Scurvy Is Much Worse Than You Think

Scurvy Is Much Worse Than You Think
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Scurvy doesn't just turn your skin yellow.

In fact, in the later stages of the disease, the skin turns black, often right before you die, horribly, from massive internal hemorrhaging near the brain or heart.

While in middle school health class, you probably learned that sailors of centuries past suffered scurvy when they didn't eat enough oranges. But what you didn't hear was that between 1500 and 1800, an estimated two million of them died from it!

"It was such a problem that ship owners and governments counted on a 50 percent death rate from scurvy for their sailors on any major voyage," science journalist Catherine Price wrote in her book Vitamania. "[A]ccording to historian Stephen Bown, scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other diseases combined."

British Commodore George Anson's celebrated voyage around the world may have earned him fame and fortune, but it also resulted in the deaths of 65% of his crew. 1,300 sailors, stationed across six ships, lost their lives, the vast majority of them to scurvy. Nice job, commodore.

Scurvy wasn't simply a recurring nuisance, it was an appalling scourge, one exacerbated by its gruesome symptoms.

"Scurvy starts with lethargy so intense that people once believed laziness was a cause, rather than a symptom, of the disease," Price wrote. "Your body feels weak. Your joints ache. Your arms and legs swell, and your skin bruises at the slightest touch. As the disease progresses, your gums become spongy and your breath fetid; your teeth loosen and internal hemorrhaging makes splotches on your skin. Old wounds open; mucous membranes bleed."

That's not even the worst of it. Two separate accounts -- one from a chaplain and the other from a surgeon -- describe how the gums engorge and grow over the teeth. If not cut off, the tissue may protrude from the mouth and start to decay. The dying tissue endowed sufferers with the worst possible breath imaginable.

The scope and severity of scurvy was remarkable, especially considering how easy it is to prevent and treat. Scurvy results from a deficiency of vitamin C, which is commonly found in citrus fruits, peppers, and a variety of other plant sources. As little as 10 milligrams of the vitamin per day -- one-fifth the amount found in a single orange -- administered over a week or so, can bring a scurvy sufferer back from the brink of death.

But back when scurvy was at its deadliest, humanity was unaware of the existence of vitamins. Ships on long overseas voyages were also ill equipped to store fresh fruits and vegetables. Moreover, cooks onboard didn't know that vitamin C is destroyed by heat, as well as cutting, and even exposure to air. But perhaps the biggest impediment to solving scurvy was a slow spread of information. Journals of ship physicians dating back to the 17th century reveal that a good few stumbled upon the healing powers of oranges, limes, lemons, and cabbage, but their discoveries never made it to common knowledge.

Scurvy's decline began in 1747, when James Lind demonstrated and publicized citrus' power to treat the disease. In the 19th century, scurvy dwindled at a healthy pace. Today, scurvy is mostly a defunct disease of the past, but citizens of underdeveloped countries -- particularly children -- are still susceptible.

(Image: CDC)

Source: Price, Catherine. Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest For Nutritional Perfection. Penguin Press, 2015. The science and technology focused Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helped make this book possible.

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