Sailors' scurvy before and after James Lind – a reassessment

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Scurvy is a thousand-year-old stereotypical disease characterized by apathy, weakness, easy bruising with tiny or large skin hemorrhages, friable bleeding gums, and swollen legs. Untreated patients may die. In the last five centuries sailors and some ships' doctors used oranges and lemons to cure and prevent scurvy, yet university-trained European physicians with no experience of either the disease or its cure by citrus fruits persisted in reviews of the extensive but conflicting literature. In the 20th century scurvy was shown to be due to a deficiency of the essential food factor ascorbic acid. This vitamin C was synthesized, and in adequate quantities it completely prevents and completely cures the disease, which is now rare. The protagonist of this medical history was James Lind. His report of a prospective controlled therapeutic trial in 1747 preceded by a half-century the British Navy's prevention and cure of scurvy by citrus fruits. After lime-juice was unwittingly substituted for lemon juice in about 1860, the disease returned, especially among sailors on polar explorations. In recent decades revisionist historians have challenged normative accounts, including that of scurvy, and the historicity of Lind's trial. It is therefore timely to reassess systematically the strengths and weaknesses of the canonical saga.

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