The conquest of scurvy and the discovery of vitamin C has been touted as one of the great accomplishments of medical science.
Here’s a dictionary definition:
Scurvy is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C, which is required for the synthesis of collagen in humans. The chemical name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is derived from the Latin name of scurvy, scorbutus, which also provides the adjective scorbutic. Scurvy often presents itself initially as symptoms of malaise and lethargy, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. Spots are most abundant on the thighs and legs, and a person with the ailment looks pale, feels depressed, and is partially immobilized. As scurvy advances, there can be open, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy and death. Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored and by soldiers similarly deprived of these foods for extended periods.
As defined, and as we’ve all been told and led to believe, scurvy is the result of a vitamin C deficiency. But is there any truth to it? Surprisingly, there’s not much. What you are about to learn is that there is actually incredibly weak evidence linking scurvy to vitamin C deficiency. You’ll learn that there’s very compelling evidence to show that scurvy is caused by a toxicity condition, and not a deficiency condition at all. You’ll soon realize that scurvy has also not been conquered; rather it has just been renamed and rebranded with other more modern disease labels.
To investigate the scurvy story, I read, and I’ll quote from, this book :
LIMEYS – The Conquest of SCURVY by David I. Harvie
David I. Harvie’s book is a good read and a good historical account of the scurvy story during the Age of Sail. His book very much supports the story that scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency disease. However, the last chapter of his book does list some modern day thinkers and other organizations that do refute the vitamin C theory.
Scurvy – the great disease of Sailors
One of the most important pieces of evidence we need to consider is that scurvy was by far most prevalent and common among sailors while aboard ships at sea. Almost all of the historical accounts of outbreaks of scurvy were of crews of various sailing expeditions. Although there are accounts of “land scurvy”, they represent a small fraction of recorded cases of the “outbreaks”.
Therefore, during the Age of Sail, scurvy was almost uniquely confined to inflicting sailors, and especially the crews of the British navy. So much so that the primary organization investigating the cause and treatments of scurvy was the Royal Navy. Since scurvy was widely accepted to be predominately a ship-side disease one of the strongest early theories regarding its cause was that it was the cold damp and stale air of the on-board living conditions. The cold, stale air theory persisted for 50 or more years. The Royal Navy developed better ventilation systems for their ships to try to prevent outbreaks of scurvy. However, the better ventilation systems yielded negligible results in combating the disease.
The second most important piece of evidence that we need to appreciate is that the “outbreaks” of scurvy usually started to occur after only 6 to 8 weeks at sea. Very oddly, the general public, and even sailors while on dry land, weren’t commonly getting the disease.
However, the worst effects of scurvy were seen at sea, and it is a sea disease that it is characterized.LIMEYS – The Conquest of SCURVY – page 18
James Lind – and the first significant Clinical Study in medicine
What’s regarded as one of the first clinical studies in medicine is that by James Lind in 1747. Lind was investigating a possible treatment for scurvy. Lind was not investigating the causes of scurvy because he presumed he already knew the cause. Therefore, he was only looking for remedies.
As a result of his practical observations with the Channel Fleet, Lind himself was among those that were inclined to believe cold, moist sea air was the most important precondition.LIMEYS – The Conquest of SCURVY – page 86
If you’ve read my eBooks and blog posts you’ll know that I’m not exactly a fan of clinical studies used in so-called medical research. Nor am I a fan of evidence based medicine (relying on big data sets). I have a lot of reasons for disliking clinical studies. The biggest reason is that by almost exclusively relying on statistical outcomes researchers are often not even attempting to use genuine critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Some other reasons I don’t like clinical studies is that they are so often fraudulent, or conducted so poorly that they are meaningless. Many studies are probably just deliberately misleading to promote the financial interests of their sponsors. Or, stated more concisely; many clinical studies are just rigged pharma industry propaganda.
Regardless of my personal views, the ultimate acid test for the usefulness of clinical studies is looking at the real world results they’ve yielded. With there now being millions of peer reviewed clinical studies published, are we, as a society, any better off health wise than we were 50 years ago? No, we are not. On the contrary, we are only vastly sicker, more diseased in every way imaginable, and are dying sooner.
Lind’s study is rather straightforward, and is documented in its entirety in just a few paragraphs. Lind’s study included 12 men and lasted for just 14 days aboard the ship named Salisbury while at sea.
Lind divided the 12 sick sailors into six pairs, and provided each 2-person arm of the study with a different supplement to their diet. These were: cider, vitriolic elixir (diluted sulfuric acid), vinegar, sea water, two oranges and a lemon, or a purgative mixture. Of course, we sure wouldn’t expect to see much benefit to come from the vitriolic elixir (diluted sulfuric acid), vinegar, sea water or purgative mixture. There was no control group in Lind’s study.
Lind claimed that one of the two men treated with the two oranges and a lemon had recovered and that the other man only somewhat recovered. Of course there was no long-term follow-up to determine if the treatment had only put the men into a temporary remission or not. So, the famous clinical study used to claim that vitamin C is a preventive and cure for scurvy is primarily based on merely one person (maybe two) having seen some temporary relief in their symptoms. What’s conveniently glossed over by modern day medical historians is that the basic diet used by the navy was not completely devoid of vitamin C. Raisins and black currants were a staple aboard ships in this era. Even Lind documents this in his own study write-up.
They lay together in one place, being a proper apartment for the sick in the fore-fold; and had one common diet to all, viz. Water-gruel sweetened with sugar in the morning; fresh mutton-broth often times for dinner; at other times puddings, boiled biscuits with sugar; and for supper, barley and raisins, rice and currants, sago and wine, or the like.James Lind
About 1 lb of raisins were allocated per man per week. Additionally, black currants actually contain quite a lot of vitamin C too. With one 80g serving of black currants providing almost 200% of the RDA for vitamin C. The navy diet also often included both potatoes and peas; another source of vitamin C.
There’s also some modern day speculation that Lind didn’t actually conduct this study, but rather that he might have just made it up.
Source: James Lind and Scurvy: The First Clinical Trial in History?
Wouldn’t it be ironically fitting if Lind’s study was indeed fraudulent? It would sure fit right in today with so many other fraudulent or rigged medical studies.
Nonetheless, there’s another major flaw in Lind’s study. Even though he knew that the scurvy was primarily caused by being aboard ships, he’s only looking for some therapeutic treatment to remedy it. In other words, he doesn’t appear to consider that there’s possibly an unknown toxic agent at play (other than cold, damp air) while being on board. So, his upfront bias is only allowing him to consider the disease to be that of a deficiency. Therefore, he adds supplements to the diet, rather than selectively eliminating items from it.
So uncompelling are Lind’s study results, even Lind himself does not really believe in the curative properties of oranges and lemons to prevent scurvy. So much so that he spent the next several decades of his career as a navy surgeon trying to have the air circulation aboard navy ships improved. Likewise, it took the British admiralty about another 100 years to fully adopt lemons and limes as a possible preventative measure against scurvy. But, a lot of other changes were made in the British Navy over those same 100 years too. There is one very important one we’ll discuss a bit later.
Just as importantly, even after the British Navy adopts the provisioning of lemons and limes as a somewhat standard practice, there are expeditions where it completely failed to prevent the outbreak of scurvy. Captain Cook regarded limes and lemons as being useless in combating scurvy.
I entirely agree with you that the dearness of the rob (the juice) of lemon and oranges will hinder them from being furnished in large quantities. But I do not think it is so necessary; for though they may assist in other things, I have no great opinion of them alone. Nor have I have a higher opinion of vinegar.Captain Cook in a letter in 1776.
That’s correct. Lemons and limes didn’t at all reliably prevent scurvy, nor did it really very often cure scurvy either. The use of lemons and limes yielded very, very inconsistent results. So much so that even after conducting several large scale experiments with supplying them the Royal Navy never concluded that it actually worked. Isn’t that odd, huh? Clearly then, there’s something very wrong with the vitamin C deficiency theory.
There were other remedies attempted to prevent and treat scurvy. Just as there is today, there were charlatans and frauds pushing bogus pills and such.
In the face of two centuries of conflicting evidence and hearsay on remedies for scurvy, it may have been easy, if wholly inexcusable, for the Admiralty to rely on the kind of partisan lobbying that enabled a ‘society doctor’ as Joshua Ward to have his fraudulent pills authorised.LIMEYS – The Conquest of SCURVY – page 147
Hmm… is this the early genesis of the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying practice?
But, rather than pills, acidic and alcoholic beverages and fermented foods were the much more commonly attempted treatments.
Charles Bisset was another Edinburgh-trained surgeon who had served in the West Indies. In his treatise of 1755 he blamed salt provisions and heat, and recommended vegetables, wine, rum punch, spirits and in particular rice.LIMEYS – The Conquest of SCURVY – page 86
Interestingly, one of the most common and standard therapies applied for scurvy was bloodletting.
Humans and Guinea Pigs
Another great claim of medical science is that of all the mammals on the planet, it’s only humans and guinea pigs that can’t endogenously synthesize their own vitamin C.
The claim is that after millions of years of evolution we humans have somehow lost the gene needed for it. We therefore need to get our vitamin C regularly from foods or from supplements. Doesn’t that sound a little suspect to you? I mean seriously, are we supposed to believe that the lowly rat can produce its own vitamin C, yet we humans, the species at the pinnacle of evolution, or of God’s creation, can’t? Maybe, just maybe, the “lost gene” theory is just more bad science? For myself, after about 5 years of virtually no vitamin C in my diet, I had this interesting statement show up on a 2019 lab test.
Odd huh? But, it does appear that I may have developed scurvy induced tumours.
Scurvy as a deficiency disease
Even under the slightest bit of scrutiny the theory of scurvy being a deficiency disease quickly falls apart. Once again, the biggest red flag going up here is that the disease commonly developed after being at sea for only 6 to 8 weeks. That just does not at all fit with the reality of life in Northern Europe in the 15th to 20th centuries. If scurvy were to develop in 6-8 weeks due to a vitamin C deficiency then at least half of the European and Russian populations would have died off each winter. Of course, that did not ever happen. Once again, therefore the vitamin C theory must be just simply wrong.
If we consider more modern day examples of prolonged starvation in large populations there is also a stark lack of scurvy being recorded. As I wrote about in my eBooks both the German and Japanese run POW camps from WWII provide clear evidence. Especially so in the Japanese-run POW camps where their prisoners were generally provided just one cup of white rice per day. There were all kinds of infectious diseases recorded in these camps, and many prisoners were brutally starved to death, yet there is almost no record of scurvy. How’s that possible? According to the vitamin C deficiency theory all of these prisoners should have died in six months or less from scurvy.
Somewhat likewise for the German-run POW camps – there’s little to no mention of scurvy. But, at least in the German-run POW camps potatoes were part of the food provided and would have been a source of some vitamin C. However, assuming the potatoes were boiled, they would have only provided a small fraction of the claimed to be daily requirement of vitamin C.
There are many other examples from around the world we can add to the evidence. Here are just a few that come to mind.
- The Maasai of Africa whose traditional food is mostly Blood and Milk from cows. No source of vitamin C, yet, no scurvy.
- The Inuit of Northern Canada where they live their entire lives without any source of vitamin C. Yet, no scurvy.
- People following the muscle meat only carnivore diet for years. No source of vitamin C, yet, no scurvy.
- My own experience. I’ve had virtually no vitamin C in my diet for the last 5 years, yet I have no sign of scurvy. On the contrary, my teeth and gums are now probably the healthiest they’ve been in the last 20 years.
So, what’s really going on here? The answer is the theory of scurvy being a vitamin C deficiency disease is obviously wrong. Okay, if scurvy is not a deficiency disease, then what is it? How about we consider it to be caused by an acute poisoning?
Scurvy as an acute poisoning
One of the major challenges for navies from the 18th through to the 20th centuries was the provisioning of ships with sufficient food stores to last them for potentially multi-year expeditions. It wasn’t so much the massive volume of food that was needed to be provisioned, rather it was trying to preserve and keep it from quickly spoiling while at sea. Canning using pasteurization hadn’t been invented until 1862 and didn’t come into widespread use until the late 1880’s. Steam powered refrigeration wasn’t adopted aboard ships until the early-mid 20th century. Therefore, some of the mainstays of the ship’s provisions were heavily salted beef and pork, oats, beer, very dry biscuits, and something called “portable soup”.
What is “portable soup”? From Wikipedia:
Portable soup was a kind of dehydrated food used in the 18th and 19th centuries, originating from Great Britain. It was a precursor of meat extract and bouillon cubes, and of industrially dehydrated and instant food. It is also known as pocket soup or veal glue.
Quite remarkably, Portable Soup was a staple and standard provision for ships in the Royal Navy for almost 200 years. How long was Scurvy most prevalent in the Royal Navy? For about the same 200 years!
In 1757, the British began stocking their ships with a “portable soup.” The “portable soup” consisted of “all the offals of oxen killed in London for use of the Navy” with salt and vegetables added in. The soup, however, was dried so that it had the appearance of slabs of glue. Although the “portable soup” was unappetizing, it was perfect for the navy because it had a shelf life of years. In addition to the supplies stored at the beginning of each voyage, ships often traded for additional supplies in foreign ports and lands. In particular, rice, wince and other hard alcohols were particularly valuable when trading.Source: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8852139/Mayberry.html?sequence=2
What are the “offals” of oxen? Well, they are simply quite awful.
Offal is a pretty broad term which not only includes the internal organs and entrails, but also includes the miscellaneous trimmings of an animal. It essentially includes everything except the muscle and bone.Source: https://www.chefs-resources.com/types-of-meat/offal-varieties/
Portable soup sounds rather disgusting to me. But, it couldn’t have been that bad because this “portable” soup was an absolute staple among British Navy and merchant ships for almost two centuries.
The portable soup may have also been used for dipping and softening the other navy staple food of rock-hard biscuits.
It was served with a pound of ship’s biscuit. Hard, ¼ pound disks of flour, baked 2 or 3 times until all moisture was completely gone. The men would soak these, usually breaking them into their stews, or letting them soak up the juices from their meat rationSource: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/history/how-royal-navy-fed-sailors.html
To make it ‘portable,’ the soup was made as normal but then reduced using prolonged heating until it was gelatinous and dried. Let’s see here; taking the liver and kidneys with their high retinol and retinyl esters content and boiling it at high heat (enough to drive off the steam) for extended periods of time? What could possibly go wrong with that? How about the production of large amounts of retinoic acid?
Is Scurvy really retinoic acid poisoning?
Once again, one of the important points we really need to appreciate is that sailors usually developed scurvy within just 6 to 8 weeks after being at sea. But, based on worldwide and real world data we know that’s just way too fast for the disease to have developed from a deficiency condition. So, how about considering a stress test case with direct exposure to retinoic acid? Here’s just one such example: From:
I have been on accutane for 2 weeks and have had really sore, red, sometimes bleeding gums for about a week now. Has anyone experienced this while on tane? This is my second course and I haven’t experienced it before, and never heard of it as a side effect so thought I would check if anyone else has had it or if I should go to the dentist to get it checked out!
Thanks in advance.
You can easily find many more such firsthand accounts of accutane rapidly inducing gum disease. For example:
And we have accounts of earlier researchers directly inducing Scurvy using high dose “vitamin A”.
The Franklin Expedition and Lead Poisoning
Could the “portable soup” have been made to be any more toxic? Well, yes, it could of and probably was. The portable soup, as well as some other provisioned foods, were packaged in tin cans where the joints were sealed with a lead-based solder. So, we are probably talking about retinoic acid and lead poisoning combined. This theory is supported by the modern findings of lead poisoning in the human remains of the crew of the famous Franklin Expedition (nicely preserved in Canada’s frozen tundra for the last 170 years).
What about “land scurvy” ?
So far I’ve mostly discussed scurvy inflicting sailors while they were at sea. What about cases of land scurvy? There are indeed quite a few cases of scurvy reported for non-sailors. What then would have caused these cases? Well, we need to appreciate that “portable soup” was not exclusively used by the Royal Navy. It was also sold to the general public.
Mrs Elizabeth Dubois had been advertising the sale of her portable soup in the British newspapers since at least November 1746 when they appear to have first been available in this country.Source: https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/portable-soup-as-supplied-by-mrs-dubois-to-the-royal-navy-in-1756/
But, of course portable soup couldn’t have resulted in all cases of land scurvy. We do know that eating organ meats was quite a common practice in England during this era too.
Okay, what about in North America? Well, there was another well established, semi-industrial scale, operation that we need to know about during this era. That was the harvesting of cod livers, and cod liver oils. Here’s a sketch and historical account of the practice from the early Canadian archives.
Drawn on the side of a map of America, this is the only existing image of a Newfoundland cod fishing station. From the days of Cabot and perhaps before, fleets of European fishermen sailed to the banks, and they soon discovered that they could stay longer and bring back more fish if they set up shore stations to split, salt and dry the catch. Some of these men may have overwintered. This would have been an early source for Americans to have gotten trade goods from the Europeans.
- A View of a Stage & also of ye manner of Fishing for Curing & Drying Cod at NEW FOUND Land.
- A. The Habit of the Fishermen (clothing, hooded coat, boots and apron)
- B. The Line
- C. The Manner of Fishing (casks were slung over the side of the ship and fishermen stood in them)
- D. The Dressers of ye Fish
- E. The Trough into which they throw ye Cod when Dressed
- F. Salt Boxes
- G. The Manner of Carrying ye Cod
- H. The Cleansing ye Cod
- I. A Press to extract ye Oyl from ye Cod Livers
- K. Casks to receive ye water & Blood that comes from ye Livers
- J. Another Cask to receive the Oyl
- K. The manner of Drying ye Cod
Some fishermen collected the oil out of the fish they caught for cooking.
So, it looks like ye Oyl from ye Cod Livers was used for both North Atlantic trade and for local cooking. But, what happened to all ye Cod Livers they harvested? It was often put in barrels and left to ferment in the hot sun, and the resulting fermented mush later used as a spread on toast. Yum, huh?
It looks like the practice of canning and eating cod livers has been going on in Canada for about the last 400 years and continues to be so even today. Of course, this practice was not just limited to the Canadian east coast, it has also been going on in the Norwegian and Scandinavian countries for almost as long. Here’s an example of some current products available.
Sorry, I’m not offering any discount codes.
Next, we have another account of “land scurvy” from https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8852139/Mayberry.html?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
The Crusades, however, provide an example of one written account of scurvy during the 13th century. During Lent, when soldiers abstained from meat (except eel) and restricted their diets, a scurvy epidemic likely unfolded as “the barber surgeons were forced to cut away the dead flesh from the gums to enable the people to masticate their food.” However, it is noted that the Crusaders believed that the disease was caused by eating eel which supposedly ate the dead.
Well, I don’t know about eel eating the dead, but what I do know is that eel is very oily and is also very high in vitamin A too.
Modern outbreaks of scurvy
Even with the determination of vitamin C as the prevention and cure for scurvy there are still modern day outbreaks of the disease.
In Canada the years 1945-65 were marked by outbreaks of scurvy in bottle-fed infants given evaporated milk (then lacking in vitamin C).https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/scurvy
Infantile scurvy emerged in the late 19th century because children were being fed pasteurized cow’s milk,
What do pasteurized cow’s milk and “portable soup” have in common? My bet is that it’s quite likely to be only retinoic acid.
Hooray – Scurvy is conquered and CURED!
Yes, we’ve all been led to believe that scurvy has been conquered and almost fully eradicated. But, is that really true? Well, very likely it’s not. Broadly speaking, scurvy manifested as two major disease conditions:
- Swollen, bleeding gums, leading to loose teeth, and the teeth eventually falling out.
- Ulcers and blisters on the lower limbs.
However, aren’t these same primary scurvy disease conditions still very common today? Oh yes, they are indeed:
Gingivitis and Gum Disease
- Gum disease. A high percentage of older adults have gum disease. About 2 in 3 (68%) adults aged 65 years or older have gum disease.
How about we look at some nice modern day diabetic gum disease?
Common signs and symptoms of diabetic gum disease
- Red and swollen gum that bleeds on brushing
- Yellowish plaque deposits
- Pus exuding from gums, tenderness or swelling in gums
- Mobility of teeth
- Consistent foul odour from mouth
Next up, here’s an early era drawing of the effects of scurvy on the lower limbs. Clearly there are some distinctly different manifestations of the disease. One of dark brown-black blisters, and then the other of inflamed and necrotic flesh.
But, aren’t these images not almost identical to diabetic ulcers so commonly reported today? Please judge for yourself.
“Diabetic dermopathy (skin spots) is the most common dermatosis associated with diabetes. Similar to necrobiosis lipoidica, it presents with reddish-brown patches on the shins, but they are usually much smaller (0.5 to 1.0 cm) in size and greater in number (five to 10, or more lesions). Skin spots gradually resolve to leave a brown, atrophic scar. They are thought to be caused by vascular disease, but there is no correlation with the extent or duration of diabetes.”
“ Leg rash is a common symptom in diabetes and can be caused by many reasons and can be prevented.”
A 54-year-old man with type 2 diabetes mellitus
Necrobiosis lipoidica is an unusual skin disorder that is strongly associated with diabetes mellitus.
Diabetic Leg Ulcers:
So, no, “scurvy” has not been conquered. It has just been renamed, rebranded and hidden behind the modern day disease labels of Gingivitis, Gum Disease, and Diabetes.
Now with the massive supplementation with vitamin C in Western society today, why do we still have this massive incidence rate of “scurvy?” Quite clearly, “scurvy”, AKA diabetes, is not a vitamin C deficiency disease. Another way of stating it, “scurvy” is vastly accelerated diabetes. Either way, both “scurvy” and diabetes are the result of a poisoning.
Please have a think about it, and comment as you see fit.