Author(s): Stephen R. Bown
In the days of the tall ships, one dreaded foe was responsible for more deaths at sea than piracy, shipwreck and all other illnesses combined. Cruelly culling sailors and stunting maritime enterprise from Vasco da Gama to Sir Francis Drake, this plague of the seas was scurvy. Countless mariners perished from the disease in agony; their early symptoms included bleeding gums, wobbly teeth and the opening of old wounds. A cure had eluded doctors and philosophers since the time of the ancient Greeks, but in the late eighteenth century the surgeon James Lind, the great sea captain James Cook and the physician Sir Gilbert Blane, undertook to crack the riddle of scurvy. Their timely discovery, just as Napoleon was mobilising for the conquest of Europe, solved the greatest medical mystery of the Age of Sail and irrevocably altered the course of world history.