And so in 1632 seven men were left in Smeerenburg to wait out the winter
September 29, 2013 9:47 PM   Subscribe

We tend to think now of scurvy as mainly a punch line, if anything—“scurvy-ridden rats” is the kind of popular pirate epithet that appears in even the most G-rated family fare. Partly this is because now, fully understanding its mechanism, it seems a particularly ridiculous problem. But ask anyone who's suffered from it: it is a singularly horrid and terrible way to die.
- The Spoil of Mariners, Colin Dickey, Lapham's Quarterly.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (28 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
However, if a mate of yours once got mild scurvey due to an atrocious diet, entirely their own fault, that is entirely worth many years of mockery.
posted by wilful at 10:06 PM on September 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Jacques Cartier's expedition was cured of scurvy, overwintering at the mouth of the St Charles River, 1535-36, by drinking arbor vitae tea, an Iroquois cure. Considering how horrific an affliction it was, it's astonishing how many times cures were discovered and apparently disregarded or forgotten.
posted by perhapsolutely at 10:36 PM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]



I have a weird association with scurvy and it's history. Whenever I read or hear something about scurvy I always associate it with what at the time was a life changing bit of enlightenment to the ways of the world.

I first learned about it in Brownies on a snowshoeing outing on a local mountain in Vancouver. We were learning some basic survival skills and our guide told us all about this disease that used to make sailors in the olden days really sick. It was because they didn't get vitamin C or even know what vitamin C was. She told us a story about some specific sailors who sailed to this area and were really sick and if they had only known that the needles of one of the trees that surrounded him were full of vitamin C they would have been fine. The tree is a western hemlock and the guide showed us how to identify it and got us to taste the needles. We learned to call this tree an 'Ami' tree and were told for a number of reasons that it was a good tree to be your friend if we got lost in the woods.

Well the whole sordid story of scurvy and the fact that, holy moly you could do things like make tea out of trees was absolutely fascinating to little ole me. I became interested in sailing history and wild foods. It opened up whole new worlds to me.

Fast forward a few years. I'm now around 11 and in Guides. We were at a camp where for the most part we were on our own to cook our meals and had separate camping plots then the leaders. Since were were in the woods in made sense to me that I would gather and use some of the plants I knew we could eat. It was a bit cold and wet, so I decided to boil up some hemlock needles and make some tea. The other girls I was with thought the whole thing was really neat. So here I was steeping some needles and talking about scurvy and sailors and vitamin C and wasn't it neat that we could make things from trees when a couple of leaders came along and asked what we were doing. I told them rather proudly that I was making everyone hemlock tea.

The reaction was not as I expected. The leaders completely lost their shit because HOLY SHIT HEMLOCK KILLED SOCRATES!!! OMG THESE GIRLS ARE GOING TO DIE.' Now I may have only been 11 but what was wrong with these women. The Socrates hemlock was totally different and well leaves not needles. Really they didn't need to worry it was fine. I've drank this before and nothing happened. It's perfectly safe, see watch and "OMG DON'T DRINK THAT, WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU STUPID CHILD."

I then quite indignantly told them they were wrong and that hey 'scurvy, Brownies, Ami trees....' My protests and attempt at education fell on deaf ears. I ended up having to promise to not ever get any plants from the woods or I'd be sent home. The whole thing made me look at adults in a different way. I learned they didn't all know everything and some might even be sorta dumb. I also learned that you couldn't always trust what they said or their judgement. My promise to not get plants lasted a whole two days. I became defiant and started to suck on hemlock needles just to spite them. These things could cure things like scurvy goddammit and they're making it out to be all scary and bad was part of my 11 year old justification for disobeying.

So yeah as weird as it may sound scurvy makes me all nostalgic and a bit warm and fuzzy inside. It's a marker in my young self finding some independence in both thought and action.
posted by Jalliah at 10:37 PM on September 29, 2013 [231 favorites]


This is so weird because we were just romanticizing scurvy not ten minutes ago. Jibb also pointed out this previously poignant piece on the blue.
posted by chemoboy at 11:19 PM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The backstory behind this gruesome means of death lies in the body’s inability to produce collagen. Vitamin C is necessary for the hydroxylation of proline and lysine, and without these collagen can no longer form. Collagen, in turn, is necessary to keep your body together, and as scurvy advances joint pain and swelling accompany wounds that do not heal or even re-open and begin to bleed again. (Trapped in the Arctic in 1832, explorer John Ross began to bleed from wounds he’d received decades earlier in the Napoleonic Wars.) Your teeth come loose from your gums, because your body literally can no longer hold itself together.

I recently read about the "re-opening old wounds" thing and was blown away. It's straight out of Cronenberg, and really makes me feel... cobbled together. Like we're malfunctioning old machines kept in one piece with spit and duct tape.
posted by brundlefly at 11:25 PM on September 29, 2013 [21 favorites]


I always wanted to deliberately get a case of scurvy just to delight acquaintances with a ridiculous story. After doing a bit of research, though, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to completely remove vitamin c from your diet. Not only does it occur naturally in a whole lot of food you take for granted, but it is added to all kinds of stuff. I would still like to get the scurvy, but I don't think I have the discipline to so closely watch my diet.
posted by Literaryhero at 11:26 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I recently read about the "re-opening old wounds" thing and was blown away. It's straight out of Cronenberg, and really makes me feel... cobbled together. Like we're malfunctioning old machines kept in one piece with spit and duct tape.
posted by brundlefly at 2:25 AM on September 30

I've always been attracted to that kind of organic-mechanical mindset - the idea that we're all just stumbling along at the tolerances of our physical bodies, in one direction or another. For that reason I loved Dan Simmons' novel The Terror, because whatever its shortfalls as a work of literature it absolutely nails the brutal feeling that we are only as capable as our last meal permits us to be.
posted by ZaphodB at 12:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


it would be nearly impossible to completely remove vitamin c from your diet

Yeah, we tend to associate it with lime juice and so on, but I believe even fresh meat generally contains enough to prevent scurvy(?).
posted by Segundus at 1:14 AM on September 30, 2013


A bit of biochemistry tivia: Scurvy is also known by its latin name, scorbutus. Thus the chemical name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid.
posted by TedW at 5:18 AM on September 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


I would still like to get the scurvy, but I don't think I have the discipline

And so it came to pass, at 2:02am on a Monday, that our Literary Hero uttered the greatest sentence yet uttered in the 21st Century.
posted by aramaic at 6:14 AM on September 30, 2013 [16 favorites]


I would still like to get the scurvy,
but I don't think I have the discipline


How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin:
First we take the hemlock,
Then make collogen
 
posted by Herodios at 6:40 AM on September 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah, we tend to associate it with lime juice and so on, but I believe even fresh meat generally contains enough to prevent scurvy(?).

Yes, it does. But canned and dried meat don't necessarily. Here's some canned beef with 0% of the RDA of vitamin C.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:12 AM on September 30, 2013


However, if a mate of yours once got mild scurvey due to an atrocious diet, entirely their own fault, that is entirely worth many years of mockery.

A mate of mine once got scurvy AND rickets due to their habit of eating terrible fried food and never going outside, such was his commitment to the nerd lifestyle. He also freaked out because his choices to get enough Vitamin D were "Go sit in the sun for 15 minutes several times a day every day" or "Get this series of painful injections" and he was terrified of needles but sitting in the sun wasn't something nerds do!
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:01 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Two kids in my first-year dorm in undergrad got scurvy by subsisting on only the worst of the cafeteria food. That was quite a feat considering that my school had a weirdly good meal plan with all kinds of awesome fresh food.

The t-shirts the dorm council sold that year had a picture of a lemon and a lime, captioned "Get yer [building name] Citrus!"
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 8:06 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


After doing a bit of research, though, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to completely remove vitamin c from your diet.

Living off of nothing but beer and Pepperoni Hot Pockets for a semester will do it.

I never got scurvy as a college student, because I had a balanced diet — I also had gin and tonic once in a while.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:58 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just chiming in as someone who knows someone who got scurvy, discovered by that person's oral surgeon. Unfuckingbelievable.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 9:00 AM on September 30, 2013


My junior high history teacher would offer every year to set someone up on a straw pallet and feed them a diet guaranteed to develop scurvy in the subject, for $500 plus room and "board". No one took him up on it.

(This is the same guy who forced us to stand up and say "Long Live his Name" with hand over heart every time Samuel de Champlain was mentioned, or you would "lose points for your row". We never worked out what the points did but kids would get beat up at recess if they missed their mark...)
posted by hearthpig at 9:40 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maciej Ceglowski has a fascinating essay on his blog about scurvy, the history (and temporary loss) of its cure, and the process of scientific understanding.
posted by riotnrrd at 10:35 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just chiming in as someone who knows someone who got scurvy,

Me too! Me too! Seth Brown, of Massachusetts. Great guy. Still a freelance writer, still looking for work. Will never ever live the scurvy incident down.
posted by ook at 11:22 AM on September 30, 2013


I always wanted to deliberately get a case of scurvy just to delight acquaintances with a ridiculous story. After doing a bit of research, though, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to completely remove vitamin c from your diet. Not only does it occur naturally in a whole lot of food you take for granted, but it is added to all kinds of stuff. I would still like to get the scurvy, but I don't think I have the discipline to so closely watch my diet.

You're in luck then, because it turns out you can get scurvy much more easily by taking a lot for awhile and abruptly quitting: rebound scurvy.
posted by jamjam at 1:54 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


So I actually met someone a few years ago who managed to get himself scurvy while working as a summer intern at Microsoft (!). MSFT pays its interns pretty darn well, puts them up in corporate apartments, has real food on campus, etc.., but this guy apparently lived off of cans of baked beans. At some point during the summer, he got sick enough that he went to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with scurvy. He asked the doctor what he should do and the doc tells him: "Eat an orange. Seriously. Like maybe once a month. It doesn't take much. Even looking at some citrus from time to time is pretty much enough to prevent scurvy." Heck, I'm pretty sure that the vitamin C in most fresh meats is enough to prevent scurvy. He didn't seem to view this incident as evidence anything was particularly wrong with his living practices however.
posted by zachlipton at 3:37 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I got a vitamin B deficiency eating nothing but PB&J and bagels for 8 weeks straight while working on a boat.

Seeing as I was working on a boat and I harbor secret pirate ambitions, I was really, really disappointed that it was not actually scurvy.
posted by olinerd at 4:59 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would still like to get the scurvy, but I don't think I have the discipline to so closely watch my diet.

It's not that hard - it would be a diet made of endless delicious fries and all sorts of yummies. But scurvy is the disintegration of your body. And your brain is part of your body.

"and when their heads were opened all the brain was found to be black, tainted, and putrefied."

Also, it's hard enough as it is to keep your teeth healthy throughout the length of our massive old age. I suspect scurvy is probably one of those things for which "a complete recovery" is not an entirely accurate turn of phrase. You can have "a full recovery" from an amputation, but that doesn't mean your limb grew back. :-/
posted by anonymisc at 5:29 PM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


"The organ meat of the animal actually contains vitamin C. And the thing about vitamin C is that you need more of it in a high carbohydrate diet, but if you’re eating carnivorously there’s enough in the animal flesh. So I just eat the organ meat and the connective tissue and everything else."
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:57 PM on September 30, 2013


Couldn't these people just eat atrociously, but throw in a multi-vitamin once in a while?
posted by Chrysostom at 10:45 AM on October 9, 2013


My college nutritional sciences professor said that college students rarely get scurvy because ketchup and pizza sauce are both sources of vitamin C.
posted by nestor_makhno at 8:50 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regular pizza-shop pizza has vitamin C (from the sauce), but frozen pizza and Hot Pockets don't.

I'm not sure what that says about frozen pizza, but it's not good.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:41 AM on October 22, 2013


I'm not sure what that says about frozen pizza

♩ ♫ You say tomato / I say carboxymethylcellulose, carageenan, and red dye #40 / let's call the whole thing off ♬ ♫
posted by ook at 9:31 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


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