By Xavier Riaud, (*) FINS



This is a non-exhaustive story about scurvy or how, through James Lind’s discovery, England made sure, among other reasons, it had a naval hegemony during all its imperial naval wars, scurvy being a pathology often associated with others like dysentery.

According to Lutton (2007), “during the 18th century, sailors were only summoned during war time. Throughout the century, wars were numerous: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). On the seas, the main enemy was England. France was often competing for trade in the colonies, especially in Canada, Louisiana, the West Indies and India. Despite those everlasting conflicts, the main cause of death was not fighting with the enemy but disease and consequences of ill-treated injuries which quickly became infected. During peace time, there was an average annual mortality rate of thirty percent in the tropics. (Lutton, 2007)”.


Living conditions aboard ships

“Living conditions on board were conducive to disease: humid, dirty, overcrowded and vermin-infested vessels, fatigue, malnutrition, alcoholism amongst the crew…Epidemic diseases were common. The most dreadful diseases that decimated numerous crews were caused not by what the food contained but rather by what it did not contain - scurvy or vitamin C deficiency was a major cause of sailors’ deaths (Lutton, 2007)”.



The effects of Scurvy begin in the mouth with a purplish swelling of the gums, while the bottom of the mucous membrane is pale pink. The gums then become hypertrophic, loose, spongy and bleed upon the slightest contact, which prevents eating. It is accompanied by abundant, fetid salivation and acute pain. This hypertrophy increases, sheathing the teeth in a spongy purplish tissue. On the palate, an oedematic and ecchymotic roll of flesh appears behind the incisors and canines, while on the palatal and velar mucous membrane blood suffusions or purpuric pigments can be found in abundance. Then, necrotic and gray ulcerations, sometimes haemorrhagic, appear on the gingival edge which spread to the neighboring mucous membrane and disrobe the alveolar bone. Subsequently, teeth progressively weaken and fall out. The pain is acute, haemorrhaging and salivation are regular and the breath is fetid. Numerous oral infections often evolve into juxta-dental or peri-maxillary abscesses. Subsequently the patient becomes thin and anaemic and, infected with skin haemorrhages in the form of purpura, dies in adynamia due to renal and heart failure (Riaud, 2007).


Pytheas of Massilia

Pytheas, an explorer from the Greek colony Massilia (modern day Marseille, France), made a journey of exploration to northwestern Europe around 340-325 BC. Pytheas was the first person on record to have described the polar phenomena, the Celtic tribes of Great Britain, as well as the Germanic tribes of the Northern Sea and Baltic shores. After two years travelling, “Pytheas’ companions were wrinkled: (…) most of the sailors were toothless and had rotten gums (…) (Poivre d’Arvor, 2003).


Saint-Louis (1214/1215-1270)

During the Seventh Crusade, after the conquest of Damietta, the King as well as his troops suffered from Scurvy at the siege of Al Mansurah on June 8th, 1249. They did not know it yet but when approaching Damietta, things worsened. “We never ate fish in the camp, except for the European pond terrapin, during the whole period of Lent; the European pond terrapin ate the dead people because they are gluttonous species. And because of this misfortune and the malignance of the country where a drop never falls, the whole army became ill; it was such a dreadful disease that the flesh on our legs dried and the skin on our legs was covered with black and earth-coloured flecks, like an old boot. We, who contracted such a disease, also suffered from rotted gums; giving everyone bad breath. At the end, no one was spared by this disease (Joinville, 2006)…” And this was just the beginning. “The disease worsened in the camp so much so that the dead flesh of the gums was removed by the barber to help soldiers chew and swallow their food. It was such a pity to hear the people in the camp from whom the barber was cutting the dead flesh; for they were shouting as loud as pregnant women do when giving birth (Joinville, 2006).


Vasco de Gama (v. 1469-1524)

During his journey towards the Indies in 1497-1498, Antão-Vas de Camões, companion of Vasco de Gama and a relative of the famous 18th century Portuguese poet, related: “their gums swelled, were deformed, the flesh rotted as it grew; it emitted such a fetid and dreadful smell that the air was stinking out. We had neither skillful surgeons nor doctors, but without educated practitioners we nevertheless had to cut away the putrid flesh since anyone who became infected would soon die.” That year, 100 out of 160 crewmen died of scurvy (Bevillon, 1992 ; Lutton, 2007). Poivre d’Arvor (2003) pointed out that: “At the beginning of 1498, all the members of the crew lost weight (…), they were pale, their gums were swollen, ulceric, black like coal and their teeth worked loose. At the beginning, we counted those which fell, then those which remained. Soon, those toothless mouths kept silent, terrified. They could not even bite into coconut flesh…Scurvy would never leave them alone anymore…Their breath was foul, like decomposing flesh.” On May 20th, they approached Calicut, in the Indies. Paulo de Gama, the explorer’s brother was dying. He was covered with black blotches. He lost his remaining teeth when passing by the Cape of Good Hope. Fresh food, and notably oranges, seemed to reinvigorate him. Despite numerous efforts, he collapsed in Vasco’s arms in front of the islands of the Green Cape (Poivre d’Arvor, 2003).


Jacques Cartier (1491-1557)

On May 3, 1536, during his second journey, Jacques Cartier left Canada. During his stay, he saw his whole crew decimated by a Scurvy epidemic. If it had not been for the Indians who gave them a remedy, his expedition would have been jeopardised. The potion was made of white cedar. According to Lamendin (2007), Jacques Cartier learnt the anti-scurvy quality of the pine needle from the Indians (Lamendin, 2007).


Others explorers

In 1593, Sir Richard Hawkins (1562-1622), an English navigator, proved that lemon was highly efficient against scurvy, which was confirmed in 1601 by its eradication for the first time in an intercontinental journey from England to the Indies and by the Swedish admiral Henrik Fleming in 1628.

From 1740 to 1744, facing the death of 1812 men out of 2000 embarked sailors, the circumnavigation of the admiral George Anson (1697-1762) contributed to the healing of this disease (Brown, 2003).

It is important to point out that the crew of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) were also  affected by Scurvy. The Genovese was said to have left several sailors on an island in the Caribbeans. Those sailors were affected by Scurvy which they survived by eating lemons on Curaçao island (“Healing” in Portuguese, name given to the island by those who fished them  (Poivre d’Arvor, 2003)). Bougainville (1729-1811) began his world tour in 1766. In his diary, he wrote: “Rain was constant, so was Scurvy…(Poivre d’Arvor, 2003)”. Also affected by this disease were the expeditions of Fernand de Magellan (1480-1521) through the Strait of Magellan from 1519 to 1522 and that of Francis Drake (1542-1596) through the Cape Horn from 1577 to 1580.


Vitus Bering (1681-1741)

This Danish explorer who served for the Russian Navy, and whose accurate cartography was proved by James Cook, gave his name to the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, the Bering island and to the Bering Land Bridge. During his first expedition in 1728 he travelled north until he found no land, and proved that the American continents were divided by sea by sailing through “his” strait. He did not see the American continent, a fact which was held against him upon his return. During his 3-year journey, his crew was decimated by scurvy. He died in 1741. His body as well as five of his sailors was disinterred in 1991 and brought back to Moscow, where doctors carried out a craniofacial reconstruction of his face. In doing so, they were able to claim that his teeth never showed any marks of scurvy, proving that he died from another disease (, 2009).


James Cook (1728-1779)

The famous English navigator, Captain James Cook, was supplying pickled cabbage twice or three times a week to his crews. They were always in good health and never showed any signs of scurvy during three years and seventeen days of journey. During his Australian journeys, Cook discovered similar anti-scurvy characteristics to purslane, an ancient salad (Lamendin, 2007). During his first journey (1768-1771) of exploration into the Southern Pacific Ocean, none of his sailors died of Scurvy. Cook had introduced cabbage and lemon into the crew's food. Therefore, the success of his three journeys was mainly due to the sanitary measures he used rather than to his “remedies”. Cook made sure that his crew followed strict health measures and increased stopovers to get his supplies of fresh food (Magré, 1995; Lutton, 2007). He received the Copley medal in 1776, a scientific medal delivered from the Royal Society of London because he succeeded in preserving his crew’s health.


Jean-François Galaup (1741-1788 ( ?)), count de La Pérouse       

La Pérouse was extremely careful with the health of his men. In 1773, when he was crossing the Indian Ocean, he never lost a single man to disease. Wherever he stopped, he supplied his crew with fruits and fresh meats. He also succeeded in obtaining some meticulous cleanliness. In 1782, even though his expedition in the Hudson Bay was a major success with the storming of two British forts, it also was a disaster since 400 out of the 536 sailors came back ill and 70 died because of scurvy, “the sea plague”. In 1785, on the eve of the mission ordered by Louis 16th, he made sure to fill the holds of his two ships with food known for their anti-scurvy qualities: malt, onions and pickled cabbage (Paressant, 1995; Lutton, 2007). Inspired by Cook’s recommendations, La Pérouse decided to focus notably on malt and pickled cabbage. Therefore, there were no lemons or oranges in the holds of the small squadron leaving Brest. Later, he knew how to apply the sanitary measures of his predecessor and imposed them to his crew (Lutton, 2007). “… the fresh food supplies, either vegetable or animal, cured the sick crew so drastically that our monthly-fed crews with pigs arrived on Botany Bay better in shape than when they left France even though they could not make any stopovers during 24 hours…I consider that beer malt, Prussian beer, wine, pickled cabbage are only anti-scurvy because the substances, either liquid or solid, barely adulterated and constituted healthy food for men; they are, however, not enough to treat scurvy but useful to delay it and with that respect, its use is highly recommended as I look with medical subtlety the staring looks of the French and English doctors: we would drink full bottles of it that it would not do as good to the sailors as slices of rosbeef, turtles, fish, fruits and herbs (La Pérouse, 1788).

However, in the last letter he wrote to his wife Eleonore on February 7, 1788, La Pérouse indicated: “Upon my arrival to France, you will take me for an old man of a hundred years old! I do not have any teeth and hair left…” Hit by scurvy, he had lost all his teeth (Lamendin & al., 2006; Launet, 2008 and Gasse, no date given).


James Lind (1716-1794)

As for James Lind (1716-1794), the Scottish doctor and pioneer for better hygiene in the British royal navy, he led what is considered today to be one of the first scientific tests against scurvy.

While on board the Salisbury on May 20, 1747, and after having divided a group of twelve sailors affected with scurvy into six groups of two sailors, he administered different substances to each of them: cider, elixir of vitriol, vinegar, a concoction of herbs and spices, seawater, and finally oranges and lemons. Only the last group who had eaten citrus fruits recovered quickly from scurvy, the marks of the disease disappearing from the skin and gums in a few days. He published his results in 1753 (Lind, 1756). But it was only from 1795 that the Navy followed the recommendations of the Scottish doctor by supplying lime juice to all British vessels (Lind, 1780).


The Empire and scurvy

This pathology was notably discovered on the soldiers of Bonaparte’s expeditionary forces in Egypt from 1798 to 1801 (Aubry, 2001). Throughout the Napoleonic epic, the soldiers who walked, advanced and fought had priority. From 1805 to 1810, another problem occurred in the European campaigns: the lack of supply, which was rather basic until then, really became nonexistent. Scurvy epidemics hit everywhere. This pathology was often associated with other consecutives to malnutrition, to the lack of hygiene during the great campaigns and it reached its climax during the Russian campaign.


The taking of fresh fruits and more particularly that of citruses had become systematic in the British Navy since 1795. However that was not the case in the French armies where it was rather sporadic during the wars of the Empire. The well-fed British sailors were in good health and were able to fight men who were often sick as they lacked Vitamin C due to the symptoms previously developed and their subsequent weakening. In the long-term view, the Royal Navy’s victory was inevitable given the lack of French soldiers in good health.

James Lind (1716-1794), (BIUM, 2011).


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(*) Dental Surgeon, Doctor in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, and Laureate of the National Academy of Dental Surgery.