16 June 2013

A cure for scurvy

Over time people noticed that sailors with scurvy tended to recover when they got to a port and received fresh foods, but nobody could agree what it was about those foods that helped them. Some thought it wasn't the foods at all, but just a change of air. In any case, it wasn't possible to keep foods fresh for weeks on long voyages, so simply identifying efficacious vegetables and the like was slightly pointless. What was needed was some kind of distilled essence - an antiscorbutic, as the medical men termed it - that would be effective against scurvy but portable too.

In the 1760s, a Scottish doctor named William Stark, evidently encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, conducted a series of patently foolhardy experiments in which he tried to identify the active agent by, somewhat bizarrely, depriving himself of it. For weeks he lived on only the most basic of foods - bread and water chiefly - to see what would happen. What happened was that in just over six months he killed himself, from scurvy, without coming to any helpful conclusions at all. In roughly the same period, James Lind, a naval surgeon, conducted a more scientifically rigorous (and personally less risky) experiment by finding twelve sailors who had scurvy already, dividing them into pairs, and giving each pair a different putative elixir - vinegar to one, garlic and mustard to another, oranges and lemons to a third, and so on. Five of the groups showed no improvement, but the pair given oranges and lemons made a swift and total recovery. Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.

It fell to the great Captain James Cook to get matters on to the right course. On his circumnavigation of the globe in 1768-71, Captain Cook packed a range of antiscorbutics to experiment on, including thirty gallons of carrot marmalade and a hundred pounds of sauerkraut for every crew member. Not one person died from scurvy on his voyage [...]

The British navy itself was not so quick, alas. In the face of all the evidence, it prevaricated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine. (The Naval Board used lime juice rather than lemon juice because it was cheaper, which is why British sailors became known as limeys. Lime juice wasn't nearly as effective as lemon juice).

- Bill Bryson, At Home: A short history of private life, London, 2010, p.179-181.

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