Scott and Scurvy

I took a class yesterday with Django Wexler on writing flintlock fantasy (thank you, Cat Rambo, for providing these excellent classes!), and I realized that about 70 percent of what I write is flintlock fantasy. So I’ll do a post on that sometime. In the meantime, this article was recommended as a fascinating study in how the British Navy discovered the cure for scurvy, and due to technological developments, lost it again — and why.

Recently I have been re-reading one of my favorite books, The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole. I can’t do the book justice in a summary, other than recommend that you drop everything and read it, but there is one detail that particularly baffled me the first time through, and that I resolved to understand better once I could stand to put the book down long enough.

Writing about the first winter the men spent on the ice, Cherry-Garrard casually mentions an astonishing lecture on scurvy by one of the expedition’s doctors:

Atkinson inclined to Almroth Wright’s theory that scurvy is due to an acid intoxication of the blood caused by bacteria…
There was little scurvy in Nelson’s days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it. We had, at Cape Evans, a salt of sodium to be used to alkalize the blood as an experiment, if necessity arose. Darkness, cold, and hard work are in Atkinson’s opinion important causes of scurvy.

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be mixed in with sailors’ grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long ocean voyages.

But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. Scott left a base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?


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