Stephen R. Bown
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Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail
Bown, StephenLast Updated: Jun-15-2009
- Mathiasen, Helle
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
This study sets forth the mystery of scurvy which devastated the British Navy during the eighteenth century. Among several diseases common on board, including yellow fever, typhus, or typhoid fever, syphilis, tuberculosis, and dysentery, scurvy was the most devastating. Caused by a lack of vitamin C, scurvy’s symptoms appear as swollen and bleeding gums, livid spots on the skin, and prostration. Untreated, the illness results in agonizing death. When Commodore George Anson’s flagship, Centurion, sailed from Plymouth in 1741, rounded Cap Horn and returned to Britain, his ship carried home only two hundred of the two thousand men he set out with. A deadly combination of voyages lasting a year or more, unhealthy conditions on board, including malnutrition, filth, crowding, ignorance about basic facts of biology, as well as inexperienced sailors pressed into crewing on ships managed by violent officers using harsh physical punishment resulted in millions of deaths at sea from the age of Columbus to the nineteenth century, when scurvy remedies were finally found.
Bown credits three men with discovering a solution to the mystery of scurvy: a surgeon, James Lind (1716-1794), sea captain James Cook (1728-1779), and a physician, Gilbert Blane (1749-1843). Lemon juice had been known to prevent and cure scurvy since the 17th century, but 18th century medical men disregarded empirical knowledge in favor of the theory of humours.
James Lind entered the Royal Navy as a surgeon’s mate in 1739 under appalling conditions similar to those described by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random (1748). He initiated a two-week controlled experiment where he separated the afflicted sailors into 6 groups who each received a different diet: cider, vitriol, vinegar, sea water, oranges and lemons, and nutmeg paste. The group receiving the oranges and lemons obtained the best results. Lind published his treatise on scurvy in 1753. However, he was unable to explain the causes of scurvy and why oranges and lemons led to its cure.
James Cook circumnavigated the world 3 times. On his lengthy voyages, he stopped for fresh fruits and antiscorbutics wherever he could, as he noticed these kept the seamen free of scurvy. Cook showed that scurvy was curable, but not why.
During the War of American Independence, Gilbert Blane served as a physician on board several warships in the British Navy. He instituted a diet of fresh fruits and better hygiene on board ship. He published Observations on the Diseases Incident to Seamen, in which he advocated using oranges and lemons to cure scurvy. He advised that lemon juice be mixed into the sailors’ grog.
The British Navy encountered an historic ordeal in 1805 with the Battle of Trafalgar. Admiral Nelson, commander of the British Navy, had nearly died from scurvy in 1780. Now he faced Napoleon Bonaparte and the French fleet. Bown argues that the near- elimination of scurvy on board their ships contributed mightily to the British victory.
A timeline, from 1492 to 1933, concludes the volume. Recommended readings, a bibliography and an index are provided.