In southern California this is the time of year when my friends’ trees are overflowing with oranges and lemons, and I’m lucky to be able to share in the bounty. While enjoying my fresh dose of vitamin C, I started pondering scurvy.

Scurvy is a potentially fatal disease caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C. American schoolchildren learn about scurvy as a disease that plagued the European explorers’ voyages because they did not have access to fresh food. Unfortunately, the Europeans did not know how to prevent or treat scurvy.

At least not until a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, James Lind, published A Treatise on the Scurvy in 1753. Citrus fruit had long been suggested as a cure for scurvy, but Lind was the first to perform systematic experimentation to reach that conclusion. He didn’t know why it worked, just that it did work. But there was controversy over his findings of dietary treatment and his ideas were not immediately accepted. From an historical standpoint, because of this published material, it would seem that Lind discovered how to end the scourge of scurvy, even if his ideas weren’t immediately implemented.

James Lind (1716-1794) by Sir George Chalmers, (c 1720-1791)

James Lind (1716-1794) by Sir George Chalmers, (c 1720-1791)

But in my research I was reminded, yet again, that the simplest answer is not always the best answer.

Years before the European explorations, there were epic sea voyages in Asia. In China, Zheng He, 1371-1433, commanded seven voyages. Zheng He was recently brought to the attention of Western audiences by his inclusion in the Gavin Menzies book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, published in 2002. In the interests of full disclosure, I have not read this book. There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding it and attempts to debunk the findings and conclusions. I only mention it here because of Zheng He. Research and polite disagreements regarding Zheng He and the importance of his armada can be found in journal articles and magazines.

Bronze of Zheng He. Attribution: Quentin Scouflaire from Berlin, Germany

Bronze of Zheng He. Attribution: Quentin Scouflaire from Berlin, Germany

Zheng He was from a Muslim family in the Mongol province of Yunnan, but the area was invaded by the Chinese Army in 1381. Zheng He was captured and ritually castrated and became an imperial eunuch (another story for another day). Then 24 years later, now a trusted advisor to the Emperor, he was appointed as commander of a fleet of more than 300 huge treasure ships with crew of approximately 28,000. Columbus had three ships and 90 crew.

Chinese woodblock print, representing Zheng He's ships, dated to the early 17th century.

Chinese woodblock print, representing Zheng He’s ships, dated to the early 17th century.

The size of the fleet was not the only difference. Zheng He’s fleet did not suffer serious illness. According to the diaries of an historian, Ma Huan, on one of the Chinese ships, the Chinese fleet carried grain staples which could be stored for long periods and cooked fresh. They also had chickens used for eggs and fresh meat. Most importantly, their ships were large enough to grow soybeans on board, which provide plenty of vitamin C.

Speculation is that the food stores used by the Chinese required enough advance planning that the idea was not new, but had been tested on previous voyages. Whether that is the case, or if someone on these voyages devised this plan, we still don’t know who originally made the connection between the dietary components and illness prevention. Now go eat an orange.