Yesterday we touched upon medicine’s tendency to stick with certain treatments even when there’s a lack of credible evidence attesting to their efficacy. But there’s a flip side to that foible—some physicians’ genius for concocting cures on the fly, with no lab or patient data to assist them.
Such was certainly the case with scurvy, the bane of generations of sailors. The punchline to a million a pirate jokes is also history’s most lethal “occupational disease”: between 1500 and 1700, scurvy killed roughly two million maritime professionals. Yet it might have killed many, many more had countless shipboard physicians not been aware of vitamin C’s curative properties—something doctors were actually aware of centuries before James Lind famously extolled the virtues of oranges. The citrus cure’s 15th-century roots are expertly traced in the highly recommended The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C.
The book reaches back and finds a mention of the oranges-scurvy connection in the 1498 log of Vasco de Gama. But our favorite part is this snippet from the journal of a Carmelite missionary who helped explore California in 1602:
Health came not by doctors or surgeons, medicines or other drugs from the pharmacies, or by any human remedy understood to be a medicine usually given in this disease. If there was any human relief it was, in one case, the fresh and substantial food which was given them by the good efforts of the General and the alcada major of that province, and in the other a miraculous one, which brought health in a visible manner, namely, the eating of a little fruit found in those islands in great abundance at this season, and which the natives call jocoistles…
The way that the virtue of this little fruit came to be known was this. When some soldiers went to the island with Father Comisario, to say mass and bury somedead, a corporal anxious to try things of the country, plucked one and cutting it in half with a knife and separating the skin from teh pulp, put it into his mouth with difficulty, as best he could. He tried to chew it to see what flavor it had, and found it had good taste. He soon commenced to throw out of his mouth much fetid blood.
Nineteen days later, the fruit sampler and his shipmates were completely over their bouts with scurvy. Too bad they didn’t publicize their discovery a bit better, or hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.