Vitamin C and Scurvy

Scurvy, a fatal vitamin C deficiency that ravaged the British navy in the eighteenth century, caused extensive suffering and death for sailors at sea. But one valuable thing did come out of the epidemic: the world’s first controlled clinical trial.

Military hygiene in the 1700s was deplorable; the Scottish naval surgeon James Lind once noted that for centuries, armies had lost “more of their men by sickness than by sword”. Even as Britain neared the pinnacle of its navel power, its expeditions sometimes lost more than half their crews to disease.

A grisly and painful disease, scurvy causes huge black-and-blue marks and reddish spots on the body, bleeding gums, loss of teeth, and, eventually, heart failure and death. Unsanitary conditions onboard ships contributed to the high death rate at sea.

Lind suspected that the illness arose from the military’s diet, which consisted of only nonperishable items and insufficient fresh fruits and vegetables. To prove his hypothesis, he devised one of the first controlled clinical trials in history.

In his seminal Treatise on the Scurvy, published in 1754, Lind summarized the experiment. He selected 12 sailors with scurvy, divided them into six groups, and fed each group a different diet. The two sailors who received oranges and lemons speedily recovered; the rest did not. Lind concluded that the citrus fruits cured scurvy, but it was later discovered that it was the vitamin C contained in these fruits that treated the illness.

General hygiene on ships gradually improved in the late eighteenth century, allowing the British to expand their empire unimpeded by scurvy. By the 1790s, all British naval ships were required to carry citrus fruits. Limes were often used in place of oranges and lemons – and British sailors subsequently became known as Limeys.

Additional Facts

• Ascorbic acid, the chemical form of vitamin C, was discovered by Hungarian researcher in 1928 – an achievement among many for which he garnered the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937.

• Ascorbic acid supplements are widely used across the world. They have been lauded (although not definitively proven) as a cure for and deterrent to the common cold, an antiaging remedy, and a preventive against cancer and heart disease.

• Most other mammals produce their own vitamin C, making them immune from scurvy. Guinea pigs, some types of bats, and our fellow primates are the only other animals that lack the enzymes needed to produce vitamin C.

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