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What is Scurvy?

Updated on March 16, 2013

Scurvy: A Disease of Deprivation

Ah, scurvy, that charming and debilitating, and so-easily-cured disease. Scurvy is the term for vitamin C deficiency and the gruesome symptoms caused by this condition. It has had a vital role to play throughout human history and has strongly influenced exploration and travel.

Scurvy sea dogs!

Scurvy is well known to be a sailor's affliction, infamous as the scourge of pirates and honest seamen alike. However it extends into other areas of history as well, such as the ill fated expeditions to the South Pole...Known as early as 1550 BC by the Egyptians, suffered by children from the 1900 on, fed on pasteurised milk (which removes vitamin C) and is still a significant health issue for teenagers in many first world countries today.

Any and all art and photography is mine, unless credited.

Scurvy Is No Joke - No. Really.

What is Scurvy?

Symptoms, causes and background of Vitamin C Deficiency

Scurvy is a disease of the gums, bones and blood vessels, which causes spongy, inflamed and blackened gums, swollen and painful joints and cumulative haemorrhages .(Safe Return Doubtful) It caused extreme weakness, and frequent collapses of sufferers. (Encarta, The Voyage of the Discovery pg 395) Soon after succumbing old wounds reopen - allegedly through the reabsorption of scar tissue and even bone regrowth - and their flesh rots away. (Doubtful) Victims in the late stages are incapacitated, though their appetite remains. (Discovery) The first signs evident to the explorers were increased pain of bruises, lack of stamina, swelling and discolouration - from ruptured blood vessels (Encarta) as happened to Armitage, Heald and others on Scott's first Antarctic journey.(Discovery) Its symptoms, if anticipated, are quite visible. Fred Cook of the Belgica - on Belgian Antarctic Expedition, 1897-9 - attests in the Antarctic Encyclopaedia that

"We became pale, with a kind of greenish hue; our secretions were more or less suppressed. The stomach and all the organs were sluggish and refused to work. Most dangerous of all were the cardiac and cerebral symptoms. The heart ached as if it had lost its regulating influence…the men were incapable of coherent thought"

Scurvy in Antarctic exploration

Scurvy, deficiency of Vitamin C, has played a prominent and unpleasant role in the history of Antarctic exploration. The disease impaired and destroyed expeditions of both scientific (Belgian Antarctic Expedition) and glory seeking nature (Shackleton's second trip in the Endurance). Probably the most dreaded aspect was that it was an unknown factor. few men were sure of its cause or of effective treatment. Infection meant tragedy and debilitating uncertainty. Scurvy's association with oceanic, rather than terrestrial exploration, and its outdated associations, meant the expedition was woefully unprepared. The entire approach to and framework of, expeditions had to be altered to compensate for the burdens of this disease. How scurvy affected expeditions varied with the level of ignorance and speed of reactions among each group.

Treatment of Scurvy and Changing Views Over Time

Scurvy in medicine

Scurvy is presently diagnosed as a deficiency that usually appears after six months of a diet minus ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C (in adults) (Encarta). As it is required for building up tisses (specifically collagen), a lack of vitamin C leads to breakdown in the creation and repair of tissues.

This was the frequent lot of sailors (pre-Antarctic Exploration), and it is this group that was studied by James Lind, a Scottish physician from 1747.

He proved that lemons and oranges were the most successful in treating this deficiency, through - although he did not know this - their high vitamin C content. It was also the first example of a controlled clinical nutrition study using human subjects.

On the 20th of May, 1747,I took twelve patients in the scurvy on board the Salisbury at sea. Their cases were as similar as I could have them."

James Lind A Treatise of the Scurvy (1973)

Unfortunately, limes, which possess only 25 to the former's 50 milligrams per 100g vitamin C, were confused with lemons. (Doubtful) A ration of lime juice was issued to all British Naval vessels in 1795.

The first notable convert to the anti-Scurvy effort was Captain James Cook who, on his expeditions to discover Antarctica, in 1774, introduced continual vigilance. He frequently resupplied food including fresh vegetables and regular doses of all alleged antiscorbutics of the time, Specifically spruce beer, potatoes, seal meat and lime juice (Scurvy) among others. Cook was the first to attack the entrenched attitudes of seamen towards new foods on ship through his example and authority as commander.

Every innovation whatever, tho ever so much to their advantage, is sure to meet with the highest disapprobation from Seamen: Portable Soup and Sour Krout were at first condemned by them as stuff not fit for human beings to eat. Few men have introduced into their ships more novelties in the way of victuals and drink than I have done. It has, however, in a great measure been owing to such little innovations that I have always kept my people generally speaking free from that dreadful distemper the Scurvy.James Cook

His efforts, which left only one suffering in 117 days, allowed him to discover "an immense field of ice, to which we could see no end" though never the actual continent. (Encarta)

The attitudes of explorers changed with the successful elimination of scurvy at sea.

Later expeditions, such as the Belgian and National British Antarctic Expeditions (1897-9 & 1901-4 respectively) were unprepared and uncertain in the face of the disease. The ill-equipped Belgica, aiming to locate the magnetic pole and the first ship to be trapped in ice all winter, nearly lost both the captain and de Grelache, (one of the leaders) through lack of experience. Luckily, Amundsen and Fred Cook, the surgeon, stepped in and enforced a diet of fresh seal and penguin meat. (Doubtful, Encyclopaedia) ENCARTA Crew was afflicted with scurvy and depression during a period of 70 days of darkness.

On the Discovery, two years later, the ration of the inadequate antiscorbutic lime juice led to frequent, if brief, outbreaks of scurvy (Doubtful). Scott believed the problem to lie in a bacteria found in rotting, badly canned meat and required a surgeon to inspect each can (Doubtful, Discovery). He called this ptomaine poisoning. He was partly right, as Vitamin C is easily destroyed by cooking and canning meat (Encarta).

Scott also attributed scurvy to severe and insanitary living conditions and the

Deprivation of fresh food for any length of time."

He enforced regular exercise, good diet with bottled fruit and a dominant element of fresh (raw) seal meat, of which the liver was the favourite. Every occurrence of scurvy triggered an increase in seal rations, with a decrease in preserved mutton and bacon. This alleviated the symptoms.

He decided the decrease in scurvy at sea with the introduction of lime juice could have as easily been due to the contemporary improved diets of sailors. As a result, he placed little faith in his compulsory gallons of lime juice (Discovery).

The most crippling aspect of scurvy was the pure "uncertainty of the evil" (Discovery). One early theory was that a germ, spread by overcrowding, caused scurvy. (Doubtful) Even until recently, in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, overexposure and salty food are blamed.

But other sources got it right.

... [W]e have in our owne country here many excellent remedies generally knowne, as namely, Scurvy-grasse, Horse-Reddish roots, Nasturtia Aquatica, Wormwood, Sorrell, and many other good meanes... to the cure of those which live at home...they also helpe some Sea-men returned from farre who by the only natural disposition of the fresh aire and amendment of diet, nature herselfe in effect doth the Cure without other helps... [At sea,] the Lemmons, Limes, Tamarinds, Oranges, and other choice of good helps in the Indies... do farre exceed any that can be carried tither from England.John Woodall (1556-1643) The Surgeon's Mate pages 160-176

Scurvy in Antartica

Its crippling effect on Antarctic exploration

Scurvy is a result of deficiency, encouraged by hardship and the "…deprivation of fresh food for any length of time. This has so often been the lot of the polar traveller that the disease has played a particularly important, and often a tragic, part in his enterprises And one cannot read he history of polar adventure without realising the gravity of the evil …" (Discovery) Antarctic explorers carried long lasting, ascorbic acid-poor food such as porridge and canned meat. When trapped by ice the only vitamin C comes from lime juice and similar measures, seal and penguin meat - which they hunted - and limited experiments at horticulture within the ship. Expedition were frequently cut off from fresh food for long periods - the Belgica, for 13 months; Nordenskjld's ship in 1902-3, (Encarta) the Discovery, that had to be relieved by the Morning in 1903(Encyclopaedia), all were frozen in ice. Internal expeditions - Scoot and Shackleton from the Discovery, Scott's ill planned, ill-starred race to the Pole, Shackleton's second trip to Antarctica in the Endurance, were halted, destroyed or severely impaired by the demands of supplies and the threat of scurvy.(Discovery, Doubtful, Encarta).

Antarctica expeditions, until relatively recently, have been centred on the need to combat scurvy. Allowances had to be made by the prepared commander when taking on supplies, especially concerning antiscorbutics. Once struck in Antarctica, prepared and unready expeditions alike must alter their lifestyles to cope with and stave off scurvy. The speed and ambiguity of the disease would cripple expeditions physically and in morale. The immediate and forceful reaction of Explorers such as Scott, Captain Cook, Amundsen and Fred Cook to the threat reveals both the seriousness of scurvy and the importance of comrades in Antarctica.


Literature cited on this lens

Brown, Stephen R. 2003. Scurvy. In: Victoria, Australia: Viking (Penguin Books) 182-185

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. II. 1979. USA: Book Club Associates (By arrangement with, Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

Maxtone-Graham, John. 1988. Safe Return Doubtful. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 62-64, 197, 214, 219, 228,327, 329

Microsoft Corporation. 2004. Ascorbic acid/Gerlache de Gomery, Adrien-Victor-Joseph, Baron de-/The Man Who Mapped the Pacific/Shackleton, Sir Ernest Henry/ Scurvy. In: Encarta Microsoft Corporation.

Scott, Captain Robert F. 1929. Scott's Voyage of the Discovery. Cheap (4th) Edition. In: London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, W. 395 seq, 453, 456,468, 485,489,560,650

Trewby, Mary (editor). 2002. In: Antarctica: An Encyclopedia from Abbott Ice Shelf to Zooplankton. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd 33, 56, 40-1, 421

Reader Feedback - Leave me a comment!

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    • eclecticeducati1 profile image


      9 years ago

      I always heard of scurvy, but didn't know much about it. Really makes me wish we had oranges in the house after reading that. lol!!! Great lens.

    • almawad profile image


      9 years ago

      Scurvy turned strong sailors into touchy little kids . They got hurt at small things and kept crying all the day ....

      It is very interesting how this dreaded disease was easy to cure . Can there be other diseases of our times which are similarly easy to treat ? Many scientists guesses -yes ....

    • Kate Phizackerl1 profile image

      Kate Phizackerl1 

      9 years ago

      Great health lens. Blessed.

    • lakshyaa profile image


      9 years ago

      Very informative lens on Scurvy.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is where the term limey comes from I believe. English sailors would carry huge rations of limes aboard their ships to prevent scurvy. I'm sure I read that somewhere. Very interesting lens. I think I'm gonna go eat an orange now.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      10 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I've heard the word but never really knew what it was before now. Interesting lens! Thanks for educating me. It's actually not at all what I'd thought.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Now I have a better understanding of what is scurvy and

      how it affected the world.


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