In my business I hear a lot of generally held but blatantly wrong myths about science, health and diet. On of the most common is the idea that the modern diet is terrible. It is true that there are some failings in the diet of the common American- an overuse of preservatives, the addition of high fructose corn syrup into almost every processed foodstuff, the use of steroids and antibiotics on meat animals- but the American consumer has the most plentiful and varied diet in the history of the planet. And yet most Americans use dietary supplements frequently and many would say that their health is in danger without a daily multivitamin. Even though most don’t even know what vitamins are.
Through most of human history the problem wasn’t eating a balanced diet that would promote good health, it was simply getting enough food to continue to live. Food was food, and you either got enough or you didn’t. Most diets were monotonous and unless you were rich consisted of whatever was at hand. If you didn’t starve you were lucky and if you still died of a disease related to dietary insufficiency it was though of as being like any other disease- largely a mystery or the will of the gods.
But some people were not beyond noticing that certain diseases occurred in certain circumstances. One disease, Scurvy, gained notice when it started showing up among sailors during the late 1400’s. Scurvy, a disease characterized by teeth falling out, weakness, joint pain, bruising, and bleeding of the gums, was not unknown by the late 15th century. It had been commented on during the Crusades as a disease endemic to populations under siege. But until that time it had never been a particular problem for sailors.
One of the first instances of this new threat was noticed when Vasco DeGama’s made the first successful trip from Portugal to India in 1497. DeGama’s ship traveled around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, following the route pioneered by Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, and nine months later made port in Calicut, India with a significant portion of the crew sick with the disease.
Numerous accounts of a similar nature began to appear. Why was this disease suddenly striking shipbound men? It had never been a problem before and men had been sailing on ships for thousands of years. Now we know it was because the kind of sailing they were doing had changed. Until the 15th century, most ships had never sailed far away from the shore, which allowed them to supplement their usual rations of dried beans, salt pork and hardtack (an dry unleavened bread) with local vegetables from their frequent stops in port. With the advent of the European voyages of discovery, ships were suddenly embarking on much longer journeys, often far from sight of land. As a result, shipboard diets were more sevirely restricted to what could be carried on board.
The first clue to what was causing this pandemic of scurvy among seafaring men was found in 1535 when Jacques Cartier was exploring the St Laurence River. Finding themselves in what is now the Provence of Quebec in the winter of ‘35-36, Cartier’s crew was forced to eat shipboard rations for a prolonged period. The result was that twenty-five men died and over a hundred were rendered incapacitated by an outbreak of scurvy. The local Indians came to the rescue, having the men drink a potion of water and pine needles. Many of the sailors improved under this treatment. Unfortunately this was not enough of a remedy (and probably not very appetizing unless you were already suffering from the disease) so scurvy would remain the bane of seafarers and a not insignificant problem for land bound populations with poor diets for the next two hundred years.
Finally in 1734 another clue to what was causing this ailment was found by botanist J. G. H. Kramer during the War of Polish Succession. He noticed that officers were often immune to scurvy. He also connected the disease to diet, seeing that while officers’ meals included green vegetables, the enlisted soldiers did not. When he suggested that the lower ranks be given a diet more like the officers, he was ignored and undoubtedly laughed at. After all, fresh vegetables were expensive and expenses were not to be wasted on the common sailor. (A military idea that continues until our own time, as recent requests for body armor from our own soldiers might indicate.)
A Scottish medical officer was to find the next piece of the puzzle in 1747. Dr. James Lind took a dozen British navymen suffering from scurvy and divided them into pairs, giving each pair a different dietary supplement. The pair that was fed citrus fruits recovered. But Dr. Lind had no more success than Mr. Kramer when he tried to convince officers to add citrus fruits to the diets of the enlisted.
However, scurvy would soon become impossible to ignore for the British Navy. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, England was losing thousands of casualties to scurvy every year. For a maritime power this was a disaster. Some British captains had caught on to the fact that the monotonous diet of the sailors was the problem. Captain Cook had lost only one man to scurvy during his explorations by supplementing the shipboard diet with malt, sauerkraut, and fresh vegetables whenever possible. (The beer and sauerkraut didn’t do much to help, but he didn’t know that.) But the navy as a whole was still unwilling to give in. Conditions were deplorable overall. During the eighteenth century the British navy lost over 80 men to disease and desertion for every man killed in battle. Samuel Johnson was driven to remark that no man would serve in the British navy if he had the brains to get thrown into jail. He said that the jails had better food and company, more room, and less chance of drowning.
Finally these conditions resulted in a general mutiny in 1797. Through a combination of brutal retribution and minor concessions the navy averted a complete disruption. One of the demands given in to was a demand by the sailors for a ration of lemon juice for each man on ship. Well, it was given into after a fashion. In the time honored military tradition of being loathe to spend money on the enlisted, the navy compromised by supplying each sailor with a ration of limes (lemons being more expensive). And members of the British navy soon became known as limeys, a name they carry to this day.
But why people were getting scurvy was still a mystery. One that would continue into the nineteenth century. The problem was ameliorated for the men aboard British navy ships but scurvy remained a problem for economically disadvantaged people on land. Especially children who were not breast fed.