Scurvy was the scourge of sailors for thousands of years. An estimated 2 million sailors died of the disease between the 16th and 18th centuries alone, often decimating entire ship crews.
Scurvy is a dietary deficiency caused by a lack of vitamin C. The body does not naturally make vitamin C, so it has to come from foods rich in the vitamin such as citrus or from dietary supplements. Before modern refrigeration, sailors on long voyages relied mostly on salted or nonperishable food and had no regular access to fresh green vegetables or fruits that contain the vitamin.
The symptoms of scurvy are dramatic and terrible. In his 1820 textbook on nautical medicine, Navy surgeon Usher Parsons unflinchingly described the signs:
- "The gums become soft, livid and swollen, are apt to bleed from the slightest cause, and separate from the teeth, leaving them loose.
- About the same time the legs swell, are glossy, and soon exhibit foul ulcers.
- The same appearances follow, on other depending parts of the body.
- At first the ulcers resemble black blisters which spread and discharge a dark colored matter. These ulcers increase.
- Emaciation ensues.
- Bleeding occurs at the nose and mouth.
- All the evacuations from the body become intolerably fetid.
- Death closes the scene."
British 'Limeys' and the Cure for Scurvy
The U.S. Navy continued to struggle with scurvy into the 19th century even though the Royal Navy cracked the mystery of the disease in the 18th century thanks to surgeon James Lind. The British began storing citrus fruits on board all of its ships. The British Navy gave its sailors limes or lemon juice rations to ward off scurvy – earning them the nickname of "Limeys" among the American sailors who didn't know about or believe in the preventative treatment.
In his article on the history of scurvy in the U.S. Navy, naval medical historian André Sobocinski, wrote: "In 1809, Dr. William Paul Crillon Barton, a young Philadelphia-born Navy surgeon, took on the fight against scurvy while aboard USS United States, then under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur. Turning to the medical literature out of Great Britain, Barton administered a citrus concoction to the most severely affected crewmembers and curing them of their symptoms."
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