5 Oct

.I make regular presentations on Shackleton and the question of scurvy (or more particularly its absence) on the expeditions that he led to Antarctica comes up frequently.

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is needed in humans to make the building blocks for collagen. A lack of vitamin C results in disease that develops in approximately three months. Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness and painful limbs. Without treatment the red blood cells decrease in number, gum disease and bleeding from the skin occurs and, as the condition progresses, there is poor wound healing. Personality changes may follow as may death due to infection or bleeding.

Scurvy was the dread disease of all long voyages. In the 18th century it killed more British sailors than enemy action – for example, in 1740 on his ‘mission to ‘Annoy and Distress’ the Spaniards, Admiral of the Fleet, George Anson, lost nearly two-thirds of his crew (1,300 out of 2,000) to scurvy, within the first 10 months of his voyage.

But in 1747, James Lind, a naval doctor, showed that supplementing the diet with citrus fruit could treat scurvy – this was one of the first controlled clinical trials reported in the history of medicine.

Lind treated sufferers with: cider, vitriolvinegarseawaterorangeslemons, and a mixture of balsam of Perugarlicmyrrhmustard seed and radish root). In his Treatise on the Scurvy (1753), he concluded ‘the results of all my experiments was, that oranges and lemons were the most effectual remedies for this distemper at sea’. However, Lind did not appreciate that scurvy was a deficiency disease. He thought it resulted from ill-digested/putrefying food.

Citrus fruit as a cure fell out of favour for several reasons. The navy began buying limejuice from the Caribbean (lass vitamin C) and transporting it in copper vats that probably destroyed its potency. As a result, men developed scurvy on expeditions during which ineffective citrus fruit had been given out. Eminent medical authorities disbelieved the ‘citrus fruit theory’ in the early 1900s.

By Shackleton’s first voyage on Discovery, poor hygiene, damp, food and numerous other theories were considered to be the cause of scurvy. He became painfully conscious of the problem when he suffered from the disease, along with Wilson and Scott, during their ‘Southern Journey’ on the 1901-1904 expedition led by Scott. On Wednesday 24th December 1902, Edward Wilson, the doctor of the expedition wrote (when the three were marching south on the Ice Barrier), ’As a result of today’s medical examination I told the Captain that both he and Shackleton had suspicious looking gums’. In January 1903, Wilson wrote, ‘there is no doubt that we all three have definite, though slight symptoms of scurvy’. The symptoms improved with an increased allowance of dried seal meal and no bacon (which Wilson believed was responsible for scurvy), but by the 14th January Shackleton wrote (later), that he had collapsed completely. Wilson wrote on the following day that Shackleton had had a very bad night and was very breathless (he thought Shackleton might die). On the 28th January Shackleton was breathless, restless, unable to move and, for the first time he seemed to lose his courage.

When the three returned to base, Scott sent Shackleton home on medical grounds. There is no doubt that Shackleton WAS suffering from scurvy though it is now thought likely that he had, in addition, an intermittent cardiac problem.


How did Shackleton avoid scurvy on his subsequent expeditions?

Before he set off on the Endurance expedition Shackleton wrote that, on his own Nimrod expedition of 1907-1909, there was not a single case of scurvy. He was convinced that as much fresh food as possible would be an answer to the problem. He took hermetically sealed tins of vegetables, compressed cubes of dried vegetables and as much fresh food as he could.

He explained his precautions in an article in the Daily Telegraph dated 7 July 1914. His aim was that the expedition diet should incorporate the latest scientific advances. He consulted Colonel Beveridge, Director of Hygiene at the Royal Army Medical College, for help in working out the best food supplies for the prevention of scurvy – he wrote that this was the first occasion that Polar Explorers would have the benefit of science as well as practical experience.

Important considerations were:

1) The food must be wholesome and uncontaminated. Only the most nutritious and (as far as possible), most varied food could keep the dreaded disease of scurvy at bay.

2) The food taken on sledging expedition should be as light as possible, but also be substantial, as ‘excessive concentration’ diminishes its nutritive value and renders it ‘less easy of assimilation’. Shackleton wrote that bulk was as essential as nutritive value.

3) Fatty and farinaceous foods in as liberal quantities as circumstances allowed should be included because in very low temperatures the heat of the body which, he stated, is the life of the body, could only be maintained with these nutrients.

4) Sledging food must not need much cooking, as the amount of fuel that could be carried was limited (and if it ran out, there was no means of replenishing it).

5) If no fuel was available the food should be of a character that could be eaten without cooking.

6) Shackleton also commented on the benefit of the greater variety of food in the winter quarters.

In 1912 Kazimierz Funk (1884 – 1967), a Polish biochemist had suggested the concept of vitamins (called “vital amines” or “vitamines”). He was consulted about the proposed sledging rations.

In the event, in his 1914-16 Endurance expedition Shackleton did not reach the Antarctic for his proposed stupendous sledging journey, but the rations suggested were an important guide, though presumably not used throughout the expedition. The diet emphasized the importance Shackleton had learnt to place on nutrition as one of the means of maintaining his men’s wellbeing and morale.

For sledging the diet provided 5,512 calories per day for each man – since a man’s usual daily diet was approximately 2,500 calories, in Polar conditions there would be a surplus 3,000 calories daily.

The ‘hooch” had a large fat and carbohydrate content, protein with meat fibre (provided by Bovril), vitamin C, and A, sugar and raisins. Advice was given to eat as much fresh meat as possible and to grow vegetables – mustard and cress for its vitamin C content. Penguin eggs were advised for a supply of vitamin B.

Colonel Beveridge’s rations

(Glidine is a vegetable protein. Trumilk had the advantage over ordinary dried milk in that has not been subjected to a heat that destroyed vitamins)






Wt. oz     Protein. g     Fat. g           Carb. g        Cals.

Bovril B ration

Oatmeal,                      2            12.94           5.34           33.02         236

Lard                             3½                0         99.23                   0         923

Sugar, 1oz                   ½                   0                0             14.17           58

Beef powder              1½            35.29           2.37                  0 .       166

Glidine,                         ½            11.78           0.14               0.82          53


Biscuits                       1                  9.21          0.85             14.45         105

Trumilk                        1                  6.70         8.00              11.68         150

Sugar lump,               1½                     0                  0          42.51        174

Total                           11 ½             75.92         115.93        126.55     1,805








Biscuits                          1             46.05            4.25             72.25       525

Nut-food +Trumilk      1+6           27.20           54.15             81.03       948

Trumilk                             ¼           1.74              1.99              2.90          35

Total                               11¼          75.09           60.38          156.18     1508




Bovril S ration

Oatmeal                             2            12.94           5.34             33.02        236

Lard                                   4½                0        127.57                     0      1187

Sugar                                   ½                0                0               14.17         58

Beef powder                      1½         35.29            2.37                    0        166

Glidine                                  ½         l1.78              0.l4               0.82          53

Biscuits                               1             9.21             0.85             10.85         105

Trumilk                                1            6.70             8.00             11.68          150

Sugar lump                          ½                0                 0              14.17           58

Total                                  11 ½          75.92          144.27            126.55     2139


Meat extract, ½ oz, at supper.

Tea, ½ oz. at lunch.

Concentrated Lime Juice, ½ oz.

Cerebos Salt ½ oz.

Virol (extract of meat)

Total Calories per day = 5,512.

Total Fat per day = 320.58 grams

Total Protein per day = 226.93 grams

Total Carbohydrates per day = 409.28 grams

The rations were packed in oblong boxes of Venesta wood (light and durable) weighing 60lb. each. They were refrigerated until arrival at the first destination. Lime juice was concentrated down at a temperature of not more than 93 degrees Fahrenheit, to preserve its anti-scorbutic properties.

No alcohol was taken save a small quantity of brandy for medicinal emergencies (given apparently, to combat frost bite or surgical procedures such as a tooth extraction), plus the occasional celebration.

Beveridge thought that the men would like the diet and be healthy on it. He was right. There was no apparent scurvy on Shackleton’s party as they drifted remorselessly around the Weddell Sea. The men on Shackleton’s Ross Sea party however seem not to have followed the scientific advice so conscientiously. Scurvy took its hold on the depot-laying mission to the Beardmore Glacier and the Reverend Spencer-Smith died.

Nowadays scurvy is prevented by a diet containing vitamin C (preferably in the food but sometimes as a supplement).90 mg is recommended for men.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: