Academic journal article The Historian

Scurvy's Conquest and Sailors' Health

Academic journal article The Historian

Scurvy's Conquest and Sailors' Health

Article excerpt

The quincentenary of Columbus' arrival in the New World rekindled interest in the problems seamen faced during the voyages of discovery. Historical studies of early Phoenician travels throughout the Mediterranean have been followed by those of Viking and Irish transatlantic voyages to North America and of Columbus to the Caribbean. As ships increased in size and navigational skills improved, circumnavigations, beginning with the Portuguese navigator Magellan in 1519, continued with the explorers Drake, Dampier, Anson, Byron, and Wallis.

Early circumnavigational explorations were limited by the poor health of the ships' crews. Later expeditions were more successful due in part to the control of such sea diseases as scurvy. The control of scurvy, allowing for more prolonged maritime explorations, was related to the preventive health measures of Captain James Cook during his three circumnavigations from 1768 to 1780. This essay is based on Cook's written accounts that document his addition to the sailors' diets of the local fresh greens, which provided the antiscorbutic vitamin, ascorbic acid.

In order to establish that the indigenous greens of Cook's anchorages provided the necessary vitamin C, the author and his wife visited Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand to review the original ship's logs, journals, and correspondence of Cook that are available at libraries there. This material enabled them to identify those indigenous plant species used by Cook, to locate them in the local herbaria, botanical gardens and foreshores, to collect representative examples, and to have them analyzed for vitamin C content. A considerable list of species was identified. Select examples were analyzed in Sydney, Australia, and in Kansas City, Kansas. The results indicated antiscorbutic concentrations of ascorbic acid in several species commonly used by Cook. (Table I)

Peterson, the author's colleague, suggested that the U.S. Army had planted watercress in many of the springs along the Santa Fe trail in Kansas, which prevented scurvy among troops and pioneers crossing the central plains during the westward migrations of the nineteenth century. Watercress still grows in many of these springs and in southern Missouri where specimens of watercress were collected from several of these sites. Vitamin C was found to be present in the cresses in relatively high concentrations. (Table III)

Thus, the author could demonstrate that it is likely that plant species collected by Cook contained antiscorbutic quantities of vitamin C. The author concluded the consumption of such greens freed the sailors from scurvy on Cook's voyages.

Despite the benefits of opening new vistas, the sailing conditions of pre-eighteenth century voyages were abominable. A sailor's diet consisted of salted fish and meat, dried vegetables, weeviled biscuits and rancid oils, cheese, and butter. Such distilled beverages as beer, wine, and rum were abundant. While the alcohol temporarily eased the sailors' burdens, the resulting dehydration and addiction resulted in numerous accidents and poor health. The caloric content - estimated at 2,500-3,000 calories - was adequate, but the diet was sorely deficient in vitamins. In the absence of vitamin C, rampant scurvy became responsible for thousands of sailors' deaths and disabilities. On long voyages, nearly three-quarters of a ship's crew was likely to be unable to sail because of this deficiency.(1)

A young Scottish surgeon, James Lind, determined that scurvy could be cured and prevented by the administration of orange and lemon juices. In 1742, in what has been called the first controlled clinical trial, Lind cured two sailors of scurvy with oranges and lemons, while other reputed antiscorbutics failed to cure his other patients. However, for another fifty years the Royal Navy gave no serious consideration to the use of fresh citrus for combating scurvy.(2)

Science in the eighteenth century had only reached the humoral epoch, where most diseases were believed to be caused by an imbalance of body humors and the presence of foul air. …

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