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Guinea pigs, monkeys, and humans.
March 8, 2010 12:49 AM   Subscribe

How we lost the cure for scurvy. "Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747...but here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times."
posted by rodgerd (90 comments total) 169 users marked this as a favorite

 
Distressingly enough, the "blood acidity" nonsense keeps popping up among "alternative medicine" followers.
posted by Skeptic at 1:24 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


That was extremely interesting.
posted by Jimbob at 1:25 AM on March 8, 2010


That's amazing. And a great example of how slipping into what turns out to be believing correlation=causation is dangerous, on several levels.

The guinea pigs type coincidence is one that has keep me up at nights on occasion. Think of all the Vitamin C like explanations we might not know about because the scientists working on those problems had the misfortune to select the equivalent of dogs (who along with almost all mammals) synthesis vitamin C instead of guinea pigs
posted by Mitheral at 1:26 AM on March 8, 2010


Mitheral Sooner or later, somebody would have stumbled upon Vitamin C. There were too many scientists studying nutrition at the time for this not to happen.

In fact, I'd be surprised if guinea pig scurvy hadn't already happened in earlier experiments. The achievement of Holst and Frolich was that they noticed something they hadn't set out looking for. It's like the discovery of antibiotics: thousands of scientists and students had had to throw away "spoiled" bacterial cultures all over the world, before Fleming noticed that the lethal effect of penicillium contamination on bacteria could actually be rather useful. Serendipity matters, but only if you keep an open mind.
posted by Skeptic at 1:38 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yay! Finding this kind of stuff is what Metafilter is for.
posted by woodblock100 at 1:48 AM on March 8, 2010


A great read! Well found
posted by russmaxdesign at 2:15 AM on March 8, 2010


Very awesome.
posted by XMLicious at 2:24 AM on March 8, 2010


A young man in Eugene, Oregon once related a story of a friend. Said friend was a typical college student, living away from home, and as he abhorred cooking was surviving on ramen noodles and soda -- to such an extent that he fell ill...with scurvy.
posted by iamck at 2:33 AM on March 8, 2010


Fascinating!
posted by Xany at 2:35 AM on March 8, 2010


Fantastic article, thanks.
posted by equalpants at 2:45 AM on March 8, 2010


From the article: fresh meat contains adequate amounts of vitamin C, with particularly high concentrations in the organ meats that explorers considered a delicacy. Eat a [polar] bear liver every few weeks and scurvy will be the least of your problems.

Yeah, but in 1597 explorers died from sharing just one polar bear liver.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:46 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


You can laugh now, but it won't be so funny when they lose the formula for gnarly.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:48 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


I really enjoyed that piece, thanks for the great post.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 2:53 AM on March 8, 2010


Also, that reminded me a lot of this pH diet a college friend of mine swore by, kind of goes along with Skeptic's comment.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 2:56 AM on March 8, 2010


OMG, you forgot the cure for scurvy? Go suck a lemon.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:05 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The best part is at the end:

tl;dr: scurvy bad, science hard.
posted by Rangeboy at 3:13 AM on March 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Great piece. Beautifully written. I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?
posted by smoke at 3:35 AM on March 8, 2010


This is excellent.
posted by smorange at 3:47 AM on March 8, 2010


Having not read Metafilter in months, this story was the first link I clicked on my return. What a great, informative, geeky read! I've also ordered the book mentioned in the post, will enjoy reading that, too.
posted by davem at 4:12 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now that's best of the Web.
posted by RussHy at 4:13 AM on March 8, 2010


Great read.

I hadn't realised that Vitamin C is called Ascorbic Acid because it is a-scourbic, ie. fights scurvy.
posted by criticalbill at 4:18 AM on March 8, 2010 [22 favorites]


I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?

Most of us are losing Vitamin D, something our body can produce but only in the presence of ultraviolet radiation. We have been told horror stories as children about how a single sun burn = melanoma in sixty years, such to the extent that we now stay indoors most of the time and only venture outside under a thick application of protective gear. Rickets is so coming back.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:27 AM on March 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


Native people in Canada knew the cure for scurvy in c.1600. They drank cedar tea in the winter. It's bitter, but tasty.
posted by jb at 4:47 AM on March 8, 2010


A while ago I read the book Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail which goes into more detail about the struggle to get Lind's discovery accepted. I had no idea that all that work so nearly came to nothing. Thank you, this is an outstanding article.
posted by smcg at 4:47 AM on March 8, 2010


But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it.

If they were so ignorant, why did Shackleton write in South:

We were, of course, very short of the farinaceous element in our diet. The flour would last ten weeks. After that our sledging rations would last us less than three months. Our meals had to consist mainly of seal and penguin; and though this was valuable as an anti-scorbutic, so much so that not a single case of scurvy occurred amongst the party, yet it was a badly adjusted diet, and we felt rather weak and enervated in consequence.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:01 AM on March 8, 2010


But unless you already understand and believe in the vitamin model of nutrition, the notion of a trace substance that exists both in fresh limes and bear kidneys, but is absent from a cask of lime juice because you happened to prepare it in a copper vessel, begins to sound pretty contrived.

Man, is this fascinating. Great post!

/drinks a glass of orange juice.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:04 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


smoke: Great piece. Beautifully written. I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?

Ray Mears's raison d'etre is to preserve ancient knowledge like this, and luckily he's not the only one.

This old Time article
covers similar ground.

Fantastic post!
posted by Acey at 5:12 AM on March 8, 2010


I'll bet the Polynesians had the scurvy problem licked almost a thousand years earlier...
posted by fairmettle at 5:19 AM on March 8, 2010


"I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?"

What strikes me as odd about losing the cure for scurvy is that the sailors and explorers surely encountered native populations from the Inuit to Scandinavia and further still in their travels that weren't suffering from scurvy and yet had no citrus ever and fresh vegetables for only part of the year if at all. Seems duh to me looking back from 2010. Perhaps the as yet undiscovered modern analogues are right in front of us where we are relying too much on accepted reason.
posted by vapidave at 5:34 AM on March 8, 2010


Pollomacho If they were so ignorant, why did Shackleton write in South:...

If you read the article, you'll know why Shackleton wrote that, and also why he was trundling all that heavy seal and penguin meat on his sledges rather than a lighter, and more effective antiscorbutic like Captain Cook's citrus juice.
posted by Skeptic at 5:38 AM on March 8, 2010


Previously, from the same author : Argentina on Two Steaks a Day, The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel.
posted by suckerpunch at 5:40 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ray Mears's raison d'etre is to preserve ancient knowledge like this, and luckily he's not the only one.

I don't think the lesson to take from this is to see the traditional way of doing things more positively, but to do lots of rigorous testing with good controls and not rest too easily with verisimilar solutions.
posted by phrontist at 5:48 AM on March 8, 2010


If you read the article, you'll know why Shackleton wrote that

I read the article, then I looked up the Shackelton quote. Perhaps you should read the article again. If you had read it you would see that Cook and Shackleton nearly died in 1902 because they did not trundle anti-scourbics.

Shackleton clearly knows that meat contains nutrients that stem scurvy. He may not know to call it Vitamin C, but he knows enough to place it in the paragraph about nutrition rather than another paragraph about sanitation where it would be had he really believed scurvy to be a disease of tainted meat. Further, he clearly understood that a balanced diet was necessary to maintain performance.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:50 AM on March 8, 2010


It is a good thing this has never happened since, or will ever happen ever again.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:04 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be.

Evolution, maybe.
posted by nevercalm at 6:17 AM on March 8, 2010


In college, I knew someone who in an attempt to lose weight, consumed naught but Dr. Pepper and saltine crackers for an extended period of time. She got scurvy.

And yet her diploma weighs just as much as mine! At the very least, I feel that her should have an asterisk '* - Contracted Scurvy' on it.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:22 AM on March 8, 2010 [33 favorites]


Great article, thanks for posting it.
posted by marxchivist at 6:29 AM on March 8, 2010


robocop: That's impressive - there was a contest in 2006 offering "an ounce of gold and a romp with a prostitute in Christchurch to the first Antarctic participant who is diagnosed with scurvy".
posted by djb at 6:36 AM on March 8, 2010


So, if you want spend a weekend curled up in a ball, read Jane Jacobs' last book Dark Times Ahead about how technology and information can vanish from a population within a generation.
posted by The Whelk at 6:58 AM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Dark Age Ahead
posted by ericost at 7:24 AM on March 8, 2010


That's amazing. And a great example of how slipping into what turns out to be believing correlation=causation is dangerous, on several levels.

That's not really correct at all. They performed experiments, but interpreted the results incorrectly. They should have done more experiments to narrow down their results, but at the time that wasn't seen as necessary. If they had tried using boiled down lemon juice they would have discovered right away that it didn't work.
posted by delmoi at 7:26 AM on March 8, 2010


Lost knowledge: A friend was in the Coast Guard. Somehow he got scabies. His military doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. Scabies are known as an issue in places were lots of people live together. You know, like on ships. My friend ended up having to seek help from a civilian doctor, who recognized the condition. This was around 30 years ago, but I'm still blown away that those military medics couldn't recognize something like that.
posted by Goofyy at 7:39 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find stories of polar expeditions fascinating. I wonder if as in real estate, where you never want to have the biggest house on the block, there is a similar situation in polar expeditions where you never want to be the biggest man in the expedition. That is assuming that they divide up the provisions for meals equally.
posted by digsrus at 7:43 AM on March 8, 2010


Great little article.

Very tangential: Dan Simmons' The Terror was a horror novel fictionalization of the lost expedition of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. One of the various threads happening in it were the icebound ships' crew being stalked and killed by an ice monster. The thing was, the chapters devoted to the dwindling survivors disintegrating from scurvy was an order of magnitude more horrific and terrifying than any supernatural giant polar bear being a cosmic dick at them. Scurvy, like a lot of deficiency diseases, is one of those things that it's just horrifyingly absurd that the body can even do to itself.
posted by Drastic at 7:59 AM on March 8, 2010


This is good.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:02 AM on March 8, 2010


correlation=causation is dangerous, on several levels

It's dangerous thinking, definitely. I'm just not sure that trope applies to this story, though.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:03 AM on March 8, 2010


I wonder if as in real estate, where you never want to have the biggest house on the block, there is a similar situation in polar expeditions where you never want to be the biggest man in the expedition.

I would think the extra fat would give you both a reserve of calories and an extra layer of insulation, that is provided you weren't marching over the tundra for miles and therefore having to lug the extra weight of your own butt.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:03 AM on March 8, 2010


I'll bet the Polynesians had the scurvy problem licked almost a thousand years earlier...

They did, but they had a different problem to contend with: beriberi, or thiamine deficiency.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2010


"I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?"

The process for making concrete was lost for about 1300 years and was only rediscovered in the 1750s. It's not exactly the same as Roman concrete but it's largely similar.
posted by electroboy at 8:17 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?

We still haven't perfected the warp drive technology used by the ancient Egyptians, Maya, and Atlanteans.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:21 AM on March 8, 2010 [11 favorites]


If I remember correctly, there is a component to modern nuclear weapons so secret, and classified to such a degree, that no one is sure how to make this part anymore, and they were having great difficulty finding anyone who was still alive, and involved with the research on that part.
posted by chambers at 8:32 AM on March 8, 2010


"A young man in Eugene, Oregon once related a story of a friend. Said friend was a typical college student, living away from home, and as he abhorred cooking was surviving on ramen noodles and soda -- to such an extent that he fell ill...with scurvy."

He should have added Skittles to that diet and he would have been just fine.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:34 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Note: that part was in American designs only, and I think was part of the implostion sequence, and acted as an optimizer. When the US was looking up upgrade/refit there warheds, this problem arose.
posted by chambers at 8:36 AM on March 8, 2010


"Mitheral Sooner or later, somebody would have stumbled upon Vitamin C. There were too many scientists studying nutrition at the time for this not to happen."

Sure, it's pretty fundamental however it is the later in sooner or later that is worrying disheartening (not that we can do anything about it). Imagine how the research would have been set back if the first three widely published scientists to experiment with scurvy had used rats, mice and ferrets as test subjects. Research would have "proven", well I'm not sure what it would have proven but it would have been wrong. See also the bacterial cause of ulcers.

Science is filled to the brim with these coincidences. Some of them are only sort of coincidences where science has been lead to the right answer by previous observation and yet others, like that mouse that couldn't be killed by cancer or those cervical cancer cells that grow like a weed are pure chance coupled with right time right people.

It gives me the willies that a cure for, strictly as hypothetical, autism may be sitting out there a single "Hm, That's funny" away from being noticed yet won't be found for decades because the researchers investigating the disease happen to be using rhesus monkeys instead of cows as test subjects.

Also look at how many people on the internet treat anything "proven" by Myth Busters as a gospel truth. It's irritating as hell because as much as I enjoy seeing things blow up a single, essentially uncontrolled, test doesn't tell you jack. Especially when they are proceeding from faulty first principles exactly as Scott was.

delmoi writes "That's not really correct at all. They performed experiments, but interpreted the results incorrectly. They should have done more experiments to narrow down their results, but at the time that wasn't seen as necessary. If they had tried using boiled down lemon juice they would have discovered right away that it didn't work."

I was thinking of the switch to colonial juice. The navy made the switch but was lucky (unlucky?) enough to have timed it to the introduction of steam. Hey what do you know the two juices are interchangeable. Except they aren't because of an uncontrolled for outside factor. It's the same mistake that has given the autism linked to immunization hoax so much traction.

The story though is also a prime example the need for general research. An incredible amount of theory had been hung on the faulty equivalence of lemon and lime juice yet the answer only popped out because of what would have been though of at the time as unrelated experimentation.

Pollomacho writes "I would think the extra fat would give you both a reserve of calories and an extra layer of insulation, that is provided you weren't marching over the tundra for miles and therefore having to lug the extra weight of your own butt."

At a calorie imbalance of 2000 calories per day the extra weight of your own butt won't be a factor for long. This is one of the things that strikes me as so tragic about the expedition. Anyone used to hard physical labour in sub zero temperatures could have told Scott he didn't have enough food. Was it just wishful thinking that had him setting out with only 70% of the calories he needed or was it another faulty theory that led to that problem.
posted by Mitheral at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


When electroboy mentioned concrete, I thought of other non-medical advances that were lost and re-found, like Damascus steel (prev).

As for the confusion of limes and lemons, my parents always told us to eat vegetables, or we'd have to suck on limes to prevent scurvy. Now I know I could just eat some watercress.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 AM on March 8, 2010


Wonderful post. A great illustration of why it's necessary to get to molecular first principles before claiming a problem is even partially understood. The 'bacterial spoilage' scurvy theory sounds much like phlogiston as applied to nutrition - a great hypothesis that fits most of the facts, but happens to be completely inverse to the actual mechanics.
posted by benzenedream at 9:06 AM on March 8, 2010


Most of us are losing Vitamin D, something our body can produce but only in the presence of ultraviolet radiation. We have been told horror stories as children about how a single sun burn = melanoma in sixty years, such to the extent that we now stay indoors most of the time and only venture outside under a thick application of protective gear. Rickets is so coming back.

This is true. Here in the ultra-sunny Dubai, wealthy Emirati and European infants who never play outside in the sun are getting it. My mother worked at pre-school here and she saw cases of rickets in children whose parents were worth millions, and that in a country where it is sunny 325 days a year.
posted by atrazine at 9:10 AM on March 8, 2010


If I remember correctly, there is a component to modern nuclear weapons so secret, and classified to such a degree, that no one is sure how to make this part anymore, and they were having great difficulty finding anyone who was still alive, and involved with the research on that part.

Fogbank
posted by atrazine at 9:15 AM on March 8, 2010


In certain Middle Eastern and other countries where conservative dress curtails exposure to sunlight, high levels of vitamin D supplementation may be needed to raise serum levels sufficiently in women, investigators report.

posted by electroboy at 9:16 AM on March 8, 2010


tl;dr: scurvy bad, science hard.

This made me laugh as well. I read it with a frustrated Frankenstein's monster voice.
posted by quin at 9:23 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fantastic read, thoroughly enjoyed.

Civil_Disobedient, I tend to take Vitamin D deficiency hype with a grain of salt. The indoor tanning industry, looking for some good PR after being throughly vilified by skin cancer education, sponsors "Vitamin D Deficiency month" in February, and sponsors several studies through their "Ultraviolet Light Research and Educational Foundation". While I don't doubt there is some basis in fact, I think its been overhyped and I wonder whom, aside from agoraphobics or people in the Arctic Circle, are really at risk. Yes, I do say this as a person who wears sunscreen daily and spends most weekdays indoors.

Though I have wondered recently about (at least what I perceive to be) a trend in health food stores and brands to do away with enriched grains and fortified foods, such as vitamin D in milk, iron in breakfast cereals, iodized salt, etc. They're touted as "all natural" and have no other ingredients. A spoon full of a naturalistic fallacy fits makes the raw-milk kefir go down, so to speak.

I can see a combination of the two being dangerous. Considering what little else the USDA has given us, kid's fortified breakfast cereals are a pretty good scattershot of vitamins.
posted by fontophilic at 9:35 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?

Here's one on how we forgot how to build the atomic bomb
posted by samsara at 9:45 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be.

The silk plush that was once used to make top hats is no longer available as there aren't any looms in existence capable of producing it.
posted by Jawn at 9:47 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


> With the introduction of lemon juice, the British suddenly held a massive strategic advantage over their rivals, one they put to good use in the Napoleonic wars. British ships could now stay out on blockade duty for two years at a time, strangling French ports even as the merchantmen who ferried citrus to the blockading ships continued to die of scurvy, prohibited from touching the curative themselves.

So not once did the officers on the Merchant Marine say, "Hey, we would like to stop losing men to a disease you guys have beat, so give us some of your fruit?" I'm not sure what to think about that.
posted by ardgedee at 9:55 AM on March 8, 2010


As a military secret that doesn't seem too implausible. With all that lemon juice getting shipped to the blockade and returning sailor (either disabled or retired) you would think they'd figure it out but there was probably a cover story.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 AM on March 8, 2010


Fantastic article. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Grundlebug at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2010


One of my pet peeves about history is the operating assumption by many readers that we in the present know so much more than stupid ignorant people in the past. I have a particular mean love for stories like this that prove that people do forget things as time passes.
posted by immlass at 11:18 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's not that they forgot, it's that they didn't know what they were doing right and didn't know what they were doing wrong and so kind of blindly stumbled away from the answer not knowing where they were going.
posted by amethysts at 11:24 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I always thought that the discovery that HIV is blood-borne was one of those "duh" moments.

Sure here we are 30 years after the first cases became known in the US and it's hard to believe that they were testing poppers and other things like that to find out what the common link was.

The politics of HIV/AIDS/GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) completely clouded scientists in their search for the causation of HIV.

Once it was discovered, many didn't want to believe it as it meant making huge lifestyle changes (much like I don't want to believe that junk food and sugar are bad for my health.)

At any rate, that's the interesting thing about science, it is constantly evolving and changing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I wonder if there are any modern analogues, and what they would be. What have we lost, I wonder?"

Well, we're in the process of forgetting how to use slide rules. Not to mention a lot of non-computer assisted abilities like printing, layout, page coloring, and the like.

Also, as the NPR program I'm listening to points out, we're losing the ability to do basic mechanical automobile or electronics tinkering. It may be only a couple generations after car engines and electronic devices become completely sealed "black box" units for those skills to be lost.
posted by happyroach at 12:02 PM on March 8, 2010


Am I reading this incorrectly? The problem doesn't seem to be at all as advertised. This the paragraph in question:
Atkinson inclined to Almroth Wright's theory that scurvy is due to an acid intoxication of the blood caused by bacteria... There was little scurvy in Nelson's days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it. We had, at Cape Evans, a salt of sodium to be used to alkalize the blood as an experiment, if necessity arose. Darkness, cold, and hard work are in Atkinson's opinion important causes of scurvy.
They knew the cure for scurvy, and how to prevent it; they just didn't know the physiological mechanism that caused it, and that's what they were trying to determine. It was common knowledge that an ounce of lime juice a day prevented or cured scurvy; nobody had forgotten that. It's why the English were referred to around the world as "limeys". Atkinson, et al., were trying to reframe or understand the cause with the tools of contemporary science.
posted by jokeefe at 12:09 PM on March 8, 2010


jokeefe -- keep reading. Lime juice didn't work. Not if it was lime, instead of lemon (because the early 19th century guys called their lemon juice "lime juice"), and not it is was stored with exposure to air and/or copper. So they thought they had it all wrong, and the deficiency patholgy was all wrong.
posted by jb at 12:26 PM on March 8, 2010


I'll bet the Polynesians had the scurvy problem licked almost a thousand years earlier...

They did, but they had a different problem to contend with: beriberi, or thiamine deficiency.


I wouldn't assume that scurvy was necessarily a problem for the Polynesians to begin with. Their voyages, while certainly incredibly impressive rarely lasted more than a month or two, and often were more of the island hopping variety (if you want to particularly impressed you should read about the methods they used to find new islands). As the article mentioned, scurvy usually takes at around 6 months to set in, and nobody is staying in a canoe for that long.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:30 PM on March 8, 2010


It may be only a couple generations after car engines and electronic devices become completely sealed "black box" units for those skills to be lost.

Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase. Your kids are starving. Carl's Jr. believes no child should go hungry. You are an unfit mother. Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl's Jr.

Carl's Jr... "Fuck You, I'm Eating."

posted by benzenedream at 1:02 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fresh lime juice probably would've worked. Lime juice left out in the sun and contaminated with copper, probably not so much. It sounds like people generally knew that citrus was effective, but didn't really know what dosages were required or how handling affected the anti-scorbutic (great word, by the way) properties.

The wiki article on James Lind says that he experimented with quite a few things, and only found that citrus and watercress (grown on damp blankets) were effective.

Mr. Lind also has the distinction of having written a treatise titled Essay on the most effectual means of preserving the health of seamen, which my 12 year old inner self finds hilarious.
posted by electroboy at 1:04 PM on March 8, 2010


quin: "tl;dr: scurvy bad, science hard.

This made me laugh as well. I read it with a frustrated Frankenstein's monster voice.
"

Yeah, a la Phil Hartman. Me, I read that with a Malibu Stacy voice.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2010


My understanding from the article was that when they switched over to lime juice from lemon juice, it stopped working. But nobody noticed because voyages were now shorter due to steam engines. THEN when they brought the still-ineffective lime juice to the Arctic and everyone got sick, they said "Hey this lime juice stuff doesn't work, we must have been looking at this problem all wrong!" At the same time, eating fresh Arctic animal meat DID work, so thought it had to do with the freshness of the meat and from there they got to bacteria.
posted by amethysts at 1:16 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Shackleton clearly knows that meat contains nutrients that stem scurvy

This is exactly backwards. Shackleton believed that spoiled meat contained toxins that caused scurvy. Those toxins, he thought, were absent in fresh meat. Thus he was correct that in eating fresh meat one avoids scurvy. The use of the term "anti-scorbutic" isn't by itself evidence that he thought there was something in the meat that prevented scurvy; it could equally well mean that the meals were effective in keeping them from getting scurvy, with it being a further question why that was.

You think that he knew that meat contained nutrients that stemmed scurvy because you know the truth about scurvy. What Shackleton believed had nothing to do with nutrients present in fresh meat.
posted by kenko at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hard to say, amethysts. It looks like there were so many confounding factors, it's not surprising they didn't figure it out.
posted by electroboy at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2010


It's not at all surprising they didn't figure it out without doing real testing.
posted by amethysts at 1:49 PM on March 8, 2010


They did test quite a few things, but all that really told them is that Substance X is effective or Substance Y is not.
posted by electroboy at 1:59 PM on March 8, 2010


What will we be slapping our foreheads about sixty years from now, wondering how we missed something so obvious?

the link between two of the worlds most popular beverages:

coffee protects the liver from alcoholic cirrhosis.

"...Coffee drinking, but not tea drinking, was inversely related to alcoholic cirrhosis risk, with persons who drank four or more cups per day at one-fifth the risk of noncoffee drinkers...." (Klatsky AL, Armstrong MA. Am J Epidem.1992)
posted by dongolier at 2:49 PM on March 8, 2010


further proof that rum and coffee is the world's most perfect drink.
posted by The Whelk at 2:54 PM on March 8, 2010


I recently read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which details the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in Victorian London. It's similar in that with cholera, the miasma theory -- bad air causing disease -- was the predominant way of looking at how people got sick. It took a lot of work and evidence to convince people otherwise.

In this case, it seems that once the idea took hold that bacteria could cause disease, you have people using that hammer without looking at their particular nails. Of course, we're still doing this today. To wit, the proliferation of hand sanitizers in response to H1N1 even though it's been proven that they're ineffective.
posted by funkiwan at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I recently curated a small exhibition on Scott's Antarctic expedition, to accompany the online publication of his diaries. Only last week, oddly enough, a visitor to the exhibition mentioned to me that Scott and his companions had suffered from scurvy: to which I paid no attention, assuming (as one does) that the problem of scurvy had been solved back in the eighteenth century. How wrong I was! Now I'm feeling rather stupid, but vastly better informed.

In fact the history of scurvy is even more interesting than this article suggests. David Wootton, in his book Bad Medicine, says that the use of lemon juice to cure scurvy was widely known in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But for some reason this knowledge got forgotten, or as Wootton puts it, 'bad knowledge drove out good', and by the mid-eighteenth century you find doctors recommending totally useless remedies for scurvy, such as elixir of vitriol (dilute sulphuric acid) which became standard issue on British navy ships in 1740.

It's not clear why it took so long for doctors to recognise, and accept, the use of lemon juice to cure scurvy. One reason, Wootton suggests, was that doctors at this period had no concept of the clinical trial, so just threw a whole lot of different remedies at the problem (lemon juice, soda water, malt extract, etc) without trying to separate the ones that worked from the ones that didn't. But even when they recognised that lemon juice was effective as a cure, they had no way of explaining why it was effective. James Lind, who is generally credited with the discovery, thought that it had something to do with the acidic effect of lemons in opening the pores and aiding perspiration.

Amazingly, even after Lind published his Treatise of the Scurvy (1753), it took another forty years for lemon juice to be adopted as the standard remedy. Wootton provocatively suggests that this is a case where doctors have rewritten the history of medicine to turn a great failure into a great triumph. Instead of remembering all those thousands of preventable deaths from scurvy, all we remember is the successful discovery of the cure.
posted by verstegan at 4:01 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


vapidave: "What strikes me as odd about losing the cure for scurvy is that the sailors and explorers surely encountered native populations from the Inuit to Scandinavia and further still in their travels that weren't suffering from scurvy..."

That struck me as odd too. If you read Jared Diamond's Collapse, [SPOILER AHEAD*] he has some interesting comments about how the Norse colonists in Greenland made life hell for themselves by refusing to eat fish, and by refusing to associate with and learn from the native people next door. To oversimplify, cultural factors made it almost impossible for them to utilize those resources, and maybe the same thing is at work when sophisticated Europeans looked at scurvy-free native populations elsewhere.

*I thought this part was fascinating.
posted by sneebler at 5:49 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


A young man in Eugene, Oregon once related a story of a friend. Said friend was a typical college student, living away from home, and as he abhorred cooking was surviving on ramen noodles and soda -- to such an extent that he fell ill...with scurvy.

Without mentioning any names, I was told a similar anecdote by a Mefite about another Mefite.
posted by goshling at 7:09 PM on March 8, 2010


We should just fix L-gulonolactone oxidase, the defective primate gene that's caused all this trouble over the years.
posted by benzenedream at 11:56 PM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]



A young man in Eugene, Oregon once related a story of a friend. Said friend was a typical college student, living away from home, and as he abhorred cooking was surviving on ramen noodles and soda -- to such an extent that he fell ill...with scurvy.

Without mentioning any names, I was told a similar anecdote by a Mefite about another Mefite.


My god, you may be right. It wasn't the diet, it was Metafilter. Metafilter causes scurvy!
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:52 AM on March 12, 2010


I prescribe two daily tablespoons of Dr. Electroboy's Miracle Scurvy Preventer and Brass Polish for your very serious condition.
posted by electroboy at 6:41 AM on March 12, 2010


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