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What killed more sailors in the 18th century: Scurvy or Combat?


Is it true that you were more likely to die from scurvy while serving in the navy during the 1700s than you would fighting in a battle?

4112 day(s) ago

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Mr. Boxy
Yes. For example, during the Seven Years War 184,899 sailors were recorded as being in service to the British Navy. Of these 133,708 died of illness, mostly scurvy, while only 1,512 died in combat.

How could the casualties be so high? At the time medicine was primitive and no one knew anything about nutrition. This was starting to become a problem for sailors by the late 1600s because ships were advanced enough to be away from port for long periods of time. As a result sailors lived on preserved meats, biscuits, and water. No one knew what ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) was, but by the 1600s scientists had figured out that there was some connection between acidic food and the disease. The problem was they thought an acid was an acid regardless of its form. This meant that if fresh citrus fruit wasn't available sulfuric acid might be prescribed instead.

A near breakthrough came in 1747 when surgeon James Lind tested several remedies and found that lemon juice was the only effective treatment. However, his writing was ignored and he still believed it was acid in general that treated the ailment. It wasn't until 1789 when Alessandro Malaspina, an Italian sailor working for Spain, went on a scientific expedition that the benefits of Lindís findings were realized. His medical officer, Pedro Gonzalez, was convinced only citrus fruit would prevent scurvy. Only once during the six year long voyage did any sailors show signs of the disease and they recovered once the ships had landed and taken on more fruit. Word spread and Lind's work was looked at again by the British Navy. Fresh lemons and limes were finally supplied to sailors at the end of the century.

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