Scurvy: The Silent Killer of the Age of Exploration



During the Age of Exploration, the world turned its attention to the discovery of uncharted seas. However, behind the scenes of these adventurous voyages, an invisible enemy threatened the lives of sailors: scurvy. In this article, we will explore the reasons behind the prevalence of scurvy, its deadly nature, and the heroes who fought against this disease.

Understanding Scurvy

Scurvy is a nutritional disorder caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. This essential nutrient is crucial for the body’s production of collagen. A lack of vitamin C can lead to symptoms such as bleeding gums, tooth loss, skin hemorrhages, delayed wound healing, and ultimately, death. During the long voyages of the Age of Exploration, sailors who couldn’t consume enough fresh fruits and vegetables were particularly vulnerable to this disease.

Can Scurvy Be Fatal?

If left untreated, scurvy can indeed be fatal. The deficiency in vitamin C prevents the body from synthesizing collagen, leading to bleeding, tooth loss, and eventually, death. For the explorers of the Age of Exploration, scurvy posed a severe threat to their lives.

Factors Contributing to the Prevalence of Scurvy

The prevalence of scurvy during the Age of Exploration can be attributed to advancements in navigation technology and the limitations in the sailors’ diet. The development of new navigation techniques allowed for long-distance voyages far from the shores of Europe. However, these prolonged journeys exposed the crew to a scarcity of fresh food, particularly fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C.

Navigation Technology in the Age of Exploration

From the 15th to the 17th century, European nations developed new navigation techniques and ship designs, enabling long-distance sea travel. This led to a surge in expeditions to Asia, Africa, and the New World. However, these lengthy voyages posed challenges in providing fresh food supplies, especially fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, making the crew susceptible to scurvy.

Dietary Limitations

The diet on ships during the Age of Exploration primarily consisted of shelf-stable foods such as biscuits, salted meat, and dried fish. These foods contained little to no vitamin C. As a result, crew members were prone to developing scurvy during extended voyages due to the lack of vitamin C in their diet. The explorers of the time had limited knowledge about the causes and prevention of scurvy, leading to the loss of countless lives.

Pirates and Scurvy

Pirates were not immune to the effects of scurvy. They, too, embarked on long voyages and relied on preserved foods, making them susceptible to vitamin C deficiency. Pirate ships often had poor sanitary conditions, further increasing the risk of scurvy. However, pirates also resorted to creative measures for survival, sometimes securing fresh fruits and vegetables from the ships they plundered to prevent scurvy.

Heroes in the Fight Against Scurvy

One of the most prominent heroes in the battle against scurvy was James Lind, a British naval surgeon in the 18th century. In 1747, Lind conducted a groundbreaking experiment that led to the discovery of a cure for scurvy. He selected 12 scurvy patients and divided them into six groups, each receiving a different treatment. Remarkably, the patients who were given lemons and oranges recovered swiftly, leading Lind to conclude that citrus fruits were effective in preventing and treating scurvy.

However, it took time for Lind’s findings to gain widespread recognition and implementation. Inspired by Lind’s research, Captain James Cook embarked on a three-year circumnavigation of the globe in 1768, actively supplying his crew with lemon juice. As a result, Cook’s voyage reportedly had no deaths from scurvy. This success proved the effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing scurvy and led the British Navy to mandate the provision of lemon juice to sailors.

The contributions of James Lind and James Cook marked a significant turning point in the fight against scurvy. Their efforts greatly improved the safety of long-distance sea travel and saved countless lives. These heroes who confronted scurvy have left an indelible mark not only on medical history but also on the history of navigation.


Scurvy, the silent killer of the Age of Exploration, plagued countless sailors during their adventurous voyages. This disease, caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, claimed innumerable lives during long sea journeys. However, the groundbreaking research of James Lind and the practical application by James Cook brought about a remarkable advancement in the battle against scurvy.

Lind’s discovery of the effectiveness of citrus fruits and Cook’s implementation during his voyage marked a significant turning point in both medical and maritime history. Their efforts transformed scurvy into a preventable disease, greatly enhancing the safety of subsequent voyages. This serves as an outstanding example of how scientific approaches and practical applications can profoundly impact human lives.

The history of scurvy tells a tale of the human spirit’s curiosity for the unknown and the importance of ingenuity when faced with challenges. It also reminds us, even today, of the necessity of proper nutrition and how scientific discoveries can contribute to the welfare of society as a whole.