PortandTerminal.com, January 31, 2020
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – You don’t hear much about scurvy these days. Often mentioned in maritime history books, the disease is thankfully not something that most sailors need to worry about any longer.
Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C and takes approximately six weeks to set in. When trips by the sea were relatively short in duration scurvy wasn’t a problem. But in the Age of Sail when long voyages of conquest and discovery became common, scurvy became a serious problem.
So much so, that up until the 18th-century sailors dreaded scurvy more than any other disease. They had good reason to be afraid. Scurvy was so common in its day that shipowners and governments assumed a 50% death rate from scurvy for their sailors on any major voyage. In some cases, the death toll from scurvy was even higher.
In 1740 British Commodore George Anson led a squadron of eight Royal Navy ships and a total complement of 1,955 men on a mission to South America. He returned three years and nine months later with just one ship and 145 members of the original crew. Scurvy had killed nearly 1,300 of his men.
It is estimated that scurvy killed more than two million sailors between the time of Columbus’s transatlantic voyage and the rise of steam engines in the mid-19th century.
Author and historian Stephen Bown writes that “scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat and all other diseases combined.” In fact, scurvy was so devastating that the search for a cure became what Bown describes as “a vital factor determining the destiny of nations.”
Scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat and all other diseases combined.Stephen Bown, Historian and author of “Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail”
Scurvy exacted a particularly gruesome death on its victims. The earliest symptom—lethargy so intense that people once believed laziness was a cause of the disease—is debilitating. Your body feels weak. Your joints ache. Your arms and legs swell, and your skin bruises at the slightest touch. As the disease progresses, your gums become spongy and your breath fetid, your teeth loosen, and internal hemorrhaging makes splotches on your skin. Old wounds open; mucous membranes bleed. Left untreated, you will die, likely from a sudden hemorrhage near your heart or brain.
One naval surgeon, James Lind, the father of nautical medicine was so shocked by the losses to scurvy during Commodore Anson’s ill-fated mission to South America that he set out to find a cure.
In 1747, Lind carried out the first controlled dietary experiment in history, and discovered that the juice of oranges and lemons was a safeguard against the disease.
It wasn’t until 1795 though and only at the insistence of Sir Gilbert Blane, one of Lind’s followers, that issuing sailors with lemon juice became officially adopted in the Royal Navy. Scurvy was virtually eliminated at sea thanks to Lind’s discovery and Blane’s forceful persistence.
Although scurvy had been eradicated, it reappeared on the polar expeditions of the 19th century, when for reasons of economy, lemons were replaced by the cheaper limes. Limes have only half the antiscorbutic value of lemons.
One legacy of the decision to use limes is the nickname “limey” given to British sailors by Americans. The term is thought to have originated in the 1850s as lime-juicer, later shortened to “limey”, and originally used as a derogatory word for sailors in the British Royal Navy. Since the beginning of the 19th century it had been the practice of the Royal Navy to add lime juice to the sailors’ daily ration of grog (watered-down rum).
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