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The Ladies Medicine Chest
Naval Medicine in 1812 pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Naval Medicine in 1812 - page 2 of 7

Scurvy is caused by the lack of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in the diet, and frequently results in loss of teeth, depression, weakness, swelling and sores.  Ultimately, scurvy can lead to severe internal problems 8   While scurvy usually killed relatively few men, it often incapacitated whole ships or even fleets; on long voyages, like Lord Anson's circumnavigation in 1740-44, or Captain Cooks's voyages, scurvy was often the source of many fatalities. 9   Medical men of the eighteenth century knew scurvy was somehow connected with diet, and recorded their observations of men afflicted with the scourge.  James Lind noted that sailors with scurvy had "the most craving anxiety for green vegetables, and the fresh fruits of the earth." 10 Louis Antoine de Bougainville, French explorer and naval officer, took every opportunity during his extended cruises to secure foods that he felt countered the dread disease. 11 American naval surgeons like William P.C. Barton echoed their European counterparts's emphasis on diet, even going as far as to identify diet as the cause of most seamen's diseases. 12 Barton was of the opinion that scurvy arose "from a long subsistence on salt-junk." 13Indeed, many contemporary physicians identified the heavy reliance on salted provisions, or "salt-junk," as a prime cause of dietary problems.  De Bougainville, fighting both scurvy and venereal disease after a brief stop at Tahiti in 1768, attributed the renewal of scurvy to running out of "refreshments" and a consequent reliance on salted flesh. 14

Not everyone was so sure that salted food was the major culprit.  The American doctor Benjamin Rush, in a letter to the Surgeon General of the American Army in 1798, recommended the issue of salted meat to the soldiers instead of fresh provisions. 15 When Captain David Porter, American naval hero and experienced mariner, took the U.S.S. Essex into the Pacific during the War of 1812 to harass British commerce, he was aware of the dangers of reliance on salted meat, and so he gave orders that no one was to fry his bread in the salt from the meat casks. 16 Porter, however, also noted other possible causes of scurvy, including bad water.  In his journal, Porter asked rhetorically "who can say, that the ship-fever and scurvy do not originate frequently in the stinking and disgusting water, which seamen are too often driven to the necessity of drinking at sea, even when their stomachs revolt at it? 17

Porter's speculations were not outrageous for their time.  Surgeons and sailors advanced various possible causes for scurvy, though they readily admitted that no one cause was likely to be responsible for so deadly and prevalent a disease.  The captain of the British ship Queen Charlotte might have agreed with Porter's analysis.  He attributed the outbreak of severe scurvy on board an English ship he encountered off the Alaskan coast to excessive consumption of "pernicious" liquor over Christmas. 18 Barton, in addition to condemning salt-junk, blamed the damp and cold of sea voyages as contributing causes of scurvy. 19 Although British authors as early as the late sixteenth century had identified dietary remedies for scurvy, they were ignorant of its true cause and thus often resorted to a great deal of speculation. 20

Despite the debate over the causes of the disease, every mariner had a favorite way of relieving or preventing its symptoms.  Barton preferred lemon acid, citing its "citrick acid" as a good antiscorbutic, recalling his own success in using lemonade and limes to cure scurvy on the U.S.S United States in 1809-10. 21 Captain Cook encouraged his crew to eat nearly anything green that they found during landfalls, and, to encourage the reluctant, he eagerly followed his own advice. 22 The French captain de Bougainville reflected the preferences of many good captains when he searched out antiscorbutics like wild parsley, celery, and water cress on the Falkland Islands.  Not one to leave anything untried, de Bougainville even made beer out of spruce shrubs in the hopes it would prove an effective antiscorbutic as well as a refreshing brew 23

De Bougainville had good reason to take every opportunity to find fresh foods, for his voyage carried him across the South Pacific, through the Dutch East Indies, and across the Indian Ocean before returning to France.  Despite stops at Tahiti and New Britain, de Bougainville recorded that scurvy "had made cruel havock amongst us," with fully half of his sailors incapacitated by the disease.  "The provisions which we had now left were so rotten, and had so cadaverous a smell, that the hardest moments of the sad days we passed, were those when the bell gave us notice to take in this disgusting and unwholesome food. 24 Upon reaching Boero in the Gulf of Cajeli, Dutch East Indies, de Bougainville and his crew astounded their Dutch hosts with their appetite for fresh provender.  "One must have been a sailor, and reduced to the extremities which we had been for several months together, in order to form an idea of the sensation which the sight of greens and of a good supper produced in people in that condition. 25

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The Ladies Medicine Chest
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