Wonderful, wonderful BBC Radio 4. In how many countries can you come back from a run, stagger into the shower and turn on national radio at 10:30am to hear the scientific history of the year 1907? Almost inevitably the story started in Cambridge, at the British Antarctic Survey. Depending on what you believe, the explorer Ernest Shackleton was invalided from (Robert Falcon) Scott‘s 1901 expedition with scurvy or was sent home because he argued with his boss. He went back six years later because he wanted to impress upon a woman called Emily—or, rather, her father—that he was a man of achievement. Then, on this expedition, he turned back, only 97 (geographical) miles from the South Pole. When Emily, who he did indeed marry, asked him why he chose to return before reaching his destination, he is supposed to have replied “Because I thought you would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion.” What a dude.
No one got scurvy on Shackleton’s mission because the expedition doctor, who had observed deficiency diseases in his many poor slum patients, insisted that the explorers filled themselves up before their departure on a rich and varied diet. Spookily, it wasn’t until three months after their mission that two Norwegians, Holst and Froelich discovered how to prevent scurvy. They recreated the condition in guinea pigs. The guinea pig is one of the few mammalian species apart from humans and primates that don’t synthesize their own vitamin C. And that’s why we think of them as the archetypal experimental animals. (For those interested here’s some related bioinformatics/genomics).
Careful Mr PooterGeek, people will be rushing to dig up the bodies of Holst and Froelich and accusing their descendents of paedophilia.
People have known for centuries how to prevent scurvy. The Royal Navy
were fine at it back in the 18th Century, read about Captain Cook’s
Maybe these two Norwegians were the first to understand WHY it works.
A different thing imho.
You’ve put your finger on an interesting motif in the history of medicine.
“People have known for centuries how to prevent scurvy.”
It depends what you mean by “known”. That’s one of the most fascinating things about the story. Lots of seafarers swore by lots of different “preventive” methods, but, because the effectiveness of those methods wasn’t examined in a systematic way, no one really knew how to prevent scurvy.
The belief that consuming lemons could fend off the condition, for example, was widely considered by “scientists” to be a delusion. This wasn’t helped by sailors failing to use fresh lemons or failing to store the lemons in a state which preserved their vitamin C content—so sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.
“Maybe these two Norwegians were the first to understand WHY it works.”
Strangely enough, they weren’t. It wasn’t until 1928 that vitamin C was discovered and it was only in 1932 that it was identified as protective against scurvy.
Holst and Froelich were indeed the first people to tell us how to prevent the condition because, without their actually purifying the active ingredient, they found reliable means by which the disease could be avoided, clearing up a great deal of pre-existing confusion.
It’s almost the reverse of malaria, where the existence of the parasite had been reported and its presence in the blood found to be causative decades before people realised that mosquitos were the vector and that the disease could be avoided by avoiding being bitten by them.
Discover why you humans can’t synthesize your own vitamin c then give us a call.