Polar Record

Research Article

The understanding of scurvy during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration

Henry Guly

Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, PL6 8DH (hguly@aol.com)

ABSTRACT

At the start of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration there was great confusion concerning the cause of scurvy. It was known that it was related, in some way, to food but it was uncertain as to how, and there were two main theories. The first was that it was caused by a deficiency of fruit and vegetables and the other that it was caused by a toxic material in tinned foods. In addition, older theories that it was caused by dirt and damp still carried weight and Almroth Wright had proposed that scurvy was caused by too much acid in the blood. An additional confusion was that vitamin C deficiency was often combined with other vitamin deficiencies and so other diseases might be labelled as scurvy. The discovery of vitamins occurred over the same period but, as with all new scientific concepts, the knowledge that scurvy was caused by a vitamin deficiency took time to be universally accepted. It was generally accepted by about 1920, although some people did not accept it until vitamin C has been isolated in 1932.

(Received April 2011)

(Online publication September 30 2011)