Captain Cook’s treatment

Captain Cook’s treatment

1 1 year ago


After the number of long-time voyages multiplied, caused by the nautical inventions of the 15th century (with discovering the Americas and the Pacific), diseases caused by malnutrition became a severe problem for seafaring men. One of the disorders, caused by the lack of vitamin C was scurvy, which became a major problem during long journeys, claiming thousands of lives until the end of the 19th century.

Of course, the exact reason was not discovered until 1932, when Albert Szent-Györgyi (another Hungarian, almost naturally) first extracted the ascorbic acid. At the time many different attempts failed on preventing the scurvy’s outbreak, and only a handful succeeded. The most well-known is the frequent consumption of sauerkraut or citrus fruits, but during the mid-1700s, the connection between the beer provision on long-distance voyages and the low number of scurvy outbreaks has been discovered.

Just for illustration: it is said that the “sea plague” caused more losses to the British navy in the 18th century than enemy actions.

One of the most commonly accepted medical explanation for beer’s scurvy-preventing ability was Dr. David Macbride’s. Macbride believed that scurvy was a result of the release of ‘fixed air’ (carbon-dioxide) from the living tissue. He argued that as decaying food released CO2 so did aging living tissue (meaning humans). Because of this, the aim must be to complete the body’s ‘fixed air’ reserves, and the best way for this would be digesting any food that ferments (thus generates CO2).
The conclusion: beer is good against scurvy, because it’s fermented and releases carbon dioxide in the digestive system.

This reasoning was only a deduction of events that already happened, not a groundbreaking innovation. But Macbride went further: since beer is made out of malt, malt must contain all the fixed air already that goes into the beer. Additionally, it was much easier to store a great amount of malt on a ship than barrels of beer, so on Captain Cook’s first voyage with the ship Endeavour (1768-1771) dried malt was provisioned. Every day a given amount was ground, mixed with boiling water and stand for 3-4 hours, producing a sweet wort, which was handed out among the sailors. Due to the experiences of James Cook’s first and second voyage, not only the captain, but navy surgeons as well praised beer (and malt and wort) as a great preventor of scurvy. Their effectiveness lied in the barley’s ascorbic acid, which, if the malt could be kept fresh would still be present in great amounts.
The question was given: how could beer (or malt) supplies last out for those days’ journeys, which could many times stretch out to years?

The answer naturally gave itself: why shouldn’t people brew their own beer on the deck of the boat itself? Unfortunately, the theory could not live up to reality: the “inspissated juice of malt” (actually malt-syrup) could not be safely fermented on the flouncing decks of a voyaging boat. Neither could be a traditional way of brewing, for the same reason. Although there might have been some experiences regarding the latter, no written evidence could be found about a seaborn brewery.
What did realize was, however, a few experiments on land – spruce beer was born in Alaska/Canada, and sugar cane beer in Hawaii, but nor these, neither any other simplifying of beers could have the same results as simple beer could have a few decades back.

The logistical problem was only one side of the coin, however. The other was, that from the 1780s, the prevention of scurvy, attributed to beer was gradually recognized to be the effect of mostly citrus and sauerkraut, both of which were simultaneously given to sailors on longtime voyages. Thus ended the medical revolution of beer in the 1700s. But do not be blue: there are so many things we can use beer for, it is okay, to admit: there is one thing for which we can’t.