Apples, Oranges and Angels in the Age of Exploration

An apple a day keeps the doctor away, so they say. Such simple logic must have reason for being so widely known, so well known in fact, that no-one claims to know who started it. Easy rhyme made last forever but if truth were known, it’s oranges and angels that protect us.

Oranges are so amazing that they should have a poem about Angels to connect them together. Perhaps the name is the hidden clue, or maybe the color itself should have been enough to know that something very heavenly exists, inside that most flawless skin.

Of all the foods on earth, the food of the Angels, must be oranges.

In 1536, the French explorer Jacques Cartier, exploring the St. Lawrence River, used the local natives’ knowledge to save his men who were dying of scurvy. He boiled the needles of the arbor vitae tree (eastern white cedar) to make a tea that was later shown to contain 50 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams. Such treatments were not available aboard ship, where the disease was most common.

In February 1601, Captain James Lancaster, while sailing to Sumatra, landed on the northern coast to specifically obtain lemons and oranges for his crew to stop scurvy. Captain Lancaster conducted an experiment using four ships under his command. One ship’s crew received routine doses of lemon juice while the other three ships did not receive any such treatment. As a result, members of the non-treated ships started to contract scurvy, with many dying as a result.

During the Age of Exploration (between 1500 and 1800), it has been estimated that scurvy killed at least two million sailors. Jonathan Lamb wrote: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170; In 1520, Magellan lost 208 out of 230;…all mainly to scurvy.”

In 1579, the Spanish friar and physician Agustin Farfán published a book in which he recommended oranges and lemons for scurvy, a remedy that was already known in the Spanish Navy.

In 1593, Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins advocated drinking orange and lemon juice as a means of preventing scurvy.

In 1614, John Woodall, Surgeon General of the East India Company, published The Surgion’s Mate as a handbook for apprentice surgeons aboard the company’s ships. He repeated the experience of mariners that the cure for scurvy was fresh food or, if not available, oranges, lemons, limes, and tamarinds. He was, however, unable to explain the reason why, and his assertion had no impact on the prevailing opinion of the influential physicians of the age, that scurvy was a digestive complaint.

Oranges and Angels are two things I believe in, one is now easier than the other to prove but both have been here all along, ready to make us better.

Oranges Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash

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