Dr James Lind (1716-1794) and Scurvy

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Oranges, Scurvy and the Navy

Oranges have long been noted for their extraordinary health benefits, but it wasn’t until James Lind that its use as a treatment for scurvy was scientifically published and acknowledged. The work of Scottish surgeon James Lind on oranges was crucial in the development of navel medication. Finalising a use-able cure to reduce scurvy across the Navy resulted in the reduction of cases not only across the British Empire but across other European Navies.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the progression and expansion of Empires resulted in an increase in intercontinental voyages, these journeys comprised of extensive periods of time without access to fresh fruit or vegetables. For these voyages the crew would stock up on salted and dried produce, which prevented it from perishing along the journey. Long sea voyages had a detrimental effect on health, not only from battles, but from health and diet issues arising from lack of fresh produce which reduced access to much needed vitamins, resulting in a rise of scurvy among the seamen. An example of such was when the Mayflower travelled across the Atlantic in 1620, fifty out of one hundred and two passengers died of scurvy during a 52-day voyage.

The use of citrus fruits was understood as a treatment for scurvy, but such a usage had not been scientifically proven. Dutch ships which stocked fresh lemon juice did not suffer from sea scurvy and ships which passed through the Mediterranean and kept a stock of fresh citrus fruit also did not suffer in comparison to the ships which passed across the Atlantic, or were headed to Asia, away from fresh food supplies.

James Lind’s ‘Treatise of the Scurvy’ (1753)

James Lind’s clinical trials in 1747 aboard the HMS Salisbury, used twelve subjects, all of whom had scurvy and were treated with a range of different suggested cures. The different remedies consisted of sea water, orange and lemons, along with vinegar, with those who had received the citrus fruits recovered faster. All the findings from Lind’s experiments were published in his ‘Treatise of the Scurvy’ which was published in Edinburgh in 1753. However, Lind’s observation was not properly acted on until 1795, when the Royal Navy began to distribute lemon juice to its sailors. One of the ways to make sure that the sailors and men aboard could get their daily dose of citrus juice was for it to be mixed into the rum rations aboard ships to cover the sourness of the juices. Overall, the history of the orange for James Lind’s work was highly beneficial in saving hundreds of lives out at sea. Who knew the power of fresh orange juice to keep the doctor away?

To find out more about the history of oranges listen to our podcast!

By Georgina Henderson

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