Scurvy, Citrus Fruits and the Expansion of the British Empire
Scurvy, Citrus Fruits and the Expansion of the British Empire - Scurvy is a disease that has plagued humanity for at least 5,000 years, as the first recorded case of scurvy occurred in ancient Egypt between 3800 and 3600 BC. This disease was at its most deadly during the Age of Discovery, as this was a period of time when European empires expanded their territory to mysterious lands across unknown oceans, beginning with the expansion of Portuguese power in the 15th century. Scurvy became such an issue during this time that shipowners expected that 50% of any ship crew would die from scurvy on any long voyage.
For millennia, scurvy was a highly enigmatic disease, with various theories circulated about what caused and what cured this pernicious horror. In 1747, the Scottish physician, James Lind, undertook one of the first controlled clinical trials in human history, onboard the Royal Navy ship, HMS Salisbury. The experiment consisted of Lind taking 12 sailors who were suffering similar degrees of scurvy, dividing them into six groups of two. After just one week, the group that was taking two oranges and a lemon each day were helping Lind take care of the ill sailors in the five other groups.
More than four decades past between Lind’s experiment and the Navy taking action. In 1795, the British Navy made it official policy for sailors to be issued lemon juice, with the Scottish physician, Gilbert Blane, playing an important role in convincing the Navy’s hierarchy to introduce this measure. Importantly, simply adding citrus juice into the diet of British sailors had a profound impact on the power of the British Empire, an Empire which relied heavily on control over the seas.
Yet, despite some victories against scurvy in the 19th century, it was not as effective as it could have been, as the Navy did not properly understand the mechanism by which citrus fruits prevented scurvy. Today, we now know that scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency. This is because without vitamin C, humans can’t produce collagen, a critical protein found in skin, bones, blood vessels, cartilage and other connective tissue. It is interesting to note that humans are one of only a few mammals – including guinea pigs - who can’t produce vitamin C in their own bodies. As this story illustrates, the war against scurvy was a long and painful one. What is most shocking of all however, is the fact that 250 years on from Lind’s revolutionary experiment, people who consume fast food diets are still being admitted to hospital with scurvy.
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BBC News (Jan. 2016) Is scurvy making a comeback? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35380716
Harrison M. (2013). Scurvy on sea and land: political economy and natural history, c. 1780-c. 1850. Journal for maritime research, 15(1), 7–25 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4337985/
Killgrove, K. (Jan. 2016) Earliest Case Of Scurvy In Ancient Egypt Detected By Archaeologists, Forbes - https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/01/21/earliest-case-of-scurvy-in-ancient-egypt-detected-by-archaeologists/
LLOYD, C. (1961). THE INTRODUCTION OF LEMON JUICE AS A CURE FOR SCURVY. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 35(2), 123-132.
National Geographic, (Oct. 2005) - The World in a Glass: Six Drinks That Changed History - https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/10/the-world-in-a-glass-six-drinks-that-changed-history/
Price, C. 14 (Aug. 2017) Science History Institute - The Age of Scurvy - https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-age-of-scurvy
White, M. (4 Oct. 2016) James Lind: The man who helped to cure scurvy with lemons, BBC News - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37320399
Creative Commons Imagery (all the rest from https://pixabay.com/ ):
Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa - The National Archives UK @ Flickr Commons http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/legal/copyright/#flickr https://www.flickr.com/people/[email protected]
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