Being a sailor in the British Navy was a hazardous experience, and sometimes still is! Sailors face many hazards but as it turns out, had the admiralty adopted lemon juice as part of a sailor’s diet, many lives could have been saved.
Prior to 1800 a major cause of death for sailors was scurvy; just witness the statistics:
In 1497 Vasco de Gama sailed around the cape of Good Hope with a crew of 160. Of this full complement, 100 died of scurvy.
Approximately 100 years later in 1601 an English naval captain, James Lancaster, conducted an experiment to measure the effects of lemon juice on scurvy. He had command of four ships. On one of the ships he had each sailor consume three teaspoonfuls of lemon juice every day. The other three ships followed their normal diet without lemon juice, the results were stunning:
Lemon Juice – Most sailors remained healthy throughout the voyage.
Normal Diet – Of the 278 sailors on the ships, 110 died from scurvy!
Even though the cause of the scurvy was not known, we might expect that the Admiralty would quickly adopt measures to give lemon juice to their sailors. Even an inhumane Admiral would have to admit that the cost of lemons was far less than the cost of replacing a few hundred sailors after every voyage.
But no action was taken and sailors on long voyages continued to die.
Approximately 150 years later James Lind, a physician in the British Navy who knew of Lancaster’s experiment, started treated ailing sailors with citrus fruits. The sailors quickly recovered.
After two major demonstrations we might expect a new policy in the Admiralty incorporating the research, but still nothing was done.
In fact it took another 50 years before the Admiralty implemented a policy of feeding citrus fruit to sailors on long voyages.
Scurvy was immediately eradicated in the British Navy!
But what about merchant seaman? They were subject to the same high death rates, but nothing was done by the British Board of Trade for another 75 years until in 1865 the same policy was adopted and scurvy was eradicated from the Merchant Marine.
It took another 70 years before the cause of scurvy was understood to be a deficiency in vitamin C.
It’s easy to trace this history and be shocked by the apparent callousness of the Admiralty and Board of Trade. After all, we have to ask how many sailors died, year after year, before action was taken. It’s not as though the cost of the solution was enormous and couldn’t be justified. In the 21st millennium we might look at this behavior as callous, but the Admiralty was not noted for its humane treatment of sailors.
Still even with the inhumane view that the Admiralty maintained we have to wonder why they took so long to take action. Some possible explanations include:
- There were other solutions being proposed, each with its own champion. Still in an age when new technologies like music cassettes are born and die in less than 30 years, it’s hard to understand why it took the Admiralty 200 years to implement an effective treatment.
- The Navy was not run by a lot of bright-eyed innovative thinkers. It is said that generals tend to fight the last war as opposed to the next war. I have no evidence to support this, but perhaps it suggests that the people who rise to high rank in the services are by their nature conservative thinkers.
We can draw some tentative conclusions from this example:
- New ideas diffuse at a slow rate
- Ideas do not sell themselves even when there is proof of concept
- Priorities and values play an important part in the diffusion of innovation
Even though this example might seem archaic, we are still subject to the same issues in the 21st Millennium. As noted in other posts, the adoption of innovations that might bring us benefits is not always swift and not always easy.
Timeline – Scurvy Prevention
This example is excerpted from
By Everett Rogers