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Scurvy History

Scurvy History

The history of scurvy dates back to times when sailors used to go on long voyages without proper nutrition. Read on to know more about this disease...
Rajib Singha
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. This disorder was common among sailors, who used to go off to sea with no proper nutrition. The treacherous, stark conditions on ships facilitated the emergence of this disease. It set in even in people involved in long territorial campaigns, where they did not receive enough ration to provide them with an adequate amount of vitamin C. This was devastating for armies and navies, since up to 50% men suffered from this crippling disease. When this disease started spreading in civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, no one suspected that this deadly ailment was being caused due to a mere deficiency of the nutrient now known as vitamin C.


Scurvy remained incurable until the arrival of the French explorer, Jacques Cartier, in Newfoundland in 1536. His men were dying from this mysterious disease, and he was advised by the natives to treat his men with potions made from spruce tree needles. Surprisingly, this humble potion was able to cure most of his crew. Spruce tree needles served as an excellent source of vitamin C, though Cartier didn't know anything about that. Until the 19th century, there was no specific information that could link scurvy to nutritional deficiencies. British naval commander James Lind pioneered a program for making citrus foods available in all sea voyages. He also composed a book which described miracle cures encountered with the use of lemon juice. However, he was ignored for his advice, which seemed loaded with speculations.

Sixty two years later, when Captain Cook was successful in keeping his sailors safe from scurvy for three successive voyages with the help of lime juice, the British Navy decided to adopt the program presented by Lind. It was in the early 1900s that people began to do extensive research on the benefits of vitamin C. Captain Cook was honored with the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for this success and influence in popularizing the cure for this rampant disease.


Symptoms of this disease include loss of appetite, slow weight gain, fever, tenderness, discomfort in legs, diarrhea, and rapid breathing. As the condition worsens, more symptoms, including bleeding and spongy gums, formation of spots on skin (especially on thighs and legs), loosened teeth, pale appearance, depression, and partial immobilization, are seen. Other symptoms are that wounds and cuts may take a longer time to heal, hair and skin may become dry, halted growth, hyperkeratosis (a skin disorder), and an autoimmune disease known as sicca syndrome.

Treatment involves replenishing vitamin C in the patient orally. Injections are also administered now. Although orange or lemon juice is considered to be an effective remedy, vitamin supplements are known to be more beneficial.

Scurvy does not affect most animals, as they can synthesize their own vitamin C, unlike humans and other primates. This is because we lack the enzyme required to carry out this process. This is why vitamin C must be obtained through external sources. Add lots of fruits to the diet, such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, strawberries, and black currants. Also, boost your vitamin C level with vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, spinach, potatoes, paprika, broccoli, and cabbage. Liver and oysters are also excellent sources of vitamin C.