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Scurvy

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Scurvy is the common name for severe vitamin C deficiency. This leaves the body unable to maintain enough of the protein collagen needed to maintain the health of connective tissue, bones and dentin within teeth.

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With the loss of collagen, victims of scurvy suffer general weakness, joint pain, anemia, gum disease (gingivitis) and skin hemorrhages.

The literature of voyaging abounds with detailed and terrifying descriptions of scurvy such as that penned by William Clowes, in his Profitable and Necessary Book of Observations. (1596).

In the eighteenth century, scurvy was understood in terms of the theories of the bodily economy propounded by Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738). In line with Boerhaave's mechanical model of the body, scurvy was seen as being due to blood serum being too thin and acrid - this state being caused by damp and cold climate and foul vapours.

In the eighteenth century, the term scurvy was often used to describe other nutritional deficiencies, such as beri-beri, in which patients manifested similar symptoms. The imprecision in diagnosis was observed by eighteenth-century surgeon and medical theorist, James Lind.

Traditionally, Europeans had cultivated plants of the Cruciferea or Brassicaceae (mustards). Three plants were especially as anti-scorbutics:
Cochlearia officinalis - scurvy grass or spoonwort
Veronica beccabunga - Brooklime
Nasturium officinale - Watercress.

Voyagers looked for these plants or others like them. Magellan, for example, used a species of wild celery to treat scurvy in Tierra del Fuego.

Voyaging also led to the discovery of anti-scorbutics in other medical traditions. The crew of the expedition led by Jacques Cartier, for example, became ice bound in the St Lawrence in 1535. The crew subsequently developed scurvy. Cartier noted that Domagaia, a local Indian, also manifested symptoms of the disease but cured himself by a drink made of fermented shoots, branches and bark of evergreen trees. However, boiled too long the infusion would have destroyed a good deal of the vitamin C.

Cook was doubtless also aware of the Bering expedition of 1741 where the men had survived through winter after being shipwrecked on one of the Aleutian Islands through eating cranberries as well as spoonwort, various cresses and other green herbs.

Cook also brewed a spruce beer while in Tierra del Fuego, and also in Dusky Bay New Zealand.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch East India company were carrying citrus juice, secured from their Cape of Good Hope settlement.

This was tried by James lancaster in 1601, who prevented scurvy in voyaging from India by using lemons and oranges obtained in Madagascar. John Woodall, first Surgeon-General of the British east India Company, published his text on naval medicine in 1617, the Surgeon's Mate. Here, he argued for citrus to be included in the diet of men on long seas voyages.

However, citrus was hard for the Royal navy to come by. The bulk of citrus was grown in Spain or parts of the mediterranean unders Spanish control or influence. England was on bad terms, when not actually at war, with Spain. When it could be procured, the juice was boiled into a concentrate and preserved using sugar. The boiling and subsequent storage robbed the juice of much of its vitamin C. The Royal Navy also believed that Limes could be used instead of lemon and orange, and encouraged the plantation of Limes in the west Indian colonies. What they didn't appreciate however was that the Lime has about half the vitamin C content of oranges and lemons.

 
Related Entries for Scurvy
Cultural Artefacts: Malt Wort | Sauerkraut | Portable Soup
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Prepared by: Turnbull, P
Created: 4 October 2001
Modified: 21 April 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000010

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