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No. 3210:
Scourge of the Sea

by Roger Kaza

Today, a medical cure, lost and found. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1535 the French navigator Jacques Cartier made his second voyage to the New World, on a mission to explore the interior of Canada. He and his crew decided to spend the winter near what is now Quebec City. That didn't seem like such a daunting prospect at the time. Quebec is about the same latitude as Paris, and Cartier probably expected a drizzly and not particularly cold winter. But, before long the St. Lawrence River was frozen solid. The snow piled up in enormous drifts. Though they had plenty of preserved food, Cartier's crew began to feel weak, listless, depressed. They were sore all over. Their teeth were falling out. Almost all of his 110 men were extremely ill, and 25 had died. Desperate for a remedy, he sought out the natives. An Iroquois tribesman suggested he brew a tea out of the needles and bark of the white cedar or arborvitae, a common bushy evergreen. It was vile-tasting, and many of Cartier's men refused to imbibe. But those who did were miraculously cured of all their symptoms. Have you diagnosed their ailment yet?

Jacques Cartier stamp - 1934 issue
Jacques Cartier stamp - 1934 issue   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

We now know that evergreen needles are chalk full of ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C. The Iroquois, and Cartier, had stumbled on the cure for scurvy... 500 years ago. And they weren't the only ones: seagoing ships that carried lemons onboard also never seemed to suffer from it. We'd solved an ancient medical mystery. Well, not so fast. Doctors of the day scoffed at this odd correlation. How could mere cedar needles or lemons cure such a debilitating disease? These reports must be merely anecdotal, or folk remedies, they said. Besides, there were other candidates proposed to combat scurvy: vinegar, malt from beer-making, sauerkraut, various herbal tinctures, all designed to settle the stomach, where most disease was thought to originate. We know now that none of these concoctions contain any Vitamin C, and are therefore worthless, but we're looking at the problem through 21st century lenses. Back then, diseases were still said to be caused by an imbalance of the four humors, an idea as old as Hippocrates. To say that someone died because they lacked a mysterious ingredient found in lemons would have sounded as ludicrous to our forebears as their theories of medicine now sound to us. And so scurvy continued to plague the Age of Sail. It's estimated that more than two million sailors died from it.

This story has a happy ending, though. In 1748 a respected physician, James Lind, did a sort of clinical trial proving that lemons and oranges, and not the others, were the cure for scurvy. And the Royal Navy issued lemon juice as a preventative measure, an enlightened step at the time, given we still had no idea exactly what caused the disease. Vitamin C was finally identified in 1912, and synthesized a few decades later. Sometimes the path from discovery to accepted scientific knowledge is as long and circuitous as the route attempted by Cartier and his followers in the vast Canadian wilderness.

Thuja occidentalis
Thuja occidentalis   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I'm Roger Kaza, from the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

An excellent article on the history of scurvy: Click here.

A previous Engines episode about scurvy: Click here.

Lind was somewhat equivocal about his discovery, and still believed that stomach issues were the heart of the problem. His treatise on scurvy: Click here.

Study of Cartier's "Tree of Life." Click here.

Stephen R. Bown, Scurvy

Considering that the native Iroquoian-speaking tribes saved his life, Cartier wasn't exactly grateful. He kidnapped their chief Donnacona and several other Indians and brought them to France. None ever returned. For more, see: W. J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760 (Histories of the American Frontier)

Among the many dead-ends in scurvy research was the attempt to extract a sort of portable concentrated extract, "lemon rob," by boiling. This seemed logical at the time, but unfortunately heat destroys Vitamin C. It's possible that Cartier's cedar "tea" was actually cold or low-temperature brewed. See Spruce Beer - Click here.

Most animals can make their own Vitamin C, and it is a mystery why humans and a few other animals cannot. One theory posits that our distant ancestors were constantly ingesting so much of the vitamin in food that the body eventually evolved away from the need to produce it.

Dauphin Map of Canada - circa 1543
Dauphin Map of Canada - circa 1543   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This episode was first aired on July 2, 2019