Scurvy and its cure: How did James Lind cure Scurvy?

One summer evening in 1732, an old wooden ship left the harbor for business with 124 crew members in it. They traded clothes, spices, alcohol, tobacco, wheat, rice, and other grains. But after a couple of months of sailing, one of the crew members started to feel extremely lethargic and depressed. Soon, he developed shortness of breath and pain. Everyone on the ship got alert and started to panic. They fear no one will return home alive from the monster that attacked the boat. They began working hard day and night as if they didn’t want any rest at all. Why? They believe laziness is the cause that created this monster.

[1] Scorbutic gums due to a vitamin C deficiency, a symptom of scurvy.

Soon the teeth of that affected crew member started to fall out as his gum was rotten. His legs and thighs also started to gangrene and turn black. He was forced to use his knife every day to cut his flesh to release the black and foul blood. But eventually, after all his efforts, he couldn’t survive. Not only he, but many of the other crew members also died of this monster each day. By the time the ship returned home, it had lost nearly half of its crew members because of this monster. And this killer monster’s name is Scurvy.

Scurvy and its cure

[2] Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa

Back in the 18th Century, Scurvy during long sea voyages was often more dangerous than storms, shipwrecks, warfare, and other diseases combined. It could kill about half or two-thirds of the ship members during a long sea voyage. Scurvy is a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. But compared to other nutritional deficiencies, Scurvy is rare. It takes at least a month with hardly any vitamin C intake in the diet for symptoms to appear.

Today, it occurs most commonly in developing nations in association with malnutrition. But during the Age of Sail, it was believed that half of the sailors would die of Scurvy on a long voyage. Nearly 2 million sailors have died as a result of it. Nobody knew how sailors were affected by this disease. And no matter how well the patients were treated and what remedies were offered, sailors continued to die. It looked like there were no treatments at all for this killer monster up until James Lind carried out controlled clinical trials on Scurvy-affected sailors.

How Scurvy was cured by James Lind?

James Lind
[3] James Lind

James Lind was a Scottish surgeon who worked for the Royal Navy and was a pioneer of naval hygiene. He separated a group of 12 sailors suffering from Scurvy into six pairs. They all ate the same meals and stayed in the same quarters on the ship, but their treatment was the only difference. Lind gave each team different remedies. They are a quart of cider a day; a half-pint of seawater; 25 drops of vitriol three times a day; a nutmeg-sized paste of garlic, mustard seed, balsam of Peru, dried radish root, and gum myrrh three times a day; two spoonfuls of vinegar; two oranges and one lemon a day. Lind gave the treatments for two weeks, except for the citrus fruit like oranges and lemon, which ran for less than a week because, by the end of the first week, the pair with the citrus fruits treatment recovered so thoroughly and rapidly that Lind started to treat other groups with citrus fruits.

Citrus is an ideal treatment for Scurvy

Due to this successful experiment, Lind is widely credited with discovering citrus as an ideal treatment for Scurvy. That, however, is not what happened because Lind didn’t draw any clear conclusions in the book he wrote called A Treatise of the Scurvy. Despite being about a 400-page book, his crucial experiment only takes up a couple of pages, and the key result was condensed into one seriously downplayed sentence. The remaining pages discussed other treatments, including fresh air and exercise. However, it was not until 1795 that a physician called Gilbert Blane convinced the British Royal Navy to distribute lemon juice to sailors. Historians are still debating why it did not act sooner after Lind’s finding.


Feature Image, 1: By Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
2. By The National Archives UK, Public Domain,
3. By George Chalmers, Public Domain,
4: Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz: