James Lind: The Scourge of Scurvy

Scurvy was at one time a serious problem for sailors who spent a long time at sea. Scurvy, which means “scaly skin,” causes weight loss, fatigue, bleeding gums, and tooth loss. The underlying problem is a weakening of the connective fibers that hold the body together.

During the 1700s, the British empire spread worldwide and required a massive navy for commercial and military reasons. Scurvy was wearing down the strength of the empire.

Naval Doctor

The answer for scurvy was found by James Lind (1716-1794), a Scottish physician. He began his career as a surgeon in the British navy and was surprised by the amount of suffering that scurvy was causing in the navy. As Lind started to examine this problem, he began to see the context.

During this time, voyages on ships for sailors could last more than a year. Storing food was always a problem for such long trips. Most food was dried and or preserved with salt. There was almost no access to fruits and vegetables. Lind began to suspect that the lack of fruit and vegetables was a contributing factor in scurvy.

To confirm his suspicion, Lind conducted an experiment. He created several different groups of sailors suffering from scurvy, and he gave each group a different diet. He found that the group of men who were given oranges or lemons could recover and return to work. This indicated that there was a relationship between scurvy and citrus fruits.

The Test

The famous explorer James Cook heard of Lind’s work. Cook wanted to explore the Pacific Ocean. The problem was such a trip would take over four years. This meant that the risk of scurvy would be high for him and his crew. Cook as Lind what he could do, and Lind recommended taking citrus fruits and stopping at ports whenever possible to purchase fresh food. With this advice, Cook made his trip and outline several countries along with parts of Antarctica.

Despite the success of citrus fruit in addressing scurvy, British navy leaders and other medical professionals were not supportive of Lind’s findings. It was mainly a matter of pride as the navy thought it provided the best food possible for their sailors. It would take ten years for them to implement the changes proposed by Lind regarding the use of citrus fruit.

Medical professionals were also doubtful of Lind’s recommendations. This was during a time when there were still question about the connection between diet and disease. This skepticism continued for much longer than the doubts of the navy.

Conclusion

Lind had found the answer for scurvy, but he did not know why citrus fruit helped to prevent or cure this disease. The reason why eating citrus fruits found this works about 100 years later. It was found that the body needs vitamin C. Scurvy was a sign that someone was a deficiency in vitamin C. When food is preserved through drying, salting, it destroys vitamin C. It is important to remember that sometimes the answer doesn’t necessarily have to be understood at the time that it is used.

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