Shiver me timbers! I seem to have completely missed out on ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’, which took place last weekend: that intriguing observance celebrated every 19 September since 2002, which started out as a joke among some American friends and has gone on to pick up followers worldwide.
(Correction: ‘gone on to pick up crew’. Incidentally, today is Google’s 17th Birthday, but I digress…)
The founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day: Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers (left) and John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur (right). Photo by Karl Maasdam, Karl Maasdam Photography; taken from the official website. The fruity featured image for this article is taken from Flickr user Peter Batty.
This got me thinking about scurvy – ‘Avast, scurvy curs!’ having first popped into my head, of course. Individuals deficient in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are unable to produce the protein collagen, which makes up bodily tissues like skin, bone, cartilage, and blood vessels. These begin to break down, resulting in fatigue, pain in muscles and joints, red dotting of skin, and most recognisably, swollen, bleeding gums.
Now notorious as a scourge of seafarers – who would run out of Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables while travelling – scurvy has in fact been recognised for thousands of years. A description of what is believed to be the disease occurs in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE; onion consumption is apparently given as the cure. The Indian surgeon Sushruta of the 6th century BCE wrote of a condition known as sitada, where ‘the gums of the teeth suddenly bleed and become putrefied, black, slimy and emit a fetid smell. They become soft and gradually slough off’. Similar symptoms were touched on by the Greek physician Hippocrates a century or two later:
‘[…] the patient smells foully from the mouth, the gums separate from his teeth, and blood flows from his nostrils. Sometimes also ulcers break out on his legs – and while some heal, others develop – his colour is dark, and his skin is thin; the patient is eager to walk about and to exert himself.’
Hippocrates, Internal Affections, translated by Paul Potter.
Sections of the Sushruta-Samhita. This is a 12th or 13th century Nepalese copy written on palm leaves; the watercolour imagery was added in the 18th or 19th century. From LACMA Collections Online.
Following Hippocrates and several other ancient writers, the next mention of what can be identified as scurvy occurred during the Crusades. The majority of nautical references came with the Age of Discovery, when explorers from the 15th century found the disease to be a serious and widespread cause of injury and death on their ships. This period saw the use of the term ‘scorbie’ and ‘scurvie’ as a name for the illness; the word was earlier used as an adjective for someone covered in ‘scurf’: scaly or scabby skin.
The journal of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India describes how his men ‘fell ill […], their feet and hands swelling, and their gums growing over their teeth, so that they could not eat’. The same work gives a record of a fruity remedy called for when the crew dropped anchor off the coast of Malindi (now in Kenya):
‘The captain-major sent a man on shore with these messengers with instructions to bring off a supply of oranges, which were much desired by our sick. These he brought on the following day, as also other kinds of fruit; but our sick did not much profit by this, for the climate affected them in such a way that many of them died here.’
A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, translated by E. G. Ravenstein (1898).
A portrait of Vasco da Gama from Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (c. 1565). Located via Wikimedia Commons.
Two-thirds of da Gama’s men were lost to scurvy on this voyage. Even so, eating citrus fruits was generally known by sailors to help with recovery from the disease. In 1747, this was clearly demonstrated by Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, who tested different remedies on afflicted sailors, with citrus fruits producing exceptional results. He went on to publish A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753: a time when more of Britain’s sailors were killed by scurvy than by fighting.
Lind pushed for the Royal Navy to give citrus fruit and juice to its crews, which became standard practice from 1795 onwards. As a result, the disease effectively stopped affecting members of the force. It is also because of this practice that British sailors came to be known as ‘lime-juicers’ or ‘limeys’.
A stipple engraving of James Lind by J. Wright, after Sir G. Chalmers (1783). From Wellcome Images.
It was not until Vitamin C was isolated in 1928 that scientists got on their way to definitively establishing it to be the cure – ‘ascorbic’ essentially means ‘not pertaining to scurvy’. Raw fruits and vegetables are now known to be among the top sources of Vitamin C; cooking them leads to a drop in concentration. Oranges, lemons, chillies, broccoli, and many more – take your pick and keep scurvy well away!
Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered why ‘oranges’ are called ‘oranges’…