Vitamin C: A History Of Healing

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a vital nutrient for humans. Failure to consume proper amounts will result in scurvy, involving liver spots on the skin, spongy gums and bleeding from the mucus membranes.

Throughout human history, a varied diet has been known to be healthy. Wherever possible this has been done, but there have also been circumstances that render this sensible precaution impossible. One of these has been a long naval voyage. By 1734 a Dutch physician had already identified scurvy as completely caused by lack of fresh vegetables and greens. As early as 1614 a British physician recommended lemon juice as a preventative and curative.

In 1747, James Lind, a ship’s surgeon in the Royal Navy, began a groundbreaking experiment. For possibly the first time ever, an experiment with a control was underway, with some of the crew receiving two oranges and a lemon each day to supplement their daily rations, while others had the normal rations plus cider, vinegar, sulfuric acid or seawater. This clearly showed citrus fruits prevented scurvy, and in 1753 Lind published Treatise on the Scurvy.

Lind’s work was not well regarded. This was in part because he gave contradictory evidence in his book, and in part because the Admiralty thought such care for a ship’s crew excessive, since fresh fruit was difficult to keep on sailing ships. There were attempts to render the fruits down into more easily stored juices, but the cooking process removed much of the nutritional value, and thus poor results were obtained.

Captain James Cook, the famous explorer, took his crew to Hawaii with careful attention to providing fresh and preserved foods such as sauerkraut. With no crew lost to scurvy, this was finally seen as vindication for the initial research and he was awarded a medal for the operation. In 1795, the Royal Navy adopted lemons and limes as standard issue foodstuffs. Limes were easier to obtain and cheaper, as they could be found in the West India colonies. This is the origin of British sailors called “Limeys.”

In the 19th Century, foods that could prevent scurvy were called “antiscorbutics”, though nobody knew how they worked. Between 1928 and 1933 two different teams of scientists independently discovered ascorbic acid, proving this was a member of the newly theorized category of vitamins.

Later, experiments showed that Vitamin C could be obtained from certain meats and other sources, explaining how Inuit with little access to greens avoided scurvy. By 1934, Vitamin C was being mass-produced artificially as a vitamin supplement and food preservative.


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