Civil Oranges

Shakespeare*…. “Civil, Count. Civil as an orange, and something of that same jealous complexion.”

the Myrtle-leaved form of Seville Orange, Citrus aurantium ‘Chinotto’

From ancient times, Europeans knew Oranges based on the small, bitter, Mediterranean Seville Orange, Citrus aurantium. That orange, flavorful yet mostly inedible, found utility in England once sugar was plentiful enough to allow creation of orange marmalade, a nearly-crystallized sweet jam that marries nicely with toast. In recent times, Seville Orange has been in the news for potentially therapeutic and hazardous uses as an antioxidant. (Suntar, et al)

But those trials and uses ignore the important role of Seville Orange, Lemons, Limes, and other citrus in addressing Scurvy as the scourge of seafarers. This nutritional disease ruled as the greatest cause of death for sailors on long voyages (months-long sailings that could not take regular provisions of fresh foods) that began with European explorers Columbus, Da Gama, and Magellan. Author Jonathan Lamb reminds us: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170; In 1520, Magellan lost 208 out of 230;…all mainly to scurvy.” (see Jonathan Lamb, 2016. Scurvy – the Disease of Discovery.) Astonishingly, the value of citrus in curing Scurvy was known and recorded during the three plus centuries (1500-1800+) that Scurvy played out.

It wasn’t simply word of mouth; the value of citrus and other fresh fruit and vegetables had been documented.  John Woodall, the first surgeon for the British East India Company compiled his important manual The Surgeon’s Mate in 1617 (HNT60676), recommending lemon juice for managing scurvy: “the Lemmons, Limes, Tamarinds, Oranges, and other choice of good helps in the Indies… do farre exceed any that can be carried tither from England.

Joseph Miller, in Botanicum Officinale (1722) repeated prescriptions of others: ” The Juice of Oranges is used as Sauce to whet the Appetite. It is cordial and cooling, good to quench Thirst, and serviceable in burning Fevers; it is of great Use in the Scurvy, being frequently mixt among other Antiscorbutics. The Peel or Bark is cordial and stomachic, strengthens and warms the Stomach, prevents Nausea and Vomiting, and helps the Collick.”

Proving the point, in what many consider the first controlled medical experiment (see the TimeLine, 1747), James Lind demonstrated unequivocally that citrus is antiscorbutic while other traditional treatments are not valid (1757, HNT 125377). Regardless, companies and admiralties paid little attention, and sailors perished from a lifestyle that was infinitely more repugnant than the romanticized versions presented to modern audiences. Scurvy (which is forgotten in modern society) remained a principal cause of mortality in the British navy 40 years after Lind’s work.

Perhaps a reason for bureaucratic unwillingness to give attention to a cure was the lack of a cause. Scurvy was a suite of symptoms, like other devastating diseases such as the Plague (Bubonic plague), Ague (Malaria), and French Disease (Syphilis) – as mysterious as those, but more insidious. Lacking appreciation of micro-organisms or vitamin deficiency as causes for disease, people imagine poor health and disease as imbalances, or character failure, or class punishment, or even luck-of-the-draw. But disease wasn’t thought of as due to invisible causal agents that could be defeated through cleanliness or diet.

Because sailors were dealt an awful diet of salty, fatty, and putrid fare, Scurvy wasn’t their sole problem, not even their only nutritional disease. Pellagra (Niacin deficiency) and BeriBeri (Thiamine deficiency) were also common. Growing appreciation of deficiency diseases culminated in Casimir Funk’s 1912 publication (see below), making vitamins part of 20th Century science. Ascorbic acid (so named because of its anti-scorbutic activity) was determined to be the necessary Vitamin C which researchers had realized is required to alleviate symptoms of scurvy.

Worth a mention, chemical characterization of Ascorbic Acid came through the work of several people. The scientist who merits most attention, and who had first identified the chemical composition of Vitamin C (as hexuronic acid) was Albert Szent-Györgyi. Needing a source from which to extract large amounts of Ascorbic Acid for study, Szent-Györgyi’s team discovered that paprika is rich with the compound and extracted a large quantity which was shared with other researchers. In short order, the chemical structure was characterized and synthetic Vitamin C was available.

To explore this topic further, read Stephen J. Bown’s incredible book Scurvy – How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (2005, also available in e-book format).

Also see: “Albert Szent-Györgyi’s Discovery of Vitamin C”

Simon Spedding, 2013. “Vitamins are more Funky than Casimir thought”, Australas Med J. 2013; 6(2): 104–106. Published online 2013 Feb 28. doi: 10.4066/AMJ.2013.1588 PMCID: PMC3593520PMID: 23483872

Casimir Funk, 1912. “The Etiology of the Deficiency Diseases – Beri-Beri, Polyneuritis in Birds, Epidemic, Dropsy, Scurvy, Experimental Scurvy in Animals, Infantile Scurvy, Ship Beri-Beri, Pellagra.” This is an amazing, easily understood publication – the very foundation of our appreciation for vitamin deficiency diseases.

Richard D. Semba, 2012. “The Discovery of Vitamins” “Rather than a mythical story of crowning scientific breakthroughs, the reality was a slow, stepwise progress that included setbacks, contradictions, refutations, and some chicanery.”

Suntar, Haroom, Patel, Celano, and Rastrelli, 2018. “An Overview on Citrus aurantium L.: Its Functions as Food Ingredient and Therapeutic Agent”

* Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2 Scene 1 – Beatrice, joining into banter over Count Claudio’s mood: “The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and 
something of that jealous complexion.”
In the end, after much deceit and upheaval, all’s well as ends well: Claudio weds Hero (Beatrice’s cousin) and the combative Beatrice weds the equally loquacious Benedick.

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