When’s the last time you worried about getting scurvy? Probably not too recently! That’s because we know that it’s caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which is abundant in fresh foods that are normally readily available. If you were to stop getting enough vitamin C, you’d be in big trouble because your body would be unable to produce healthy collagen, the biggest component of connective tissue. Among other unpleasant things, you’d start noticing tiny bruises where capillaries have broken under the skin, your muscles would ache, and you’d start to develop gum disease – it’s pretty horrible, so drink that orange juice!
Scurvy’s not very common in the developed world anymore, so you probably have nothing to worry about, but that hasn’t always been the case. Take one classic scurvy stereotype: pirates! Pirates are often associated with scurvy because they (and lots of other people) went on long sea voyages without frequent access to fresh food. Overland expeditions, military campaigns, and refugee camps have all suffered enormously from scurvy as well. The funny thing is, there were times when it seemed like the secret to preventing scurvy had been figured out, and other times when it seems to have been forgotten again!
Why has the history of scurvy had so many ups and downs? For one thing, scurvy preventatives like lime juice weren’t always to be trusted because their vitamin C content could be destroyed by the methods used to preserve them on ships, and the concept of vitamins (substances that we need to ingest to stay healthy) was not accepted until the early 20th century. Another important factor was the lack of an animal model for scurvy – all researchers had to go on were records of human encounters with the disease, which made experimenting to find its causes and cures nearly impossible.
Thus, when Norwegian researchers Axel Holst and Theodor Frölich chose the guinea pig as their test subject for scurvy, they had unwittingly taken a huge step toward understanding the disease. At a glance, guinea pigs and humans may not seem very similar, but we share a very specific and very rare attribute: our bodies don’t produce vitamin C, so we have to obtain it from our diet. Almost every other known animal species makes ascorbic acid for itself and is thus never at risk of getting scurvy. What a lucky choice!
[All sources for the video and text are listed in the previous post.]