Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Scurvy a disease caused by lack of vitamin C. It affects connective tissue: symptoms include sore gums and loose teeth, ulcers on the legs, and lethargy. It takes several months without the vitamin for the first signs to appear. The disease can be quickly cured by eating foods containing the vitamin.

Scurvy was a sailor’s disease, brought on by months at sea without fresh food. In the time of the great European explorers at the end of the 15th century it was the greatest single cause of death in sailors, even in wartime. Often ships would arrive after a long voyage with only a quarter of the crew alive, and they on the brink of death. On land, much of the population of Europe was at risk from scurvy every winter, thanks to a diet largely of preserved foods and a prevailing prejudice against fruit and vegetables. The disease often appeared among people in besieged towns and at times of famine.