A Juicy History

  • CHRIS BUZELLI
    CHRIS BUZELLI
  • Craig Cutler
    Craig Cutler
  • CHRIS BUZELLI
  • Craig Cutler
<< Back to Health & Wellness, January 2015
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

From scurvy-ridden sailors to civilian hens, the discovery of vitamins has been a series of medical mysteries that doctors are still unraveling.

Some medical breakthroughs arrive in a lightning-strike moment of clarity; others are pieced together bit by bit by people who are not fully aware of the puzzle they are solving. So it was with vitamins. The notion that human beings need to eat tiny amounts of certain nutrients to survive, and failing to eat foods with these nutrients can sicken and kill us, was overlooked and dismissed for centuries until the delightfully named Polish biochemist Casimir Funk advanced the concept of vital amines, or vitamines, in 1912. When it was later discovered that some vitamines lacked the nitrogen that defines an amine, scientists dropped the "e" from the word (though Funk stubbornly clung to it). Those who proved that vitamins were real and necessary were as clever as the fictional icon Sherlock Holmes, who solved a mystery by noticing when a dog did not bark. "Figuring it out was one of the great feats of medical detective work ever," says Frances Frankenburg, MD, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and author of the book Vitamin Discoveries and Disasters: History, Science, and Controversies.

The story of scurvy is particularly maddening, as its remedy—foods containing what we now call vitamin C—was discovered and rediscovered but rarely gained the notice of ship suppliers. Some two million seamen are believed to have died from scurvy in the 17th and 18th centuries, yet during that same period, reports of the scurvy-stricken rebounding after eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs were piling up. In 1747, James Lind, a surgeon in the British Navy, began studying a variety of scurvy cures. He had learned the tale of a sailor who became desperately ill with scurvy. Though he was so sick he could not walk, his captain coldly abandoned him on Greenland. Hunger drove the sailor to eat the island grass, and lo and behold, it cured him. Meals of so-called "scurvy grass" made the man well enough that he was able to eventually flag down a ship and return home.

Lind thought of that story when scurvy began to weaken the legs and rot the gums of the men aboard the Salisbury in May 1747 and devised an ingenious test. He selected 12 sufferers, paired them off, secluded them in the same part of the ship, and gave each pair a different anti-scurvy treatment to take with their standard rations. After six days, the sailors who ate two oranges and one lemon per day had run through the ship’s entire supply of the fruits, but it did not matter—the lucky men were almost completely healthy again. While a second pair assigned to drink cider showed minor improvement, no one else in the group enjoyed anything like those happy results.

Lind described his test in his 1753 tome Treatise of the Scurvy, but it took the British Navy more than 40 years to act. In its defense, only four pages in the 450-page book detail the Salisbury experiment; the rest natters on about other theories on scurvy, some rooted in ancient medical ideas. "It’s so hard for us, looking backward," says Dr. Frankenburg. "You want to yell, ‘You have the answer!’" It fell to Scottish doctor Gilbert Blaine to find the gold lurking in Lind’s Treatise and counsel the British Navy to add citrus juice to sailors’ diets, which they did, starting in 1795.

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