The most fascinating article on Scurvy that you will read this week.

Scott and Scurvy

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. Scott left a 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.

An unfortunate series of accidents conspired with advances in technology to discredit the cure for scurvy. What had been a simple dietary deficiency became a subtle and unpredictable disease that could strike without warning. Over the course of fifty years, scurvy would return to torment not just Polar explorers, but thousands of infants born into wealthy European and American homes. And it would only be through blind luck that the actual cause of scurvy would be rediscovered, and vitamin C finally isolated, in 1932.

Tags: ,

19 Responses:

  1. caprinus says:

    It makes you wonder how many incurable ailments of the modern world - depression, autism, hypertension, obesity - will turn out to have equally simple solutions, once we are able to see them in the correct light.

    Well, fuck me with a fork, I'm incurable!

  2. Thanks, I really enjoyed that article.

  3. ultranurd says:

    I loved the footnote: "tl;dr: scurvy bad, science hard."

  4. wikkit42 says:

    Big Dead Place on Scurvy:

    In the book, he blames bureaucracy for re-introducing scurvy.

  5. Omega 6 / omega 3 fatty acid ratios and amounts.

    We eat 10:1, historical norms are 3:1 to 1:3.

    There is a good case to be made that this makes us crazy.

    Also, grain/fructose cause the diseases of civilization.

    • luserspaz says:

      I would not be shocked to find that the modern diet with its reliance on processed foods is primarily to blame for a large percentage of our modern ailments. We've taken a very reductionist view on food, that vitamins and nutrients are the only things that matter. Except every few years we find a new nutrient, and *that's* what we were missing! Oh, antioxidants! Omega-3 fatty acids! Oh, trans-fats are causing all our problems! Perhaps eventually we'll learn that we don't have all the answers and should just eat food as our ancestors did. (Doesn't seem likely anytime soon.)

      • leolo says:

        Put another way : "Eat food. Not to much. Mostly plants."

        • luserspaz says:

          It's true, "The Omnivore's Dillemma" has shaped my thinking, and I have acquired (but not yet read) "In Defense of Food".

          • The Paleo Diet is also a good one to read to back that up with numbers (you just have to avoid all the annoying "Our stone-age ancestors" crap -- when you get to the actual nutritional science, it's very interesting, and most just reinforces the "processed food bad, here's why" with data).

      • cattycritic says:

        I have these Rules: if the ingredients list is a mile long, or if there are more than one or two ingredients which don't have common English names, I don't buy it.

      • Every few years _marketing_ people try to sell idiots a new nutrient. The idea that the people selling you food with a huge mark up must be good guys this time because they wrote "natural" in a horrible typeface on their sign is laughable.

        Someone already replied with what science spent much of the 20th century telling people. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That's it. Add lots of antioxidants to your diet? Your risks for some diseases go down, and for others up. Brilliant. Why? You ask why? We don't know why, that's the reason for the advice being so vague - there is no magic bullet, neither from industrial food manufacturing nor from people growing stuff in their backyards.

        The general thrust that our ancestors knew better is bullshit. Our ancestors decided to start smoking tobacco, where was their folksy wisdom then? The US wasn't a nation of bloated whales a hundred years ago because most of its people were too poor to buy that much food, not because they were too smart to overeat.

  6. ammonoid says:

    That was very interesting. I guess nowdays we know that there are diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies, but if you had no idea of course you would think that scurvy was contagious or caused by bad food or whatever.

    It was also very lucky that that guy decided to experiment with guinea pigs, and not some other animal that can synthesize vitamin C.

  7. cnoocy says:

    Scurvy still shows up every so often in college students and others with vitamin C-deficient eating habits. I know of one woman who contracted it as a result of a diet of ramen and bourbon.

  8. owyn says:

    That's one of the blogs I've been following for a while. He posts infrequently, but they are always entertaining!