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Scurvy: “As common as damaged flour”

Besides cholera and other deadly diseases, emigrants slogging across the country faced an often fatal condition known through the ages as scurvy. Whereas cholera occurred in epidemics and spread furiously, scurvy was slow in onset but just as deadly in time. Scurvy is simply a vitamin C deficiency, and although it had been recognized for hundreds of years, the cause and cure was not completely understood or even believed by many.

Dr. I. S. P. Lord was as knowledgeable as any other physician of his time, but he demonstrated a lack of appreciation of the cause of scurvy in 1850 when he wrote, “scurvy as common as damaged flour….And yet we seem to have pure air, soft crystal water, wholesome food, cooked well and regularly, and comfortable sleep.”

After months on the trail – as well as in gold camps and military barracks – eating a diet of beans, salt pork, boiled beef, pancakes and other staples of the time, people on the frontier developed scurvy. In the early stages, the victim might develop a few blemishes due to hemorrhage under the skin, swelled joints, or loose teeth. Days or weeks later the person would be totally debilitated and coughing blood. An observer described one terminal patient as a darling with some cough, diarrhea and bloated all over, with one leg swelled full.

Scurvy resulted in death unless the sufferer ingested a rich source of vitamin C, such as certain fresh vegetables, fruits and wild plants. Pigweed, watercress, both high in vitamin C, readily grew along many western streams, but sadly most immigrants and even doctors did not realize its power as an antiscorbutic.

“Bleed, Blister, and Purge, A history of Medicine on
the American Frontier,” by Volney Steele, M.D.

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9 Comments

  1. jeanmarie39 says:

    Paisley,
    Just shows how important it is to know about the latest findings in health care. Although, I imagine that the people at that time who knew that fresh greens and fruits were important, were not taken seriously by most.
    This is one of those things we might not take into consideration when studying history. Good to know.
    Jeanmarie

  2. What I like to see is how far the medical world has come and how many more facts we have to guide us to a healthier life. Thanks, Jeanmarie!

  3. Great post, Paisley! At that time and throughout history, I think most people ate what they could to sustain them, without knowledge of what vitamins the body needed and how to get them.

    At the start of the Civil War, soldiers ended up getting some of these diseases, due to the typical army diet of the time. The Union army had to adjust the soldier’s diets to avoid these health problems. The invention of refridgerated train cars helped, as well as shipments of dried fruits and vegetables.

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    Interesting post, Paisley. I read about problems with scurvey in John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary. I seem to recall John Ransom thought he didn’t have enough acids or something like that. I thought it was kind of strange.

  5. Susan, I would imagine the diets had a direct affect on the troops in the Civil War. Life sure wasn’t good and seeing them without shoes was a real eye-opener. I think we take our availability to good nourishment for granted.

  6. Hi Denise. I am glad there has been so much good information out there now at what is important in our diets. I can tell the diverence when I eat right. 🙂

  7. I knew scurvy caused bone deformity, but had no idea it was fatal or so involved. Thanks, Paisley.

  8. Denise Eagan says:

    I can tell the difference when I eat right too, Paisley. Of course that doesn’t mean I do it! 🙂

  9. Thanks Caroline. I had no idea either. I have read in stories on pirates and such and the worry over the sailors getting scurvy. It is interesting to do research and find the facts. One of the things I love about history and how interesting it all is.

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