People in today’s vitamin-obsessed culture tend to give little thought to scurvy, an acute medical condition caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid. As long as one’s diet supplies a sufficient amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, there will be enough vitamin C to ward off the condition. As Stephen R. Bown explains in his excellent book Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, this complaint was first noted by explorers in the 1500’s.
Mariners on long trips subsisted upon stored rations with little nutritional value. This had a profound influence upon world events. As England became a naval and commercial power in the eighteenth century, it found itself hampered by the effects of scurvy. The seriousness of the malady became evident during Commodore George Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe in the 1740’s. Of the 2,000 men who set sail in his fleet, 1,800 perished—largely due to scurvy. Those who did not die of the ailment were often too weak to be of any use.
What makes Bown’s account so intriguing is the fact that, while an effective treatment was discovered early on by British naval surgeon James Lind, muddled medical theorizing and institutional resistance by the Admiralty delayed its implementation. Fresh citrus juice was both the best preventive and remedy, but it was far more expensive than fermented malt, the Royal Navy’s first choice. Bown contends—with some justification—that the failure to treat scurvy helped ensure Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution: reduced manpower made a blockade of France impossible. When the use of lemon juice became mandatory in 1795, England’s navy was finally healthy enough to contain Napoleon’s warships and thwart his invasion plans. For those who are curious as to how England achieved its naval fame, Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail is required reading.