11/20/12 - scurvy, antarctica, and amundsen

In today's selection -- Roald Amundsen was the Norwegian explorer who discovered the South Pole (1911) and made the first undisputed expedition to the North Pole (1926). In 1898, on his first trip to Antarctica, his ship's captain deliberately steered the ship, the Belgica, into an ice field during a storm, in order to be the first to overwinter in Antarctica. However, the Belgica was ill prepared to survive the winter. They had little food and inadequate supplies, and soon all on board began to suffer from scurvy:

"A polar winter can be a dreary, morale-sapping season even for those who are psychologically and physically prepared ... The months of cold and darkness groaned on throughout 1898. Many of the Belgica's crew were convinced of their imminent death. They became lethargic, depressed and anti-social, drifting away into near-catatonic isolation even while crammed together on the ship. Their hair and beards grew unkempt, their eyes became dim and bloodshot and their weary faces showed the strain of their predicament. ...

"[T]he greatest threat to the mens' survival during that gloomy winter [was] the insidious spread of scurvy. Many of the mental aberrations that beset the crew during those dark months -- their depression, morose moping in their bunks, lethargy and lack of enthusiasm even to help themselves -- are psychological symptoms of scurvy, whose physical symptoms include puffy, blackened and bleeding gums and loose teeth, foul breath, swollen joints, the opening of old wounds and the un-knitting of broken bones as the body's connective tissue disintegrates. All this is accompanied by a general inability to focus or to think clearly. Scurvy is one of the most ancient of diseases, although it is more properly considered a dietary deficiency. It is caused by a lack of ascorbic acid. Vitamin C is found primarily in fresh foods, and scurvy will show up anywhere that a diet is lacking in this essential ingredient, during famines or long winters and in impoverished populations.

"During the Age of Sail scurvy was the bane of mariners, indirectly causing more deaths than storms, battles and shipwrecks combined. On long voyages it could claim the lives of entire crews, as they became too ill to pilot their vessel and it capsized or was driven against a rocky coast. The renowned British mariner Captain James Cook was able to keep scurvy mostly under control on his epic voyages in the late eighteenth century by imposing a strict diet. The problem was famously solved by the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars in 1795, when the physician Sir Gilbert Blane persuaded the admiralty to issue lemon or lime juice daily, mixed with sailors' rum ration, giving rise to the term 'Limeys' to describe British sailors. In the early twentieth century, during Amundsen's time, scurvy's causes were still unknown and synthetic vitamin supplements did not exist. The methods for preserving food (drying, salting and primitive canning techniques) destroyed most, if not all, vitamin C. Thus it was on long expeditions in polar environments, or in armies subsisting on rations through long winters, that scurvy would show up to make history.

"Nearly everyone on the Belgica was suffering from scurvy long before the winter was through. One man died of it on June 15, and many more would undoubtedly have followed, had not [Dr. Frederick A.] Cook recognized the seriousness of the problem from his experience in the Arctic and his observations of the diets of northern polar peoples. His solution was introduce fresh meat into the men's diet. He noted that the open channels near the ship were frequented by penguins and seals, which if cooked only lightly would provide the men with sufficient amounts of the essential nutrient. Amundsen recorded that 'we had, therefore, spent many weary hours, after the day's work was done, traveling for miles over the ice in search of seals and penguins, and with great labour had killed and brought to the ship a great number of each.' ... While Cook and Amundsen and several others frequently consumed the meat in a near-raw state and avoided the most severe symptoms of scurvy, [the captain Adrien de] Gerlache opposed having the meat issued as a daily ration to the men, allowing the crew to eat it only occasionally and, even then, only if they wanted it.

"The men hated the taste of the meat, and many ate it only as a medicine under the doctor's orders. ... Many of the crew became horribly ill before they saw the benefits of the semi-raw seal meat: those who ate it remained mostly free of the ravages of the deadly deficiency. The ship's cook then thawed the frozen seal steaks acquired through Amundsen and Cook's hunting forays and prepared the meat regularly for meals. As with all cases of scurvy, the men's improvement from their debilitated state was rapid and remarkable."


Stephen R. Bown


The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2012 by Stephen R. Brown


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