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Issue 42: When Scurvy Was The Scourge of the Seas

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is one of the water-soluble vitamins and its molecular structure was first determined in 1933 after a laboratory synthesis was perfected. (Note: Vitamin C also goes by the names antiscorbutic vitamin, ascorbate, ascorbic acid (AA), ascorbyl palmitate, calcium ascorbate, cevitamic acid, iso-ascorbic acid, and l-ascorb.)

One of the most important and readily available antioxidants in the diet, vitamin C is necessary for the body in order to form collagen in bones, cartilage, muscle and blood vessels. Vitamin C, which also aids in the absorption and metabolism of iron and copper, can be found in many fruits and vegetables—especially citrus fruits such as oranges.

A severe deficiency of vitamin C causes scurvy—and although it is rare nowadays, scurvy overtook many unsuspecting lives in the past, manifesting itself with severe physical consequences and often resulting in sudden death. And a horrible way to go, it was—progressing in four stages:

In the first stage, beginning after 60-90 days of a vitamin C deficient diet, a person would feel muscle and joint aches as well as sudden fatigue. During the second stage, a person’s gums would swell and bleed and the teeth would loosen at the roots; this was accompanied by worsened joint and muscle pain. In the third stage, gums would begin to rot, bleed profusely, and become gangrenous. The skin ulcerated and become gangrenous, and excruciating pain swept through joint, muscles, and bones.

The fourth stage ushered in high fevers, black spots on the skin, tremors and fainting, and then death—usually caused by brain and heart hemorrhages. (To give you an idea of the powerful effects of vitamin C, even in stage four of scurvy, high levels of dietary vitamin C can reverse the ravages of scurvy and restore the person’s health.)

These were sad endings to vibrant lives, but what may have been just as sad is that loss of life could possibly have been prevented had history been consulted. Did you know that Egyptian papyrus dated to 1500 B.C. gave the first account of scurvy and also indicated that scurvy be met with onions—a common form of vitamin C? Ancient Greece also records incidents of scurvy as did Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine.

Here are other accounts that went unnoticed:

In 1553, Cartier made a second voyage to Newfoundland and 100 of his 103-man crew developed scurvy. The Iroquois Indians of Quebec, however, offered them infusions of bark and leaves of the pine tree and the sailors recovered.

In 1553 as well, Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins observed that during his career, ten thousand men under his command had died of scurvy—and recorded that sour oranges and lemons had worked the best to address scurvy. The admiral’s observations and recommendations, however, were unheeded.

It wasn’t until the publication of a book in 1753 by James Lind, a British naval surgeon, that stated explicitly that scurvy could be eliminated by giving sailors lemon juice that there was any headway made. What is astounding, however, is that Dr. Lind was ridiculed for his contribution—and his advice was largely ignored for another 40 years. (There was one sea captain who took Lind’s advice—Captain James Cook—and stocked his ships with supplies of citrus fruits to avoid scurvy. It worked.)

And while Cook was honored for his scurvy-free ship success, it wasn’t until 1794 (the year of Lind’s death) that ships were then supplied with lemon juice and led to scurvy-free trips. This was the beginning of when scurvy disappeared from the British Navy.

Wow. What humble beginnings for such a remarkable vitamin.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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