Scurvy in the Arctic

Our major digitisation project (a partnership with the House of Lords Library and Proquest) means a close examination of all the volumes sent for scanning. While knee-deep in bubble wrap and packing crates, it’s great to come across gems like this: a report on the causes of the outbreak of scurvy in the Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876.

The report states: “We attribute the early outbreak of scurvy in the spring sledging parties of the Expedition to the absence of lime juice from the sledge dietaries.”  Plus the long winter which meant over 142 days with no sunlight.

scurvy pic

Extreme changes of temperatures, breathing foul air and having no fresh meat would have exacerbated the situation.

The symptoms were truly gruesome: “The colour of the face changes, the skin grows sallow and assumes a leaden hue, and the countenance may afterwards become bloated, and the eye assume a heavy expression. A general debility prevails, and an apathy of manner is noticed ; there is a feebleness of the knees and ankles, and pains – resembling the flying pains of rheumatism – attack various parts of the body. Swelling of the joints, with rigidity, accompany these symptoms. This rigidity is especially observed in the hams, for which site a predilection seems to exist in the case of men engaged in walking exercise. The gums swell, grow spongy, and bleed from the slightest cause. The breath becomes fetid. The skin is dry and rough …”as it progresses “the low spirits become confirmed and the unfortunate patient indulges in the gloomiest of ideas ; the fetor of the breath is now intolerable ; the gums protrude as spongy masses from the mouth…”

In the minutes of evidence the Committee asked the Captain about the selection of men for the trip. The captain’s reply was “I believe the standard of age was between 32 and 25. The reason for not taking younger men than 25 was partly to ensure their medical and moral history was known…the standard of height was, I believe, 5 ft. 8 in. to 5 ft. 5 in., in order to prevent obtaining heavy men, or men of too little strength.” He also states that two of the men were below the standard and both were badly affected by scurvy, one had been chosen due as a result of, “…of being a very good gymnast, [an] amusing character for the winter…”

This is a fascinating, informative read, full of detailed information including statistics. The full title is Report of the Committee appointed by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to enquire into the causes of the outbreak of scurvy in the recent Arctic Expedition and can be found in the House of Lords papers session 1877 vol. 37.

When the project is complete later this year, this paper will be available online and will be accessible to all of the Library’s registered users in Scotland. Users will be able to enjoy access to a wealth of valuable and little-seen parliamentary documents.