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How Did The Old Navies Fight Scurvy?


In the old days, Scurvy was a major killer in navies worldwide. This deadly disease is caused by Vitamin C deficiency and manifests in lethargy, gum disease, and death. The 18th-century British Navy turned to two simple solutions to tackle this pressing issue. They introduced citrus fruits into sailors' rum ration or added vitamin C powder to their food. 

Even though times have changed and our knowledge of nutrition has grown significantly since then, Vitamin C remains an essential nutrient for our overall well-being that we need to receive through dietary sources. Therefore, if you're curious about how the old navies managed Scurvy, read on!

The Early Understanding Of Scurvy

It was 1803 when the ship surgeon aboard US New York reported that Scurvy was becoming increasingly prevalent. Lack of Vitamin C has severe and horrifying effects; Surgeon Usher Parsons noted that gums become soft, livid, and swollen, often bleeding from even minor contact. Additionally, swollen legs might exhibit black blisters that spread over other skin areas and secrete foul-smelling matter. 

All in all, these signs may lead to emaciation and even death without proper medical supervision.

Early Understanding Of Scurvy

British 'Limeys' and the Cure for Scurvy

In the 18th century, medicine lacked the knowledge to tackle Scurvy. Not understanding vitamins, medical practitioners were following theories outlined by Hippocrates 2000 years earlier of balancing the four senses of humor. But one scientist looked more deeply and helped to uncover dietary solutions for the disease. 

James Lind, a Royal Navy Surgeon, set out to find a cure for Scurvy, starting with researching existing information. He found several clues pointing toward diet from sailors who said green vegetation could prevent it, as well as John Woodall's descriptions of curing patients with citrus fruits like lemons. 

Additionally, Anson's men cured themselves when they landed in Juan Fernandez, where they consumed "scurvy grass", and Native Americans used pine needles in their teas during winter when food supplies were scarce. 

Lind contributed greatly to the understanding of this deadly illness through his research.

In 1747, Lind implemented the first randomized clinical trial with 12 men on board the Royal Navy ship Salisbury. The goal of this experiment was to find a cure for Scurvy. While various remedies were suggested—ranging from reputable scientific methods to those proposed by dangerous crackpots—the Navy Board pushed for the consumption of seawater as a cost-effective solution. As such, Lindsey sought to research and evaluate various treatments using a controlled environment objectively.

The participants were split into pairs, each assigned dietary treatment (e.g., cider, elixir vitriol, vinegar, seawater). After two months at sea and examining objective data, it was determined that only those given citrus fruits had made speedy progress in recovery. This groundbreaking approach proved that simple changes in food could dramatically improve health outcomes - thus marking an important milestone in the history of medicine.

In 1753, Lind published "A Treatise on the Scurvy", which devoted only a few paragraphs to his shipboard experiment and identified poor diet as one of several causes. He hoped to create a practical remedy to counteract Scurvy by turning lemons into a concentrate called a rob; however, boiling and distillation destroyed its vitamin C properties. 

Captain James Cook's first voyage presented many challenges for testing potential remedies - he only had small crews dedicated great effort to their welfare. He was able to supply fresh fruit or vegetables where possible. Consequently, almost no crew members were lost due to Scurvy despite the preventatives tested. In simpler terms - with little reliable evidence from Cook's voyages, the Royal Navy chose less expensive, readily available remedies instead of costly fruit rations.

In the British Navy, knowledge of citrus fruits curing Scurvy began to spread slowly, particularly after William Lind was appointed to a prominent role at Haslar Naval Hospital. However, some doubted this evidence and dismissed it as simply hearsay. It took more years and a Scottish naval surgeon to prove that citrus fruits could cure Scurvy.

Cure for Scurvy

Modern Methods For Preventing And Treating Scurvy:

Modern dietary practices have dramatically reduced the instances of Scurvy. Obtaining enough vitamin C in one's diet is now quite simple through fruits, vegetables and vitamin-fortified gummies and food products. However, individuals at risk of developing Scurvy due to malabsorption disorders may require supplementation with vitamin C to prevent or treat the disease effectively. The prevalence of Scurvy has diminished greatly due to the fortification of many everyday food items with vitamin C.


For centuries, Scurvy was a major issue for navies around the world. To combat this disease, people tried various methods, from bringing lime juice onboard ships to pickling fruits and serving sailors spruce beer or sauerkraut. These early treatments effectively reduced the prevalence of Scurvy, but some were not appetizing. Today, preventing and treating this disease is much easier, and cases of Scurvy are no longer common.