Who Gets Scurvy Now?

"Those Innocents re-live their death / Their wounds open again."

Scurvy is a terrible way to die. You’ve probably heard about the gruesome later stages of the disease: your gums get spongy and recede, you develop bruises everywhere, you bleed from your hairline and orifices, your collagen disintegrates causing long-healed wounds to open back up and new injuries to stop healing. Terrific stuff, prime body horror material. I genuinely love reading about it, for the same reasons I love the Annals of Medicine columns in prestige publications and the medical excesses of House MD. 

So it was extremely exciting when, a few weeks ago, a mutual of a mutual appeared on my timeline on the regrettable platform X with the shocking news that he had, in fact, been diagnosed with real-life scurvy. I’m even more excited to bring you an interview with this real-life sufferer of the pirate’s disease, Neil Lawrence (@tronsgender).  

But first you need to understand that scurvy isn’t all blood and bruises. Before any of that is visible, in the earlier stages of the vitamin deficiency, scurvy first takes hold in the brain. You become depressed, distressed, fatigued. You cry easily and often. You begin to fixate obsessively on your past. If you’re on board a ship, or stuck in a penal colony in Australia, like many 19th-century scurvy sufferers, you begin ruminating compulsively over your distance from home, growing fatally hungry for the tastes of your native land. 

Way back in the 1750s James Lind discovered that fresh fruit—specifically lemons and oranges—could cure scurvy. But without understanding the whys and wherefores of that fact, it was debated and then more or less forgotten.

Joseph Banks, the historical model for Patrick O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin, found it necessary to dose himself with lime juice on the voyage of Captain Cook’s Endeavour (1768–1771) when he realized his thoughts and emotions were turning dangerously to homesickness. He recognized it, dispassionately, as scurvy’s prodrome. But many 18th- and 19th-century Navy doctors thought scurvy was caused by these emotional states, instead of the other way around, and that (lower-class) seamen, convicts, and slaves were particularly susceptible due to their weaker minds. 

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