Scurvy Me Timbers

By Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Deputy Director

It’s that time of year again where we enter into the heart of winter. While many of us now wrap ourselves in warm blankets, eat soup with healthy vegetables, and grab any fruit imaginable off the grocery store shelf, sailors in the past were not always so lucky.

Historically one of the biggest threats to sailors, due to the lack of food preservation and refrigeration, was malnutrition – specifically scurvy. Scurvy is a disease caused by the body’s lack of vitamin C. While this shortage seems inconsequential, between the age of Columbus and the invention of steam engines, scurvy killed more than 2 million sailors. By the mid-1700s, scurvy was so prominent that a 50% death rate for any long ocean voyage was assumed. Scurvy was responsible for more deaths than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined.[1]

Details of scurvy symptoms on the leg from the diary of Henry Walsh Mahon. Courtesy of the National Archives U.K.

In its early stages, scurvy is hard to spot. Initial symptoms include ailments that might plague any sailor on the seas such as loss of appetite and weight, fatigue, irritability, and lethargy. If unnoticed and left untreated, the disease progresses to anemia, bone pain, swelling, blood blisters, corkscrew hairs, gum disease and loss of teeth, open wounds, shortness of breath, and depression. Eventually scurvy produces swelling, severe jaundice, destruction of red blood cells, sudden and spontaneous bleeding, neuropathy (weakness and numbing especially in hands and feet), fever, and convulsions.[2] Scurvy would eventually lead to the total breakdown of the body, blackening of the gums, the re-breaking of old bones, lack of collagen production, and disappearance of cartilage (especially around the torso), cardiovascular damage, seizures or aneurysms.[3] While sailors knew of the disease, and for obvious reasons hoped they never succumbed, little was known about its cause and prevention.

Details of scurvy symptoms.

One of the earliest documented cases of scurvy was the 1497 crew of Vasco da Gama during their voyage from Portugal to India. Da Gama noted how when his crew ate oranges given to them by African traders, their symptoms disappeared. Yet once they returned to sea, his crew again succumbed to scurvy. Armed with the previous knowledge of the fruit’s powers, sailors began searching for oranges at the first sight of land. While their search helped some sailors, by the time da Gama returned home over half his crew was lost.[4] Unfortunately, da Gama’s experience with scurvy and the subsequent treatment with citrus fruits went unnoticed. It was not until the 1753 publication of English physician Dr. James Lind’s A Treatise on the Scurvy in Three Parts that treatment for scurvy was clinically tested and documented. Even then, it took an additional forty-two years for it to be applied. In 1795, a year after Dr. Lind’s death, the English Navy finally made lemon juice mandatory on ships.

Over in the United States in the early 1800s, Navy Surgeon William P.C. Barton, experimented with different treatments of fruits, specifically lemons, on several ships and in 1814 he published his findings.[5] Like his predecessors, Barton made similar discoveries about the power of citrus fruits and likewise, his advice was not taken seriously by the U.S. Navy. Scurvy continued to pop up in the fleet throughout the next century.[6] These outbreaks lasted until 1933 when Albert Szent-Györgyi and Charles G. King identified antiscorbutic, or vitamin C, in fruits. Soon after chemists Norman Haworth and Tadeus Reichstein were able to successfully manufacture vitamin C, almost eradicating scurvy altogether[7].

Title page of Dr. James Lind’s book A Treatise on the Scurvy in Three Parts.

Without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, sailors were easily affected by scurvy. Thankfully, today’s technology allows for plenty of vitamin-rich foods and supplements to be readily available to sailors, and scurvy is no longer the problem it once was. Always remember “an orange a day keeps the scurvy away!”

For information about the National Museum of the American Sailor visit our website and our Facebook page.

Cover Image: Representation of Dr. James Lind treating a sailor with scurvy by giving him a lemon. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine/Pfizer

Work Cited:

[1] Price, Catherine. “The Age of Scurvy.” Distillations. Summer 2017. Accessed December 29, 2018.

[2] Crosta, Peter. “Everything You Need to Know About Scurvy.” Medical News Today. December 5, 2017. Accessed December 29, 2018.

[3] Worrall, Simon. “A Nightmare Disease Haunted Ships During Age of Discovery.” Book Talk. January 15, 2017. Accessed December 29, 2018.

[4] Rajakumar, Kumaravel. “Infantile Scurvy: A Historical Perspective.” Pediatrics108, no. 4 (October 4, 2001). October 1, 2001. Accessed December 29, 2018.

[5] Barton, WPC. A Treatise Containing a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the Navy. Printed by Author, 1814

[6] Roberts, L.J. “Scurvy: A Report of Case.” United States Naval Bulletin, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 1927.

[7] “Scurvy.” Accessed January 04, 2019.

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