Home Education

Guinea Pigs, Lemons and the Age of Sail

The other day my brothers,  Matthew and Kyle, got guinea pigs.  I’m not sure what you first think of when you think of guinea pigs.  But when my brothers got home with their new pets, one of the first things I blurted out was “Guinea Pigs!  Guinea pigs can get scurvy.”  Now some of you, like my sister Katie, might be thinking “Scurvy!  Seriously Megan, scurvy?”   Others of you might be thinking “What is scurvy?”

Guinea Pigs, Lemons and The Age of Sail

So, what is scurvy, what does it have to do with my brothers pet guinea pigs and most importantly, what’s this all have to do with today’s book review?  Up until a couple of weeks ago when I just happened across  this book at the library, I probably would have asked the same things.  You see, the book I checked out was a book called, you guessed it, “Scurvy,” by Stephen R. Bown.

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You see, scurvy is caused by the deficiency of vitamin C in one’s diet.  Yet that alone is probably not enough to get you excited to read a book about it.  In fact, you, like my family, might be thinking this sounds rather dull.  Well, actually my family didn’t just think it, they had a good time teasing me about the fact that I was actually reading and enjoying a book called “Scurvy.”  What makes this book well worth the read is the significant role scurvy has played in world history and the history you learn while reading about the discovery of scurvy’s cure.

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Scurvy first became a huge problem in the 1400’s just around the time of Columbus when sailors began taking long sea voyages.  Because of poor diets, by the time a ship was a month or two out at sea, the majority of a ship’s crew would become incapacitated and unable to work.  Out at sea with a large ship to man, this became a huge problem.  Ships could have the latest and greatest in Naval equipment, but with most of the men sick, the equipment became useless.  Unfortunately, those in charge of the Navy were often less concerned about the well being of the men on the ships then they aught to have been.   Without any fresh fruit or vegetables, a sailor’s diet was devoid of any vitamin C, which causes the body’s connective tissue to disintegrate.  Without any fresh food with vitamin C in it, sailors would become very sick and eventually die.

During the “Age of Sail,” scurvy greatly contributed to deaths at sea and at one point the British Navy would put twice as many men on a ship in anticipation of those that would become sick and die, many of them from scurvy.  Although this is interesting, what really made me want to dig into this book and read what it had to say was the story of the discovery of the cure of scurvy.  It is a complicated story about a cure that was obscured due to the political interests of the men in charge of the British Navy.   Although the cure was implemented by sailors at times throughout history, even noted sailors such as Captain Cook, it was not truly discovered and implemented by the masses until the 19th century.

During the “Age of Sail” scurvy became one of the worst enemies of sailor, killing significantly more men than were ever lost in battle.  Not only was scurvy ravishing the British Navy, is was killing sailors at an astonishing rate all over.  Because of scurvy’s devastating effects on sailors, scurvy, in part, is attributed to the Americans victory in the American Revolution, due to the fact that the British Navy was severely weekend by scurvy at key battles.

Finally, after forty years of having the cure right under their noses and after the deaths of thousands of sailor due to scurvy, a daily ration of lemon juice which is full of vitamin C, became a standard part of a British sailor’s rations, nearly eradicating the killer that had been taking the lives of sailors for hundreds of years.  With the discovery of a cure for scurvy, the British Navy had a key advantage over their enemies at sea, contributing greatly to their defeat of Napoleon during the French Revolution.  Although today, the cause and cure seem simple enough, it took hundreds of years and the deaths of numerous sailors for a cure to be implemented and even longer for the cause to be discovered, only recently in the 1930’s.

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Although scurvy’s far reaching effects into the wars that have shaped our history came to an end in the early 1800’s, it still can be found affecting people even today wherever there is an insufficient amount of food or poor diets, people with scurvy can be found, as a result.

Now back to guinea pigs, you see humans and guinea pigs are some of the few that are affected by scurvy as most animals, unlike humans and guinea pigs, produce their own vitamin C and do not have to rely on their diets to receive it.   So if you do decide to read this fascinating book, you will learn about not only a great advance in solving a great medical mystery, but also about part of our world’s history that played an astonishing role in shaping the world we know.

As for for sharing about this book with your family, when you read it, try not to frighten your younger siblings with the fact that their pets are susceptible to scurvy.  Yes, Kyle, my little brother, was seen feeding his guinea pig an orange only a couple of hours after he had got it home.

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With New Books to Discover,



2 thoughts on “Guinea Pigs, Lemons and the Age of Sail

    1. Yes, in part! Her is a definition I found on Urban dictionary. As to it’s accuracy it makes me think of this quote “You can’t believe everything you find on the internet.” Abraham Lincoln!

      Scurvy Dog
      Term used by sea pirates for insubordinates.
      Avast, ye scurvy dogs!

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