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).