The Link Between Vitamins and Health

Sometimes when I’m especially busy and become generally rundown, my gums begin to bleed. This prompts me to swallow several thousand milligrams of Vitamin C and the bleeding usually stops. There is nothing trendy in my treatment. Californians have a long history of restoring health with ascorbic acid.

The value of megadoses of Vitamin C, advocated by former Caltech professor and two-time Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling, in warding off disease is hotly disputed. All agree, however, that a diet lacking the vitamin is dangerous.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, sailors on a regime of salt biscuits and dried meats suffered initially from small bumps on the skin, especially below the waist, followed by extreme tenderness throughout their bodies to the slightest touch. We know from ships’ logs that the lumps turned into what looked like welts as the victims’ joints grew stiff, their gums swelled and teeth fell out. Short of landfall, nothing seemed to stop the rapid deterioration and thousands died. The killer, of course, was scurvy--a disorder resulting from an acute lack of Vitamin C.

Yet in those years of perilous sea voyages, occasional miracles hinted at a cure. In 1602, for example, a Spanish expedition led by Father Antonio de la Ascension of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites landed a shipful of dying men near Monterey. But after eating some local plants, the dying revived and returned healthy to Spain. Whatever they ate must have been rich in Vitamin C, a substance found also in potatoes--another gift from the New World. The addition of raw potatoes and vinegar to the sailor’s diet did a lot to eradicate scurvy from the maritime scene.

By the 18th Century it was clear to sailors like Capt. Cook that fresh fruits and vegetables kept a crew healthy. By 1795 the British admiralty had prescribed a daily glass of fresh lime juice for each sailor, and the British navy was freed from scurvy.


Then the Gold Rush brought a medical phenomenon to California--land scurvy. Overland miners packed beef jerky but forgot potatoes, oranges and lemons. Before they reached gold country at least 10,000 had succumbed to the same set of symptoms that had once afflicted sailors. The miners recognized the symptoms and called it the “sailor’s disease.” Reasoning that since the sailors had been cured at landfall, there must be something in the land, they buried each other up to their necks, as if the soil could cure them. (It was well after 1850 that citrus fruits were grown on a commercial scale in California.)

It took a quantum mental leap for physicians to recognize that illness could result from the lack of something useful in the diet rather than the addition of something harmful. The UC Berkeley nutritionist Kenneth Carpenter chronicles “The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C” (Cambridge University Press) and explains why it took the medical community so long to understand what was really happening. Laying to rest the myth that British sailors, limeys, were better off than their Spanish counterparts, Carpenter explains that on the contrary, the British ate limes because they had no source of lemons. And while limes and lemons look and taste alike, lemons have twice the Vitamin C and half as many lemons as limes would have done the trick.

Besides plaguing sailors, scurvy decimated the Irish peasants who, during the potato famine of the 1840s, suddenly found themselves without their only source of the precious vitamin. Ironically, the approach of the 20th Century saw scurvy vanishing among the poor and reappearing among the affluent. Cosseted children, raised on a diet of white bread and butter, began to lose their teeth and develop the same sore legs and weakened bones as the impoverished peasants.

Eating potatoes, oranges, lemons and limes worked hit or miss, depending on the freshness of the food and the frequency and quantity that each person ate. How these foods cured remained a mystery. As late as 1911 the Encyclopedia Britannica explained that scurvy depends on the nature of the food but it was still disputed whether the disorder was caused by the absence of something or the presence of some actual poison.

Not until the second decade of the 20th Century were vitamins completely understood as essential organic compounds that prevent conditions such as beriberi, pellegra and scurvy.

It took another decade to isolate Vitamin C and identify it chemically. Nutritionists were discovering many vitamins that in the right quantity could prevent disorders. They also learned that too much of some vitamins produced devastating illnesses. But not Vitamin C. Scientists like Pauling reason that human beings, along with many other primates, guinea pigs and some species of birds, are victims of an evolutionary error. For while other mammals can synthesize Vitamin C in their own bodies, we have lost this ability and must compensate by supplementing it in our diets. This is one reason, he suggests, that guinea pigs make such good animal models for human disease. They, too, suffer from all the ramifications of a lack of enough Vitamin C.