History & Culture

History of vitamin C and scurvy | The discovery of the vitamins

It took more than 1,000 years for mankind to understand that the human body gets sick in the absence of any vital components such as vitamins. Mankind had known about vitamin deficiency diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, pernicious anemia, and rickets since ancient times and in some cases realized the beneficial effects of certain foods on health.

However, until the 20th century, the fact of the absence of certain chemicals in the body could lead to illnesses, was always overlooked by physicians. Then, even the most common diseases became preventable and treatable with the isolation of vitamins, determination, and synthesis of their chemical structures. It is estimated that one million European seafarers died from the scurvy disease between 1600–1800.

What is a vitamin?

Vitamin, which is a must for being healthy and for the continuation of life, is a chemical found in our foods. A chemical that is a vitamin for some living species may not be a vitamin for others, because they might already be able to synthesize this chemical in their bodies. We named these types of chemicals with the words “vita” and “amine” in the early days. “Vita” means “life” in Latin, and the suffix “-amine” means the same organic compounds. Because at that time, all vitamins were thought to be nitrogenous compounds derived from amine or ammonia (NH3). Even when it was understood that vitamins could not be derived from amines only, the term was adopted so widely that only the letter “e” decided to be dropped.

13 essential vitamins

13 essential vitamins

Vitamins consist of a total of 13 varieties, divided into two groups: four fat-soluble (A, D, E, and K) and nine water-soluble (eight B and one vitamin C). Since the fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body, there is no need to take them every day. These vitamins can be harmful to the body if they are stored too much. Water-soluble vitamins other than B12 and folic acid are not stored in the body, so they should be taken daily to maintain a healthy body. An excess of these vitamins is easily excreted from the body.

Vitamin D and niacin

Vitamins are vital substances that the body cannot synthesize by itself. In a broader sense, we have to take all the vitamins from the outside sources. If a molecule is synthesized in the body, it is not called a vitamin. But vitamin D which is synthesized under the skin when exposed to sunlight, and niacin (B3) which are highly synthesized by the liver to prevent any damage to the body when they are deficient, are two exceptional vitamins that do not comply with this rule.

Vitamin C deficiency and scurvy

scurvy disease symptoms
Symptoms of the scurvy disease.

Scurvy disease (vitamin C deficiency) was first seen in Egypt in the 1500s BC, especially in winter when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available. Hippocrates described this disease in the 5th century BC as easily associated with bleeding gums, late healing of wounds, and death. In history, scurvy disease mentioned in many historical events such as the Crusades. It was known for its lethal feature, especially in The Age of Discovery where long sea voyages are made.

Christopher Columbus and his crew left the dying Portuguese crew on an island, but saw them recovered once returned. They named this island Curacao (meaning, healing), which had all kinds of fruits and vegetables. During those times when there were limited nourishment opportunities during long sea voyages, these ships were like medical laboratories where the various results of malnutrition can be observed.

The arrogance, and pride

There was a method of treatment developed by the Native Americans against scurvy disease. They used a kind of tea that they obtained from the bark and the leaves of the pine tree as a medicine. French explorer Jacques Cartier brought this tea to France in 1536. He had lost 25 crew members before the locals notified him of this medicine. However, the remedy never accepted by physicians for a long time. Because they were not accustomed to learning anything from people they saw as wild and unbelief. Many medical developments have surfaced too late due to this insularity, arrogance, prejudice, and pride in humans.

Lemon juice as a remedy aganist scurvy

The moment when the scurvy outbreak was treated with orange.
The moment when the outbreak was treated with orange.

Traveling to the South Pacific in 1593, Richard Hawkins said, “the results of all my experiments was, that oranges and lemons were the most effectual remedies for this distemper at sea,” which suggested the fruits as a method of treatment for scurvy. James Lancaster was the captain of a ship in a naval fleet in 1601. He started his journey in late April and reached his destination in September. The Lancaster’s crew stayed healthy and vigorous throughout the voyage. However, when Lancaster’s ship reached the port along with other ships, they quickly started to help sick seafarers. Lancaster stated in his report to the navy that he brought bottles of lemon juice to the ship before going on the voyage and that his seafarers drank three tablespoons of this lemon juice every morning.

The use of the juice of lemons is a precious medicine; the use whereof is: It is to be taken each morning, two or three spoonfuls, and fast after it two hours. Some chirurgeons also give of this juice daily to the men in health as a preservative.

A solution for the scurvy disease in John Woodall’s book The Surgeon’s Mate, published in 1636.

The discovery of vitamin C

James Lind is feeding the scurvy patients with lemon full of vitamin C.
James Lind is feeding the scurvy patients with lemon full of vitamin C.

By 1747, Scottish physician James Lind, who was traveling on the ship named Salisbury, had important experiences regarding the scurvy patients. He ensured a balanced diet for these patients and as a result, observed that patients who consumed oranges and lemons simultaneously recovered.

Despite all these developments, the British navy never recommended bringing lemon juice on ships until 1770. When the colonies rebelled, lemon was fed to the naval forces to keep the soldiers vigorous and healthy to fight them, and when the fruit didn’t present during the season, they made Indian tea from the bark and leaves of the pine trees.

By 1911, the effect of anti-scurvy vitamin (or otherwise known as vitamin C) was widely accepted. The supplement was named “ascorbic acid” because it was used as an ascorbic. Thus, it was the third vitamin ever discovered. In 1928, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated this substance (C6 H8 O6).


But in the early 20th century, the germ theory of diseases was such a constant idea that the bacterias or toxins were thought to be the causes of diseases such as beriberi (thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency) and pellagra (niacin deficiency). Therefore, all the researches conducted on beriberi and pellagra were full of medical failures, and the government was not interested in this issue at all. These diseases were treated similarly to the current Gulf War syndrome. The misdiagnoses of these two diseases as microbial diseases, emphasizes the importance of controlled experiments, scientific methods, and responsibility of Apollo and its predecessors in the medical world. The responsibility of compassion and honesty is the most important of all.

As a result of all these developments, in the second half of the 20th century, the vitamin and supplementary food industry started to develop quickly. The mystery and trustworthiness of vitamins have also brought opportunities for fraudsters and charlatans who want to make money on them. In addition to their prescription use, vitamins are used as immune boosters in the treatment of all kinds of diseases.