The Story of Scurvy Part 3


Almroth Wright (1861-1947)

In the early 20th Century there was still not a good understanding of deficiency diseases. Very  prominent researchers were still looking for more fundamental cures for scurvy than citrus juice. Almroth Wright, an important figure in immunology, and the founder and chief of the laboratory where penicillin was discovered, became well-known because of his discovery of a vaccine for typhus. His views were so prominent that he was widely considered to be an authority on many diseases including scurvy.  The supplement of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1911 continued to declare the uncertainty surrounding the causes of scurvy and even advocated several more “elemental” cures including those of Wright. Here is an extract from the Britannica entry for scurvy

The precise etiology is obscure, and the modern tendency is to suspect an unknown micro-organism; on the other hand, even among the more chemical school of pathologists, it is disputed whether the cause (or conditio sine qua non) is the absence of certain constituents in the food, or the presence of some actual poison. Sir Almroth Wright in 1895 published his conclusions that scurvy was due to an acid intoxication.    Wright has proposed giving what he terms anti-scorbutic elements (Rochelle salt, calcium chloride or lactate of sodium) instead of raw materials such as lime juice and vegetables, as being more convenient to carry on voyages.(Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, Pg. 517.)

Of course this solution was just as useless as those of the 18th century.


 Theodor Frolich 1870-1947              Axel Holst 1860- 1931

It took more than a century for the idea of deficiency diseases to be established. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century human and animal studies showed that diets that were deficient of particular nutrients could cause diseases like beriberi. The word vitamin derives from “vital amine” and even though vitamins were not all amines, the word has stuck. Vitamin C was first isolated by two Norwegian doctors Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich using deprivation studies on guinea pigs – one of several animals including humans that do not manufacture their own vitamin C. Their publication in 1907 was ignored for many years because deficiency diseases were just at the cusp of being recognized. The Nobel prize for Vitamin C was instead awarded in 1930 to Albert Szent Gyorgi who synthesized ascorbic acid (the scientific term for Vitamin C.)

The parallel to scurvy in our modern age is the disease of space sickness. The illness comes on unexpectedly with rapid heartbeat, chills, nausea and vomiting. It can recur at unforeseen intervals during a long space trip, cause dehydration and weight loss, and make it impossible to work. It can be life threatening if vomiting occurs when wearing a space suit. Training on a plane called “the vomit comet” helps potential astronauts prepare for the experience of space sickness, but there is no way to predict who will suffer or how much. Some astronauts have reported feelings of nausea for their entire time in space while others get over space sickness after several days.  So far no prescribed drug prevents the condition or cures it. Returning to earth almost always makes it better although there have been cases of irreversible neurovestibular damage to the sense of balance. There have been many formal studies of the condition without results. Informally however, it seems that marijuana reduces the symptoms and helps astronauts to regain their earth legs once they land, but it has, so far, not been part of any of the formal studies.




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