Originally published August 2, 1984
Many years passed before scurvy was recognized as being related to diet, and it was then blamed not on too little fresh food, but on too much salt food. Western medical men knew by about 1600 A.D. that green herbs or citrus fruits could affect a swift cure. The Chinese as far back as the fifth century had made it a custom to carry fresh ginger growing in pots on board their vessels, and by the fourteenth century - entirely from experience - had arrived at some general understanding of the role certain types of food could play in preventing or curing such deficiency diseases as beriberi. The Dutch, closely involved with the Chinese-influenced areas of southeast Asia, may have learned there of the importance of greenstuffs and citrus fruits in a sea diet and have passed the message on to Europe. When the English East India Company dispatched its first ships to the east in 1601, a chronicler recorded that the little fleet hove to off the southern tip of Madagascar and gathered “oranges and lemons of which we made a good store of water (juice), which is the best remedy against scurvy.”
But the official mind could see no way of growing sufficient green herbs on board heavily manned ships to protect the crews against scurvy, and citrus fruit was much too expensive for economy-conscious owners or government administrators. For two hundred years physicians and captains neglected the only known remedies for scurvy while they attempted to find others which would be cheaper and more convenient. They knew what worked but not why it worked, and so all their many and varied experiments proved valueless. Finally, it was accepted that the juice of citrus fruits was the only medicine which could conquer a disease that was killing more seamen than enemy action.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the British Admiralty decreed that a fixed amount of lemon juice should be issued daily to sailors in the British Navy after their fifth or sixth week afloat. The mortality rate in the navy declined with startling suddenness.
The citrus juice was usually mixed with the rum ration, whose issue was the highlight of the sailor’s day. Since 1740 rum had rarely been dispensed neat. (During WWII, The Grenadier Guards were still being issued rum whenever we were in action against the enemy.) In 1795 the Royal Navy began to issue lime juice but it was soon realized that limes were less effective than lemons for controlling scurvy. This association with limes is the origin of the derogatory term “limey”.