Vitamin C was first isolated in 1928 by the Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi, and synthesized by a Swiss group in 1933. It is important in maintaining the healthy condition of the body's mesenchyma, specifically connective tissues (which bind together and support body structures), osteoid (the organic part of bone) and dentin (the bone-like portion of teeth). Deficiency of the vitamin causes a breakdown in the binding function of these tissues, producing a series of characteristic signs and symptoms: weakness, lethargy, irritability, anemia, purple spongy gums which bleed freely, loosening teeth, the reopening of healed scars (including refracturing of bone) and hemorrhaging in the mucous membranes and skin. In severe cases the mortality rate is high.
Scurvy was a serious problem throughout the whole period of exploration and settlement in Canada. In 1535 Jacques CARTIER's voyage to the New World brought him to the present location of Québec City (STADACONA) where he and his men spent the winter. Signs of scurvy soon appeared among the crew. By Feb 1536 only 10 of the 110 men on the expedition were in good health. Also, Cartier noted that many people in the local native population succumbed to the disease before the end of 1535. Many of Cartier's men were saved by drinking a native concoction of ground coniferous needles and bark (called "anneda," probably white cedar) boiled in water. In 1542 a party of 200 French under ROBERVAL wintered near Cartier's earlier camp. During that winter about 50 died of the disease, and it appears they did not employ the cure that had saved Cartier's men. Subsequent explorations and settlements in the New World met regularly with the catastrophic effects of scurvy during long and cold winters and food shortages.
During the 18th century scurvy caused more losses in the British navy than were suffered in enemy action. A surgeon with the Royal Navy, James Lind, conducted an extensive controlled experiment on the effects of diet on sailors with scurvy, and the results were published in 1753 in the landmark book A Treatise of the Scurvy. Lind recommended the use of citrus fruits in treating and preventing scurvy during ocean voyages, advice which was not heeded by the Royal Navy until 1795.
Scurvy was a major problem on nearly all of the 19th-century polar expeditions, and the tragic loss of John FRANKLIN's third arctic expedition in 1847 has been partly attributed to the disease. Though foods known to be antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) were carried by these expeditions, the effectiveness diminished over a period of months as the vitamin C oxidized, leaving the explorers without protection. Many armies during WWI also suffered very severe outbreaks; by WWII the problem of scurvy was monitored closely and all but eliminated. In Canada the years 1945-65 were marked by outbreaks of scurvy in bottle-fed infants given evaporated milk (then lacking in vitamin C).
Today scurvy is rare and is usually related to poor attention to diet, or to diets heavily weighted towards a single food low in vitamin C.
Author OWEN BEATTIE
Links to Other Sites
Watch the Heritage Minute about French explorer Jacques Cartier from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Healing Power of Plants
Learn about some of the plant-based tonics, traditional remedies, and patent medicines popular with Canadians in years past. See "Canadian Case Studies" in the "Past Remedies" section for related information about famous Canadian historical figures. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Champlain's Description of Scurvy. From Parks Canada.
Canadian Arctic Expedition - Survival
An overview of life-threatening hazards facing Arctic explorers. From the website for the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Scurvy at Sea: Researching and Writing About Vitamin C Deficiency
Find out how scurvy was prevented in sea-going ventures during the "Age of Sail." A learning activity from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Scurvy killed early settlers to North America, scans suggest
A CBC article about new research into the impact of scurvy on the early French settlement on the island of Saint Croix.
Scurvy and Canadian Exploration
An article about various historical remedies for the prevention and treatment of scurvy and the impact of scurvy on various exploratory expeditions in North America. From the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).