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Scurvy, Rob, Grog, and Sauerkraut

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, gin and tonic is perhaps the most medicinal of all the alcoholic drinks drinks although its popularity is most closely related to gin volume than any actual healing properties!

That being said, though the gin is a good reason to like the drink, the lime twist is the classic part. And unlike the gin, lime has real medicinal properties because it contains vitamin C, which helps prevents scurvy.

You might also look angry with scurvy, but not necessarily so...

Limes, as you might already know, were used by the Royal Navy from 16th through 19th century to helps prevent English sailors on long ocean voyages from developing scurvy, a painful a debilitating condition that affects the integrity of connective-tissues in the body, making them weak, and susceptible to rupture and bleeding.

These are BAD teeth and gums. And they don't come from not brushing properly!

Because of their use of limes (although other fruits and vegetables were used) English sailors were also known as “limeys.” This is the short story that most people already know.

Limes were used the helps English sailors prevent scurvy.

The long story is more complicated and interesting and it is what I intend to discuss now.

One of the earliest accounts of citrus fruits preventing scurvy comes from a physician named John Woodall, who lived from 1570 to 1643.  He wrote a book called The Surgeon’s Mate, which was kind of a handbook for sailors in order for them to deal with life aboard a ship and all of its peril and hardships and medical conditions (inhibition to recommending the fresh leafy greens and vegetables were available as well as citrus fruits, particularly lemon, to prevent scurvy).

Woodall’s book was a sort of an all-purpose manual of the ship surgeon for treatment of all sorts of common maladies. For instance,  also had chapters which included how to diagnose and treat gangrene through amputation and how to perform an amputation.

So, the knowledge that scurvy was prevented with things such as limes and lemons had been common knowledge for a long period of time, but it was not until John Lind, another physician, actually tested this hypothesis  in 1747.

Specifically, he tested whether if citrus fruits were more effective in the treatment of the disease.  He did find that this was the case, but it took 41 years to convince the Royal Navy to have some form of citrus fruits on board. Why? Well, we can speculate, but often it takes time convince people in this regard.

Now, at this point, our story diverges into the history of grog, which is a water and rum mixture where lemon or lime was added.  This was pioneered by Admiral Edward Vernon.  He is considered the father of grog as his nick name was Old Grog.

What did this name come from?  When it refers specifically to grogham–a type of silk, mohair, and wool garment– that Admiral Vernon cloaked himself in and thereby was given that nick name.

One of the many difficulties of long voyages of ships, along with developing scurvy, was storing water.  The sailors on a ship would need, especially if they were traveling in hot climates, around a gallon of water per day of drinking water just to subsist.

However, over the long periods of time, this water would become slimy and rancid with algae and was essentially undrinkable.

With the British gaining control of the Caribbean, they were able to establish sugar plantations, and therefore distill rum, which was added to this water, which would help the water to store over long periods of time.  Now, lemons and/or limes were added to this mixture along with the sugar to make it even more drinkable. It’s still a tasty drink!

Grog: Modern pirates like it too!

Another note regarding the popular mythology suggests that Captain Cook was in fact, the first to give his sailors limes to prevent scurvy, which became the impetus for use of the word “limey.”  But actually, that is not the case.

Captain Cook had his sailors drink a solution of lemon and limes mixed with sugar that was boiled down called rob . He also had Sauerkraut on the ship to help prevent scurvy.

Since the rob was boiled down, a lot of the vitamin C was made inactive, so the sauerkraut became a more import source of Vitamin C.

And for a long time lemons were the citrus fruit of choice for the British Navy, but this changed in 1867 with the Merchant Shipping Act passed by the Parliament of England and required that limes be placed on the soldiers’ rations, which was done to help protect the interest of the British citrus growers, who grew primarily limes rather than lemons. It is interesting to note that lemons have significantly more Vitamin C than do limes.

In fact, limes, on the scale of citrus fruits, are rather low in their content of vitamin C, while oranges have more vitamin C than both lemons and limes!

Also, citrus fruits are not the highest source of vitamins C, as you might think. Things like red currant and black currant berries have up to 10X more Vitamin C than do citrus fruits.

Still, scurvy, in spite of this knowledge, was a frequent blight on a long-distance travellers until the 1930’s becasue the actual chemical structure of vitamin C,  along with the knowledge that it prevents scurvy was not discovered until 1930.

Many of the expeditions to Antarctica during the later half of the 19th and early 20th century were plagued with all sorts of problems, including scurvy because Vitamin C nature and true role in the prevention of scurvy had not been identified yet.


A Hungarian biochemist, Szent-Gyorgy, with Charles Glen King were the first to discover hexuronic acid around 1930 and were the first to determine that it was the agent responsible for the prevention of scurvy.

They gave it the name ascorbic acid, which in Latin means: without scurvy.


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