What can scurvy tell us about Victorian culture?

Ed Armston-Sheret is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research examines the ways that Victorian explorers prepared, used, and represented their bodies. His work has been published in the Journal of Historical Geography and the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. He tweets at @edarmston.

In this blog-post, I argue that examining how scurvy was understood on one nineteenth-century Arctic expedition can shed light on Victorian understanding of suffering, health, and the body more generally.[i] Scurvy, I argue, exposed Victorian anxieties about the state of the “national body” and the security of the British Empire.

When you suffer from scurvy, your body begins to disintegrate. Your gums become spongey, and your teeth come loose. You feel exhausted. You bruise and bleed easily. Old wounds begin to open up again. Scurvy also has effects on your mind: sufferers experience delusions and depression. With such an unpleasant array of symptoms, it’s small wonder that Victorian explorers and mariners feared the disease.


Figure 1: Lantern slide used to promote the British Arctic Expedition (Courtesy of SPRI: Ref: LS99/3/1).

We now understand that scurvy is caused by a want of vitamin C—a compound found in fresh food and one often destroyed in the process of preservation. But vitamin C was not discovered until the early twentieth century, and the exact causes of scurvy presented something of a conundrum for Victorian medics and explorers. Medical advice that fresh vegetables would prevent outbreaks was of little to use to sailors and explorers who had to spend long periods without these. Since the late eighteenth century, the Royal Navy had used lime juice to prevent outbreaks of scurvy on board ships. However, lime juice was often preserved and stored in ways that destroyed much of its vitamin C content. Consequently, lime juice did not always prevent scurvy, and its efficacy was called into question.[ii]

Many of the nineteenth-century debates about the causes of scurvy came to a head in discussions around the British Arctic Expedition (1875–6), a well-equipped naval expedition led by Captain George Nares. The expedition comprised of two ships —HMS Alert and Discovery—and 129 men. Its goal was to reach the North Pole by sailing through a supposedly open polar sea along the west coast of Greenland.[iii] The expedition departed Portsmouth to great acclaim, but soon after reaching the Arctic, things began to come unstuck.



Figure 2: Chart of the Route Taken by the British Arctic Expedition (Courtesy of SPRI: LS99/3/8)

Although reaching farther north than any ship before, Nares found that the Arctic Ocean was covered with ice and was, therefore, “exactly the opposite to an ‘Open Polar Sea.’”[iv] After spending the winter in the Arctic, the explorers attempted to reach the North Pole by foot, travelling over the ice. They came closer to the North Pole than anyone had before but fell shorter than they’d hoped due to an outbreak of scurvy and problems with their equipment. Growing increasingly weak, they struggled back towards the Alert. By the time they reached the ship only two men were able to walk, and one man had died.[v] Upon their return, they found that the crew of ships had, too, been attacked by scurvy. In total, nearly half the crew had been affected and four men had died. With little hope of further progress, Nares ordered the ships to head for home as soon as the ice broke up.


Figure 3: Captain George Nares (Image courtesy of SPRI: Ref LS99/3/4)


When the expedition returned to the UK, the outbreak of scurvy caused vigorous debates amongst medics, explorers, and naval officers. These debates shed broader light on Victorian understandings of the suffering, health, and the body. Some saw the outbreak of scurvy as avoidable and embarrassing, suggesting that it reflected poor choices made by the leadership of the expedition. In response, the Admiralty commissioned an inquiry to investigate the scurvy outbreak. MPs also debated the issue in Parliament, linking the outbreak to broader questions of military reform and imperial security.[vi] Until a cause and blame could be firmly established, scurvy triggered anxieties about the strength and vitality of the “national bodies” on which the Empire was based.[vii]


Figure 4: “Alert” Sledge Party Rush for the North Pole (Courtesy of SPRI: Ref LS2007/1/37)


The way the expedition had used alcohol proved particularly contentious. The medic and Arctic explorer Dr John Rae wrote to The Lancet, outraged that the explorers had continued to drink their naval rum ration while they were on their sledge journeys. Rae argued that alcohol weakened “the resisting power of the constitution to the reception of scurvy” and questioned why it had been issued.[viii] Temperance campaigners picked up on the issue too, suggesting that teetotallers on the expedition had avoided scurvy.[ix] Meanwhile, many of the officers on the expedition defended the rum ration, suggesting moderate drinking was harmless. Scurvy thus exposed broader Victorian debates about the effects of alcohol on individual bodies and society more broadly.

The debates around scurvy also highlighted disagreements about how much (and what kinds of) suffering were inevitable and heroic aspects of exploration. Critics of the expedition, such as Rae, argued that much of its suffering had been avoidable—and, therefore, shameful. Others took the opposite view—none more so than Sir Clements Markham, Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. He argued that the scurvy outbreak reflected the fact that the men’s bodies were “unavoidably exposed” to extraordinary hardships.[x] Scurvy thus reflected their courageous suffering. Although Markham suggested some measures to mitigate suffering on future expeditions, he presented scurvy as a perhaps inevitable aspect of polar exploration. The disease could only be totally avoided if the British gave up on exploration altogether.[xi] Markham’s views on scurvy were not widely accepted by medics who increasingly viewed the disease as avoidable. His interventions also failed to fully restore the reputation of the British Arctic Expedition, which remained tainted by the outbreak.



Figure 5: Some sought to celebrate the expedition despite the scurvy outbreak (Courtesy of SPRI: LS99/3/47).

The above debates highlight broader tensions within Victorian society. Bodies thus played a central role in late-Victorian society, but they were enmeshed in broader political and moral debates. On the one hand, bodily breakdown could also be framed in positive terms: many Victorians saw suffering in the service of science and geographical discovery as noble and courageous. On the other hand, late-Victorian society was becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of modern, urban life on the British body. As a result, growing efforts were made to discipline, control, and regulate bodies and to reduce avoidable suffering such as alcoholism. The outbreak of scurvy on expedition highlighted the limited ability of these regimes to render bodies “docile” in extreme environments. [xii]  Consequently, illness on expeditions could provoke rather than soothe these broader anxieties. Despite efforts to frame scurvy as heroic, it remained a troubling affliction because it no clear external cause, suggesting a weakness in the explorers’ bodies themselves. Its effects—the disintegration of the mind and body—were also particularly worrying for a society increasingly concerned about the possibility of physical and moral degeneration. Scurvy thus exposes anxieties about the body at the heart of Empire.


[i] In this essay I have drawn on my previous research. See Edward Armston-Sheret, “Tainted Bodies: Scurvy, Bad Food and the Reputation of the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901–1904”, Journal of Historical Geography vol. 65 (July 2019), 19–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhg.2019.05.006; Edward Armston-Sheret, “‘A Good Advertisement for Teetotalers:’ Polar Explorers and Debates over the Health Effects of Alcohol, 1875–1904,” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs vol. 33, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1086/705337

[ii] Kenneth J. Carpenter The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 43–72, 133–157; Johnathan Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) discusses why scurvy was a particularly troubling disease very effectively.

[iii] For a short history of the expedition see https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/catalogue/bae1875-76/.

[iv] George Nares, Official Report of the Recent Arctic Expedition (London: John Murray, 1876), 32.

[v] Albert Markham, The Great Frozen Sea: A Personal Narrative of the Voyage of the ‘Alert’ During the Arctic Expedition of 1875 – 6 (London: Kegan and Paul, 1880), 322–327.

[vi] Anon., Report of The Admiralty Committee on Causes of the Outbreak of Scurvy in the recent Arctic Expedition (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1877); Hansard, HC Deb 18 June 1877 vol. 234 cc1974-87.

[vii] On the link between explorers’ bodies and the “national body” see Jen Hill, White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth Century British Imagination, (New York: New York State University Press, 2008), chapter two. See also Armston-Sheret, “Tainted Bodies” for a discussion of this issue in relation to scurvy.

[viii] John Rae, “Scurvy and the Arctic Expedition,” The Lancet,18 November 1876, 733.

[ix] Armston-Sheret, “‘A Good Advertisement for Teetotalers,’” 274.

[x] Clements Markham, A Refutation of the Report of the Scurvy Committee (Portsmouth: J Griffin, 1877), 17. See Armston-Sheret, “Tainted Bodies.”

[xi] Armston-Sheret, “Scurvy, Bad Food, and the Reputation of the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901–1904,” 20.

[xii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, trans Alan Sheridan (Vintage: New York, 1977), 136.

This post has been re-published by permission from the BAVS Postgraduates Blog. Please see the original post at https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2020/03/30/what-can-scurvy-tell-us-about-victorian-culture/