How Scurvy Was Cured, then the Cure Was Lost

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Yes, this really happened: scurvy was "cured" as early as 1497, when Vasco de Gama's crew discovered the power of citrus...but this cure was repeatedly lost, forgotten, rediscovered, misconstrued, confused, and just generally messed around with for hundreds of years, despite being a leading killer of seafarers and other explorers. By the 1870s the "citrus cure" was discredited, and for nearly sixty years, scurvy -- despite being cured, with scientific research to back it up -- continued killing people, including men on Scott's 1911 expedition to the South Pole. This went on until vitamin C was finally isolated in 1932 during research on guinea pigs. Self-described painter/computer guy Maciej Ceglowski gives us the absurdly fascinating story of scurvy -- a bizarre tale of science gone wrong, and a really good explanation of why you should eat a bit of citrus once in a while. (I would argue from this piece alone that Ceglowski needs to add "science journalist" to his title.)

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be mixed in with sailors' grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long ocean voyages.

But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. [Robert Falcon] Scott left a [South Pole] base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?

... In the second half of the nineteenth century, the cure for scurvy was lost. The story of how this happened is a striking demonstration of the problem of induction, and how progress in one field of study can lead to unintended steps backward in another.

Read the rest for a highly readable, thoroughly researched history of scurvy and its treatment.

See also: our Scurvy T-Shirt ("When Life Gives You Scurvy, Make Lemonade").

(Story via Waxy.org.)

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March 8, 2010 - 8:44am
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