Glasgow Digital Library Voyage of the Scotia BRUCE PEOPLE SHIP ANTARCTIC INDEX
Scotland and the Antarctic

Section 4: William Speirs Bruce - early exploration ... Voyage of the Balaena

Scurvy

'It is not the climate, but scurvy, gave the Polar Regions a bad name.'
William Speirs Bruce

Scurvy is caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, which is found in fresh food, in particular oranges, lemons, blackcurrants and potatoes. Scurvy was extremely common on the early ocean voyages due to lack of fresh vegetables and use of salted meat. The Balaena expedition in 1892-93 was severely affected by scurvy on the way home. They stopped off for fresh supplies at Portland in England where they took on some potatoes. The scurvy had disappeared by the time they reached home port.

The symptoms of scurvy begin with the swelling of the gums followed by the loss of teeth. Blotches occur on the skin followed by haemorrhaging of the gums and later of the muscles and joints. The victim feels very lethargic and eventually dies. Many early shipwrecks were thought to be the result of scurvy.

In 1740-44, Lord George Anson took six ships on a circumnavigation of the world when Britain was at war with France and Spain. He was to harry Spanish possessions and maybe capture a treasure ship. Some of the ships were lost and only his ship returned with 500,000 of treasure. Scurvy claimed 1,300 lives on this expedition.

In 1753, oranges and lemons were discovered as a cure for scurvy but it was not until 1795 that lemon juice was compulsory in the Royal Navy. They later changed to lime juice which was not so effective as lemons (the Americans still call the British 'limeys' and in South Georgia the whalers called them 'lime juicers'). On the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition the crew of Windward developed scurvy while those ashore, who were eating fresh meat, were quite healthy. Tinned food is low in vitamin C.

During the expeditions to the Antarctic at the end of the nineteenth century, scurvy increased. The quantity of lime juice was probably insufficient. Explorers found out that fresh seal meat and penguins (which contain vitamin C in their oil) could keep scurvy at bay. William Speirs Bruce on the Scotia expedition insisted on a diet of penguin and seals - and no scurvy occurred.

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Glasgow Digital Library Voyage of the Scotia BRUCE PEOPLE SHIP ANTARCTIC INDEX