Scurvy Isn't Cool!

All About Scurvy

Scurvy is characterized by swollen and bleeding gums with loosened teeth, soreness and stiffness of the joints and lower extremities, bleeding under the skin and in deep tissues, slow wound healing, and anemia.  If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult a physician immediately -- you may be suffering from scurvy.

Here are pictures of some of the scurvy "warning signs".

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Corkscrew Hair corkscrew hair.jpg (14314 bytes)
Periungual Hemorrhage periungual hemorrhage.jpg (14478 bytes)

When collagen is made, the proline amino acids are changed to hydroxyproline, by a process called post-translational modification.  An enzyme called prolyl hydroxylase catalyses this change.  This enzyme requires an Fe2+ ion to be present. Fe2+ is relatively unstable, and will become oxidized easily. Ascorbic acid, a water-soluble antioxidant, keeps Fe in the 2+ form, and not in the more stable 3+ form.

Fun fact: "ascorbic acid" comes from the New Latin "scorbutus" meaning scurvy!

Cool Scurvy Dudes

James Cook, the great British sea captain, knew what was best for his sailors. Shortly before his death, he wrote in his journal:

Every innovation whatever, tho ever so much to their advantage, is sure to meet with the highest disapprobation from Seamen: Portable Soup and Sour Krout were at first condemned by them as stuff not fit for human beings to eat. Few men have introduced into their ships more novelties in the way of victuals and drink than I have done. It has, however, in a great measure been owing to such little innovations that I have always kept my people generally speaking free from that dreadful distemper the Scurvy.

John Woodall (1556-1643) was a military surgeon in Lord Willoughby's regiment in 1591 and later first surgeon-general to the East India Company in 1612 and surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital from 1616 to 1643. In 1617, he published the first edition of The Surgeon's Mate, a volume containing an extensive inventory and description of the medicines and their uses and of the instruments that the chest of the Surgeon's Mate should contain.

Woodall devoted pages 160-176 to "the scurvy called in Latine Scorbutum." His therapeutic section considers treatments for a variety of symptoms and complications for associated conditions. The preface to this section includes the remarkable statement:

... [W]e have in our owne country here many excellent remedies generally knowne, as namely, Scurvy-grasse, Horse-Reddish roots, Nasturtia Aquatica, Wormwood, Sorrell, and many other good meanes... to the cure of those which live at home...they also helpe some Sea-men returned from farre who by the only natural disposition of the fresh aire and amendment of diet, nature herselfe in effect doth the Cure without other helps... [At sea,] the Lemmons, Limes, Tamarinds, Oranges, and other choice of good helps in the Indies... do farre exceed any that can be carried tither from England.

These observations are soundly in keeping with modern knowledge of the vitamin C content of the above remedies and of the labile nature of this vitamin when stored.

James Lind was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of a merchant. At age 15 he was apprenticed to a physician and in 1739 passed the examination for surgeon's mate in the Royal Navy. In 1753, he published his classic work "A Treatise of the Scurvy".

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James Lind, a pioneer in
the field of scurvy prevention.

"On the 20th of May, 1747," the Treatise begins, "I took twelve patients in the scurvy on board the Salisbury at sea. Their cases were as similar as I could have them."  Lind went on the describe a classic therapeutic experiment on sailors with scurvy in which various proposed remedies were tested as antiscorbutics.   His experiment provided clear evidence of the curative value of oranges and lemons and was also the first example of a controlled clinical nutrition study using human subjects.

Here's What People Are Saying About Scurvy:

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Robert P

Having scurvy was an awful experience. All of the kids at school made fun of me and called me "fat veins". Now I make sure to eat lots of limes so that won't happen again. The kids call me "limey" now but at least my gums don't bleed any more.

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Emily L

My sister was severely anorexic until I warned her about the dangers of scurvy. Now she eats up to three grapefruits a day!

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Laura R

Teenagers today think they'll live forever. They start living life on the edge, going to extremes, doing dangerous stuff like drunken driving, drug use, unprotected sex, and worst of all, avoiding their vitamin supplements. That's why it's so important that we get scurvy information out to the public. I applaud for being a pioneer in this respect.

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Ian N

I had a horrible rash, and I was afraid that it was scurvy! I couldn't understand it because I had been making sure to eat lots of spinach. Then I went to the doctor and he said that it was just genital herpes. What a relief!

This page was brought to you by the Carnegie Mellon chapter of the National Association for Scurvy Awareness and Prevention: