Saturday, May 9, 2015

Discovering Scurvy

Human Health

Marine Travails: “I watched the water-snakes” (1877), illustration by Gustave Doré for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Source. University of Adelaide, South Australia

An article, by Jonathan Lamb, in Public Domain Review gives a brief overview on the human disease of scurvy, which is caused by a nutritional deficiency, and in particular a lack of Vitamin C. (Scurvy is rare among animals.) This was common scourge among sailors undertaking long voyages starting in the 15th century and during its Age of Discovery. Scurvy and its cure are inextricably linked. “The chemical name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is derived from the Latin name of scurvy, scorbutus, which also provides the adjective scorbutic.

Lamb, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, writes that scurvy affected the senses in undesirable ways, making life unbearable and unpleasant, where everyday sensations became accentuated and altered to a grotesque and inexplicable degree. For example, common pleasant sensations, under the influence of scurvy, became unpalatable and in some cases oddly fatal:

Sudden sounds, such as the report of a musket or a cannon, were well known to kill scorbutic sailors. Even pleasant stimuli such as a drink of fresh water, or a long-awaited taste of fruit, could provoke a seizure and put an end to their lives. In his Omoo, Melville recalls how once
the Trades scarce filled our swooning sails; the air was languid with the aroma of a thousand strange, flowering shrubs. Upon inhaling it, one of the sick who had recently shown symptoms of scurvy, cried out in pain, and was carried below. This is no unusual effect in such cases.2
When, badly afflicted with scurvy, Bernardin de St Pierre landed on Mauritius, he was disgusted by the trees, which smelt of excrement, and flowers such as the veloutier were alluring only at a distance for the odour “quite close is perfectly loathesome”.3 Sometimes the sensation passed the frontier from pain to pleasure, or vice versa. Here is Anders Sparrman, a scorbutic naturalist on the Resolution who was hunting ducks when at last he landed in New Zealand: “The blood from these warm birds which were dying in my hands, running over my fingers, excited me to a degree I had never previously experienced. . . .This filled me with amazement, but the next moment I felt frightened”.4
It does sound frightening, does it not? If scurvy undermined the human desire for knowledge or discovery, it didn’t last long. Such a desire is often greater than fear of disease or illness. Even so, scurvy remained a health concern well into the 20th century, Wikipedia notes:
Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains) and by soldiers similarly deprived of these foods for extended periods. It was described by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–c. 380 BC), and herbal cures for scurvy have been known in many native cultures since prehistory. Scurvy was one of the limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers of the passengers and crew on long-distance voyages.[2] This became a significant issue in Europe from the beginning of the modern era in the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, continuing to play a significant role through World War I in the early 20th century.
Today, no one in the developed world is worried about scurvy (although it does occur in rare cases when resulting from severe malnutrition). That being said, I remember my mother trying to “scare us” into eating more fruits laden with Vitamin C (like oranges and grapefruits) by saying if we didn’t we would soon get scurvy. A tale that even as youngsters we knew as a truth stretched beyond its boundaries, yet we still found our mother's attempts at healthy eating amusing if not endearing. She no doubt had heard from her mother, a product of the 19th century Europe, similar tales that scurvy presented.

The story of scurvy can perhaps be explained as a tale of what happens when desire for progress overrides knowledge and understanding. It is true that we ought to be careful where we tread, and it is also true that not all things progressive initially seem beneficial to humans. Yet, some of the ideas of discovery and advancement eventually prove beneficial to humans—often decades or centuries later—when the knowledge and understanding of such discoveries, often scientific in nature, catch up to romance and desire.

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