Scurvy (and, the power of doing over understanding)

If you’ve ever watched an old pirate movie, and I hope you have, you’ll remember scenes in which pirates, stuck in the doldrums, are afflicted by scurvy.

They lay around on the deck, first weak and helpless, then depressed and listless, then their hair and teeth start falling out, and then unless they catch sight of land (and therefore, fresh fruit and vegetables) they eventually die.

Scurvy, of course, is a disease caused by lack of vitamin C.

Humans are one of very few creatures (along with monkeys, bats, capybaras, and guinea pigs) who cannot create their own vitamin C within our bodies. It must be consumed. 

Sailors of old ate a diet of salted meat and hardtack (fruit and vegetables didn’t keep on long sailing journeys). Symptoms of scurvy start popping up about a month after you haven’t had enough vitamin C, so this was a sort of built-in range limiter for early seafarers. During the golden age of sail, it’s estimated that around half the sailors on long voyages ended up dying from scurvy. 

Scurvy wasn’t relegated to sailing ships, but was also an endemic problem up throughout many cold areas in Europe. In late winter, after the last carrot and onion were eaten, scurvy would ravage Northern and Central Europe. 

Scurvy still exists, although it is mostly relegated to sad circumstances: invalids, old folks who live alone, alcoholics, or people who don’t eat their vegetables.

See, although some amounts of vitamin C are found in most vegetables, the foods most rich in C are citrus, tomatoes, and potatoes…none of which are native to Northern Europe.

As a matter of fact, if you’re curious why nobody seemed to sail very far before 1492, it’s because potatoes and tomatoes had not yet been brought back from the New World. The only great source of C were citrus fruits (lemons, limes, and oranges) grown in Spain and Italy.

It’s interesting, then, that the first Spanish explorers both brought back potatoes and tomatoes…and introduced citrus to the Americas. Hard to imagine Florida or Panama or California without oranges, just like it’s hard to imagine Italy without tomatoes or Germany without potatoes.

But back to scurvy, and then the moral of the story.

The thing is, scurvy wasn’t understood. Nobody knew jack squat about vitamins. They just knew some things helped scurvy.

Eventually, the Royal Navy started handing out daily rations of a pound of limes and sugar to its sailors. Scurvy suddenly became a thing of the past (in case you’re curious, that’s why the British are called limeys).

It’s crazy, if you think about it, that something as simple as a vitamin deficiency can shape history.

Potatoes came to Europe. Suddenly, Northern Europeans not only could sail farther (potatoes keep for a very long time in the hold of a ship, unlike broccoli) but they weren’t nutritionally crippled each winter. 

(If you chase this down the rabbit hole, eventually you wonder if the rise of the Hapsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire, the Scandinavian kingdoms, and England itself had anything to do with some extra vitamins…winter vitamins that were previously only available in the warmer climes of Spain, Greece, and Italy.)

But I digress.

The word “vitamin” wasn’t even coined until 1912.

A chronic failure of white collar folks — doctors, marketers, astrophysicists, MBAs, nutritionists, financial advisors — is that we don’t really like to recommend that which we do not understand. It’s a mixture of ego and fear. Some don’t like to admit they don’t know. Some are afraid of unknowns.

For hundreds of years, all scientists knew was that fruits and vegetables helped cure scurvy. But since they had no clue why, they came up with all sorts of quack remedies.

(For years, instead of handing out actual limes, the Royal Navy gave each sailor a dose of “Lind’s rob” which was a boiled-down concoction of lemons and oranges…and which unfortunately boiled off almost all vitamin C. They switched to actual limes and then colonized half of the world, I’m not sure if there is any correlation).

I’m sure that, without understanding vitamins, eating lemons or potatoes to ward off scurvy seemed like a folk remedy. Blue-collar ship captains knew more (from direct observation and experience) about the benefits of fresh fruit than the most academic of academics. But the reality is that actual understanding wasn’t necessary to take advantage of the power of the potato. 

Like most folk remedies, complicated science is almost always buried within a very simple pragmatic reality.

In running a business, I don’t always know why my work results in a new client, but it does. I could spend a lot of time analyzing why, or I could just do more of the same…and get more clients.

In marketing, I don’t always know why a specific type of ad campaign works better than others, but sometimes it does…and I’d be a fool to not replicate it as much as possible.

I don’t always understand how my car converts gasoline into motion, but it does, and I’d be a fool to not drive around in my magical horseless carriage. I don’t always understand why I feel better after I go outside and take a walk, but I do, and I’m healthier because of it.

I’ve run into a few (thankfully rare) clients that don’t understand why certain marketing channels are profitable for them. They’re hung up on understanding, way too process-oriented for their own good, and they create a stumbling block out of their inability to wholly grasp some aspect of their business. If they don’t understand it, they don’t like it. Even if it’s obviously profitable, they won’t double down on things that are clearly working, because they don’t know why it’s working.

Curiosity and knowledge are invaluable. Now that we know about vitamin C, we can more easily make sure we’re getting a balanced diet. It’s nice to understand why we do things…but it should never actually get in the way of doing things we know just work.

Sometimes, like eating potatoes in the winter, you need to just do it.

P.S. If you know anyone who’s weak and listless, perhaps it’s scurvy lite. They’ve not been eating their vegetables.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *