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Champlain described scurvy: he had first hand knowledge of it having lost 35 of his 79 men when they stayed over for the first winter on a small island St. Croix during the winter of 1604/05:

"During the winter a certain disease broke out among many of our people, called the disease of the country, otherwise the scurvy, as I have since heard learned men say. It originated in the mouth of those who have a large amount of flabby and superfluous flesh, (causing a bad putrefaction,) which increases to such an extent, that they can scarcely take any thing, unless it is almost entirely liquid. The teeth became quite loose, and they can be extracted by the fingers without causing any pain. The superfluity of this flesh requires to be cut away, and this causes a violent bleeding from the mouth. They are afterwards seized with a great pain in the legs and arms, which swell up and become very hard, all marked as if bitten by fleas, and they are unable to walk from the contraction of the nerves, so that they have no strength left, and suffer the most intolerable pain. They have also pains in the loins, the stomach and intestines, a very bad cough, and shortness of breath; in short, they are in such a state that the greater part of those seized with the complaint can neither raise nor move themselves, and if they attempt to stand erect they fall down senseless, so that of seventy-nine of us, thirty-five died, and more than twenty barely escaped death. The greater part of those unaffected with the complaint, complained of slight pains and shortness of breath. We could find no remedy to cure those attacked by the complaint, and we could not discover any cause for the disease."1
Lescarbot, a person of some medical training, in his work based on his stay at Port Royal during 1607, noting it occurred only in winter, describes scurvy:
"... the belly and afterward the spleen, do swell up and harden itself, and feel grievous and sharp gripes; the skin becometh black and pale, drawing towards the colour of a green pomegranate; the ears and gums do render and yield a bad scent, the said gums disjoining themselves from the teeth; the legs full of blisters; the limbs are weakened, etc."2
In the early days, no one knew the cause of the disease. It could be, as Lescarbot writes, in general the bad food; but it could also be the air of the country, or the evil disposition of the body. Other contributing causes might as well be considered by the physician: "the seasons, the winds, the aspects of the sun, the waters, ... the nature of men, their manner of living and exercise." Though there are no stories of the Indians coming to the earlier settlers Acadia with a potion of bark, as did apparently happened at Quebec; Lescarbot did make the observation3 that the "young buds of herbs in the springtime be ... very sovereign." The disease is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C and was very prevalent aboard sea going ships, in the early days, due to the difficulty of preserving fresh fruit and vegetables. It usually became apparent after about six weeks on salt provisions; it was a common ailment on long voyages.

Admiral Anson during his epic circumnavigation of the world (1740-44), lost most all of his men due to scurvy. As a result of Anson's experience, research was carried out4, and -- though it was not until 1912 before the true cause of the condition was to be found, viz., the discovery of the role of vitamins in the health of individuals -- it was determined before the 18th century was out that vegetables and fruit were extremely conducive to the cure of scorbutic disorders. By 1795, lemon juice was made a compulsory issue in the Royal Navy, some times substituted by lime juice.5 An early remedy for scurvy6 was the administration of to the patient of Scorbutic Whey. This whey was made by "boiling half a pint of the scorbutic juices in a quart of cow's milk. The scorbutic plants are, bitter oranges, brooklime, garden scurvy-grass, and water-cresses."


[1] Hannay, at fn pp.75-6.

[2] Lescarbot's work,p. 35.

[3] Ibid 45.

[4] Dr. James Lind, Treatise of the Scurvy (1753).

[5] Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea.

[6] William Buchan, Domestic Medicine (1769)


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)