One day, during your struggles, you look down at your thigh. You should see a familiar scar from an old childhood wound. But now that scar has begun to pull apart, skin separating, as if the stitched seam in a pair of jeans has started to unravel.
Meanwhile, your teeth have grown so loose in your skull that, if you had the strength in your hands, you could pluck them out with your own fingers. The hair follicules on your legs have turned purplish. You bruise at the slightest touch.
As one description puts it, if this malady continues on its course, “the body will degenerate into a bleeding pulp for which death is a blessing.”
This is not some rare and frightening disease recently emerged from primate populations in Central African jungles. Rather, it is one of the oldest human maladies known. For four hundred years, it had a profound effect in shaping world history, and yet is almost forgotten today.
This “bleeding pulp” of the human body represents the end stages of scurvy.
A Disease as Old as Us
Scurvy has probably been around as long as humans existed—Hippocrates made note of it in Classical times—but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago that it threatened the balance of emerging world powers. Basically, scurvy is caused by the lack of what we now call Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid). Most animals need Vitamin C to survive, but most of them can manufacture it in their own bodies, with the exception of certain primates, bats, and guinea pigs.
To describe its role in the human body, I think of it as a kind of atomic welder in the body’s foundries that make proteins. One of the most important proteins the body manufactures is collagen, which helps form the tough, connective tissues—ligaments, tendons, skin, blood vessel walls. Scurvy sets in when there is no vitamin C to weld together the collagen protein in these tissues.
“The Explorers’ Disease”
This became glaringly obvious starting in the late 1400s when sea-going European explorers made epic voyages in search of new lands. They sailed for months without fresh food that contains Vitamin C. Scurvy typically appeared among the crew after ten or twelve weeks at sea, but sometimes sooner. Vasco da Gama’s expedition around Africa to India in 1497 suffered mightily from it, saved by an Arabian trader who happened by with a boatland of oranges. A French expedition led by Jacques Cartier, his ship trapped in the ice in the frozen St. Lawrence River in the 1530s while looking for a Northwest Passage, lost 25 out of 110 men.
Cartier ordered an autopsy on one 22-year-old victim to try to understand what this curious malady was.
“It was discovered,” according to the expedition’s journal, “that his heart was completely white and shriveled up, with more than a jugful of red date-coloured water about it.”
(One of my favorite scientific books of all time, which describes some of these events, is Kenneth J. Carpenter’s “The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C.”)
Once European nations developed navies to colonize and defend distant lands far across the seas, the death toll from scurvy skyrocketed. By one calculation based on nautical records, between 1500 and 1800, scurvy appears to have claimed around two million sailors.
What’s bizarre is that it took so long, literally centuries, for European powers to figure out a reliable cure such as the famous British Navy lemon juice, which was instituted around 1800. Countless cures were lying under the noses of every expedition and were long known to native peoples. Cartier’s expedition was saved from utter decimation through the knowledge of the local Indians, who, in the depths of frozen winter, showed the clueless Frenchmen how to brew tea from the needles and bark of a tree called the anneda, much later identified as the white cedar, or arborvitae. This happened to be very high in Vitamin C.
Other native peoples in cold regions throughout the world—where there are no fresh fruits or vegetables available in winter—had figured out over the millenia what herbs or barks or animals to consume that happened to be high in Vitamin C and would keep them healthy during the long frozen months. The Inuit of the Arctic, for example, chewed on whaleskin, extraoridnarily high in vitamin C, while the Yukon Indians knew that the adrenal glands of field mice would keep them healthy in the winter.
Collapse of the Overland Expedition
In my book, Astoria, I’ve written about the possible effects of scurvy on Wilson Price Hunt’s Overland Party in the winter of 1811-12. They were trapped in a huge canyon (unmapped then but known today as Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River) with little or no food. I suspect at least some members, such as the collapsing Scottish fur trader Ramsay Crooks and American hunter John Day, were succumbing both to hunger while also severely weakened by scurvy.
The Shoshone Indians saved Hunt’s Overland Party from this fate. When a group of Hunt’s party finally escaped Hell’s Canyon and reached some Shoshone villages, the Shoshone fed them, among other things, dried, pounded “wild cherries.” It’s not clear just what type of cherries these were, but some cherries (or cherry-like fruits) are extraordinarily high in Vitamin C. The acerola, or West Indian cherry, contains about 1700 mg of Vitamin C per handful, or 170 times what the human body needs daily to recover from scurvy. Experiments on conscientious objectors during World War II showed that 10 mg per day of Vitamin C cleared up the symptoms of scurvy within a few weeks.
Whatever kinds of cherries, it is almost certain that the Shoshone Indians ate rosehips, either dried and infused in teas or mixed with other foods. Rosehips are another power pill when it comes to Vitamin C (each cup of fresh rosehips contains close to 1,000 percent of the human daily requirement for Vitamin C). With pounded wild cherries, and rosehip tea or rosehips mixed in stews or in pounded meat, Hunt and his Overland Party were restored from their possible scurvy and debilitating nutritional weakness. With these mega-doses of Vitamin C from ancient, traditional sources, the Overland Party continued on its way to the Pacific to start the first American colony on the West Coast.
The Hardest Way West
In this exclusive excerpt from the new book, Astoria, the legendary Overland Party attempts to establish America's first commercial colony on the wild and unclaimed Northwest coast—provided, of course, they survive the journey.
Peter Stark is a full-time freelance writer of non-fiction books and articles specializing in adventure and exploration history. His most recent book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, tells the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific Coast and will be published in March 2014 by Ecco/HarperCollins.