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The Age of Scurvy: When 50% of the crew would die

Illustration by Gustave Doré from a book-length edition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined. Wikimedia Commons

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.

READ: The Press Gang: Forced naval service

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.

Painting of  British Commodore George Anson
British Commodore George Anson

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”

Symptoms

Drawing of a man with callouts showing the various symptoms of scurvy

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.

Hand drawn diagram of bare legs showing the symptoms of scurvy.
The disease was nicknamed “purpura nautica” for the purplish bruises that served as the first indication of the disease. 

Cure

Copy of an old medical paper on scurvy with a drawing of Naval Surgeon James Lind superimposed on the front.
In 1747 Naval Surgeon James Lind discovered that the juice of oranges and lemons was a safeguard against scurvy

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.

READ: What did the crew eat on a 16th-century Tudor warship?

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.

Victorian-era Royal Navy Sailors Sailors line up for their grog ration
Victorian-era Royal Navy Sailors Sailors line up for their grog ration

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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