Jacques Cartier and Scurvy

Jacques Cartier led an expedition through Quebec upon which many of his men took ill with scurvy. A cure was found, upon consulting some Iroquois Indians, in the form of pine leaves and bark boiled in a decoction. The salutary effects of the brew was probably at least partly due to pycnogenol in the pine bark. The following passage from chapter 7 of Stephen Leacock's The Mariner of St Malo: A Chronicle of the Voyages of Jacques Cartier describes the episode which occurred in 1536.

It happened one day that Cartier was walking up and down by himself upon the ice when he saw a band of Indians coming over to him from Stadacona. Among them was the interpreter Domagaya, whom Cartier had known to be stricken by the illness only ten days before, but who now appeared in abundant health. On being asked the manner of his cure, the interpreter told Cartier that he had been healed by a beverage made from the leaves and bark of a tree. Cartier, as we have seen, had kept from the Indians the knowledge of his troubles, for he dared not disclose the real weakness of the French. Now, feigning that only a servant was ill, he asked for details of the remedy, and, when he did so, the Indians sent their women to fetch branches of the tree in question. The bark and leaves were to be boiled, and the drink thus made was to be taken twice a day. The potion was duly administered, and the cure that it effected was so rapid and so complete that the pious Cartier declared it a real and evident miracle. 'If all the doctors of Lorraine and Montpellier had been there with all the drugs of Alexandria,' he wrote, 'they could not have done as much in a year as the said tree did in six days.' An entire tree--probably a white spruce--was used up in less than eight days. The scourge passed and the sailors, now restored to health, eagerly awaited the coming of the spring.

Voyages and expeditions in the 1500s were very much plagued by scurvy. At the time it was not understood that scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C found in fresh fruits and vegetables. Expeditions were usually provisioned with meats and breads packed and preserved for long periods. They were exceptionally devoid of vitamin C. The British Navy was the first organization to deal with the scurvy problem effectively. They did this by using lime juice on board ships. This was how the British seaman took on the sobriquet, "limy".

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Interesting Fact:

It was Jacques Cartier who claimed Quebec for France in the early 1500s.


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