History of Scurvy and the Link to Vitamin C

Jessica Drew
scurvy plagued ships

The history of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, goes back to ancient times. Egyptians recorded symptoms of scurvy as early as 1550 BC. Since then and throughout the ages, scurvy has plagued all sorts of populations. However, the good news is that scurvy is easily cured by consuming vitamin C.

History of Scurvy Vitamin C

Land and Sea Scurvy

Scurvy was a huge problem for the sea explorers of the Renaissance period, the 16th and 18th centuries. Sailors would be at sea for several months at a time, with no access to fresh foods that contained vitamin C. As a result, whole fleets would become sick with scurvy. This all changed in 1746 when James Lind, a British naval surgeon, discovered oranges and lemons were effective in helping scurvy. The incidence of scurvy among British sailors plummeted after this discovery, because all ships started to routinely carry lemon juice on board. However, you did not have to be away at sea to get scurvy. Other isolated populations often became sick from lack of vitamin C. For instance, during the 19th century, people who experienced the Great Potato Famine, the Crimean War and American Civil War, Arctic explorers and California Gold Rush became stricken with what came to be known as "land scurvy."

Infantile Scurvy

The history of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, does not exclude infants - babies are susceptible too. Francis Glisson is credited with the earliest diagnosis of infantile scurvy. He discovered this in 1650 by noting that babies with rickets always got scurvy. After this discovery, no cases of infantile scurvy were reported for 200 years. However, infantile scurvy became quite frequent again in Britain and the United States during the 19th century. The surge in cases of scurvy is attributed to the consumption of heated milk (which kills vitamin C) and foods deficient in vitamin C during this time period.

Curing Scurvy

In 1912, Holst and Frolisch experimented with afflicted guinea pigs. The scientists were able to successfully cure scurvy through dietary modification. This was a major milestone, and soon human experiments followed.

Alfred Hess was a pediatrician working in New York in 1914 when he noticed the surge in the cases of scurvy in infants. Hess was able to pinpoint the dietary cause of the surge; the introduction of pasteurized milk and exclusion of orange juice in the infants' diets. Then Hess was able to reverse scurvy through dietary modification. He recommended that the infants receive raw milk and that fresh fruit or vegetable juice be added to heated infant formulas for the prevention of scurvy. This process led to the complete elimination of infantile scurvy in the United States.

The human body lacks the ability to make vitamin C and depends on outside food sources for this essential nutrient. Due to this fact, a few adults and older children in the United States still get scurvy because they have a chronic deficiency of vitamin C in their diet, although this is very rare.

Preventing Scurvy

You absolutely do not want scurvy. If the condition goes untreated, it will most likely result in sudden death from cardiac failure. Scurvy has a long history of victims to prove this result.

However, scurvy is 100 percent preventable. In fact, in today's society it would be difficult to get scurvy if you tried to. Fortified cereals, oat meals, milk and nutrition bars all often contain high amounts of vitamin C. If you're worried about getting scurvy though, take a multi-vitamin or start eating more oranges and other vitamin C rich foods. Whichever you choose, you'll be doing something good for your health.


Scurvy is a terrible condition that has caused many deaths throughout history. However, thanks to scientists and nutritionists, we now know that through dietary modification, this affliction does not have to harm anyone ever again.

History of Scurvy and the Link to Vitamin C