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JUNE 2006 – NO. 7

Scurvy's Cure

by Stephen R. Bown

An essay.

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In the early years of the 17th century, the East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were able to keep scurvy at bay on many of their trading expeditions. But as the century progressed, scurvy reappeared as a mysterious and significant killer of crews. Somehow, lemon juice, or "lemon water," faded as the known and trusted remedy. Sea captains, still aware of the need for fresh produce, organized their voyages as a series of desperate dashes between foreign ports instead of carrying bottles of "lemon water" with them. Unpredictable delays, ill winds, or bungled navigation resulted in terrible suffering and the loss of countless lives. The directors of the English and Dutch companies became complacent after years of effective prevention, and as the incidence of scurvy declined a new generation of corporate directors and sea captains began to question the value of expensive lemon juice – they might have thought they were paying handsome sums to greedy lemon merchants who revived the "myth" of scurvy to drive up the cost of a cure that was little other than a hoax. The sailors themselves complained about having to drink the bitter juice, as it was foreign to their northern palates, and the inconsistent quality and quantity issued to the sailors made it unreliable. By the 1630s, merely three decades after Lancaster successfully prevented an outbreak of scurvy on his pioneer voyage to the East Indies by issuing a small daily ration of lemon juice to each sailor, the East India Company was avidly pursuing tamarinds and oil of vitriol as the best antiscorbutic remedies.

The concept of preventative medicine also appears to have fallen out of favor. The thought of spending money to treat a disease that had not yet appeared in the crew was as foreign to 17th century merchants as it later was to the national navies of England and France. Although lemon juice was sometimes carried aboard ships, it was usually kept in small quantities under the direct control of the surgeon and was to be used as a "cure" when scurvy appeared. But the problem of reserving lemon juice was that the quantities issued to sick sailors were invariably too small. By the time symptoms of scurvy appeared, much greater amounts of ascorbic acid were needed to halt the inevitable decline and death. For a sailor who exhibited the classic symptoms, a spoonful of lemon juice would have had little beneficial effect, perhaps leading surgeons and captains to discredit it further.

There is no doubt that lemon juice was expensive. Lemons were not always in season and hence not always available on short notice to passing ships; English and Dutch ships would frequently have difficulty obtaining citrus fruits because for the most part they grew in Spain and Spanish-allied territories in the Mediterranean and east Atlantic. Catholic Spain was often at odds with Protestant England and Holland, and consequently the merchants of these countries sought out local cures that were more readily available or cheaper, such as sauerkraut or cider. In later editions of The Surgeon's Mate, John Woodall suggested scurvy grass, watercress, currants, gooseberries, turnips, radishes, nettles, and other plants as alternative, more easily obtainable antiscorbutics. Many of these plants were quite good sources of ascorbic acid when fresh. Dried, however, as they would have to have been to survive long ocean voyages, their effectiveness was greatly reduced, if not entirely eliminated.

In the 1660s, the Leipzig scientist Andreas Moellenbrok wrote favorably on the properties of dried spoonwort, and his praise of the "volatile salt of scurvygrass" led Dutch ships to be outfitted with water-distilling apparatuses for infusing the dried herb – to make a sort of scurvy-grass tea for the mariners at the first signs of the distemper. But dried scurvy grass had lost most of its ascorbic acid and had little positive effect on the mariners.

Scurvy also crippled Spanish and Portuguese ships, despite a reliable and cheaper supply of citrus fruits. On the ships of the Spanish Armada invading England in 1588, scurvy and other diseases were widespread. Disease was a significant, if underappreciated, aspect of the Armada's eventual defeat. Spanish and Portuguese physicians seem to have followed the same ill-fated path away from lemon juice as the English and the Dutch, and by the 18th century lemon juice was no longer standard issue on merchant ships. An early 18th century Spanish medical treatise by Father Juan de Esteyneffer claimed that scurvy "originates in obstructions of the liver and more often of the spleen. Also it is found in many organs or in abundance of the melancholic humors." For a cure he advocated a boiled herb broth that would have been of little benefit (although he added that lemon juice could be rubbed on afflicted gums).

As the length of voyages increased, scurvy became a greater problem than ever before. In certain years, the death toll rose to over half the men who shipped out, and when shipwreck, sea battles, and the innumerable diseases of the Indies were added in, signing on as a sailor was a dangerous gamble. By the 18th century, it was not only merchant ships that were at sea for extensive periods of time but national navies as well – and by then the use of lemon juice as a cure was all but forgotten.

From Scurvy by Stephen R. Bown. Copyright © 2004 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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Articles in this Issue

Currents, by David Fogg
Scurvy's Cure, by Stephen R. Bown
Castaway, by Art Corriveau
Man Overboard, by Bella Bathurst
Way Up In Alaska, by Steve Lohse
A First Warning to the Eel Fisherman, by Cecily Parks
Full Immersion, by E. B. Moore
The Sinking of The Ferry Ellis Island, by Phil Buehler
The Ice Story, by Peter Behrens
Brief Thoughts on Alvaro Mutis's "The Tramp Steamer's Last Port Of Call", by Peter Orner
A Report on The Piracy Report, by R. Matie


Stephen R. Bown is a history graduate of the University of Alberta and author of Scurvy and A Most Damnable Invention, both published by Thomas Dunne Books. He lives in Alberta, Canada. Visit his website at www.stephenrbown.net.

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