle.