Obstacles to Curing Scurvy: A Deadly Experiment and Putting Theory Before Evidence

(p. 165) What was needed was some kind of distilled essence – an antiscorbutic, as the medical men termed it – that would be effective against scurvy but portable too. In the 1760s, a Scottish doctor named William Stark, evidently encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, conducted a series of patently foolhardy experiments in which he tried (p. 166) to identify the active agent by, somewhat bizarrely, depriving himself of it. For weeks he lived on only the most basic of foods – bread and water chiefly – to see what would happen. What happened was that in just over six months he killed himself, from scurvy, without coming to any helpful conclusions at all.
In roughly the same period, James Lind, a naval surgeon, conducted a more scientifically rigorous (and personally less risky) experiment by finding twelve sailors who had scurvy already, dividing them into pairs, and giving each pair a different putative elixir – vinegar to one, garlic and mustard to another, oranges and lemons to a third, and so on. Five of the groups showed no improvement, but the pair given oranges and lemons made a swift and total recovery. Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.

Source:
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.