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Lind, Scurvy, and the British Navy

James Lind, 1716-1794
A Treatise of the Scurvy
Edinburgh, University Press, 1953 [facsimile edition]
MU Libraries Depository
616.39 L64t

James Lind portrait
Image credit: Wellcome Library

James Lind, a British naval surgeon, is credited with discovering the cure for scurvy, a disease that results from Vitamin C deficiency. Sufferers endure bleeding under the skin, softening of the muscles, digestive problems, and rotting gums.  Scurvy attacked prisoners, sailors, soldiers, and children, all of whom had limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  During the eighteenth century, it is estimated that more British sailors died of scurvy than in battle.  Prior to Lind's work, medical opinion held that scurvy was caused by exposure to "bad air," putrefaction, and dampness.

Lind's major contribution to science was the first controlled clinical trial. In 1747, aboard the HMS Salisbury, Lind took twelve sailors suffering from scurvy and divided them into six pairs. Each pair received a different scurvy treatment. The two men who were given citrus fruit became well within six days and even helped to care for the other sailors. All of the other men remained ill.

Lind published the results of the trial in his Treatise on the Scurvy in 1753, but the book received very little attention. Lind himself never accepted the results of his own experiments and continued to believe the disease was caused by an infection.

Over forty years later, Gilbert Blane, another young naval surgeon, read Lind's treatise and put his ideas into practice. Blane was influential and well-connected. He ensured that all British ships were provisioned with lime juice, a practice that gave rise to the nickname "limey" for Englishmen and ensured Britain's supremacy on the seas.

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