For centuries, the sea has been a pathway to discovery and exploration. However, long sea voyages also exposed sailors to a silent yet deadly threat – scurvy.

This disease, caused by a lack of vitamin C, had a significant impact on naval history and global exploration.

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Scurvy – An Invisible Threat

In order to understand scurvy’s potent threat, it is crucial to understand its underlying cause – vitamin C deficiency.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, plays a vital role in numerous bodily functions, most notably the production of collagen. Collagen acts like the body’s “glue”, providing structural support for the skin, blood vessels, and connective tissues, including tendons and ligaments.

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Without sufficient vitamin C, collagen synthesis is impaired, leading to the systemic degradation that characterizes scurvy.

What makes scurvy particularly nefarious, especially in the context of maritime voyages, is its latency period and the gradual onset of its symptoms. Following the start of a vitamin C-deficient diet, it typically takes about 60 to 90 days for the initial symptoms to emerge, a period known as the latency period.

This timeframe aligned dangerously well with the duration of many sea voyages during the Age of Discovery, making scurvy an almost inevitable hazard of longer journeys.

The page from a journal showing the effects of Scurvy from timespent on a convict ship.

The initial symptoms of scurvy are relatively mild and non-specific, including fatigue and weakness. This further added to its insidious nature, as these symptoms could easily be dismissed as the result of hard work and tough living conditions aboard the ship.

As the deficiency continues, more alarming symptoms appear: swollen and painful gums, joint pain, shortness of breath, and swollen legs.

Left untreated, the sailor would eventually become incapacitated, and scurvy could lead to severe complications such as jaundice, heart failure, and death.

The Impact on Naval Endeavors

The history of maritime exploration and naval warfare is littered with stories of scurvy’s profound influence.

Its shadow loomed large over the potential success of any naval expedition, with commanders wrestling with the inevitable onset of the disease as their voyages extended into months.

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During the Age of Discovery, as voyages became more ambitious and their durations extended, scurvy began to exert a significant toll on crew health and morale.

Scurvy wasn’t just a medical issue, it was a logistical nightmare.

Ailing sailors couldn’t perform their duties effectively, affecting everything from the ship’s speed to its battle-readiness.

One illustrative example is the expedition of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who set sail for India in 1497.

His fleet of four ships started the journey with a crew of about 170 men. However, over the course of the voyage, scurvy struck the crew with such severity that two-thirds of them perished, many from this disease.

This devastating loss demonstrates the crippling impact scurvy had on early voyages of exploration.

The situation was no better in the 18th century, during the War of Spanish Succession.

The British Royal Navy reportedly lost more men to scurvy than they did to enemy action. It is estimated that between 1740 and 1750, the British fleet lost nearly 50,000 men to this disease alone.

The dread of scurvy became so acute that men would desert their posts or refuse to enlist, fearing the disease more than the enemy’s cannons.

The experience of George Anson’s circumnavigation is another telling tale of scurvy’s devastating impact. Despite being well-stocked and prepared, his fleet was crippled by scurvy.

By the end of the voyage, only one of his six ships had survived, and out of the original 1,900 men, only about 500 returned, with the vast majority of the lost succumbing to disease, especially scurvy.

Unraveling The Cure To Scurvy

The quest to cure scurvy was a saga marked by erroneous theories, anecdotal observations, and incremental scientific progress.

For centuries, the nature of scurvy remained elusive. Suggested causes varied wildly, from tainted water and stale air to the ill effects of idleness or the wrath of divine powers.

Though there were inklings of the truth as early as the 16th century, when explorers noted the beneficial effects of fresh citrus, understanding the cause and cure for scurvy was a long and complex journey.

The significant leap forward came in 1747, in the form of a relatively simple experiment by Scottish naval surgeon James Lind aboard HMS Salisbury.

In his experiment, considered a rudimentary form of a controlled clinical trial, Lind divided twelve sailors suffering from scurvy into six pairs.

He then added different dietary supplements to their regular rations: cider, sulfuric acid, vinegar, seawater, a spicy paste with barley water, or two oranges and a lemon.

The results were striking.

The sailors who consumed the citrus fruits showed dramatic improvement compared to the others. Lind reported that the sailors who ate the oranges and lemons were “the most sudden and good” of all the different groups.

Within a week, one was fit for duty, and the other was visibly better. This experiment, while limited in scale, pointed to citrus fruits as an effective treatment for scurvy.

Lind published his findings in 1753 in his book “A Treatise on the Scurvy,” arguing that citrus fruits should be included in the diet of sailors.

James Lind, A Treatise on the Scurvy, 1757. Image by Wellcome Images CC BY-SA 4.0

However, despite this groundbreaking discovery, the adoption of citrus as a preventative measure against scurvy was not immediate.

A number of reasons contributed to this, including skepticism about Lind’s findings, the difficulty of storing fresh fruit on long voyages, and the lack of a centralized naval medical authority.

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Eventually, in 1795, the British Navy, under the guidance of physician Gilbert Blane, began to provide lemon juice to sailors on long voyages, leading to a substantial decline in the incidence of scurvy.

This was a pivotal moment in maritime history, changing the course of naval health, and transforming the scope and scale of global exploration.

From ‘Limeys’ to Explorers

With a practical solution to scurvy, naval power and global exploration took on new dimensions.

The British sailors, who became known as ‘limeys’ for their lime juice ration, could now embark on longer voyages, contributing to the expansion of the British Empire.

In the context of exploration, the resolution of the scurvy problem enabled endeavors such as Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, which revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.

The battle against scurvy also spurred developments in medical science. Lind’s experiment can be seen as a pioneering event in the development of the modern clinical trial, and the discovery of the cure for scurvy was a significant milestone in the emerging field of nutritional science.