Tag Archives: scurvy

On Cabbages

By Alison K. Smith

James John Howard Gregory, Cabbages: how to grow them (Salem, Mass.: Observer steam print, 1878), p. 59. https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages.

In late January 1868, a short article appeared in the Vladimir Provincial News, the local newspaper for a region near Moscow, signed by the provincial medical inspector Aliakrinskii. In it, he warned of a particular local threat to public health:

Due to last summer’s crop failure of cabbage, many do not have it preserved for cabbage soup, which is the major daily food of the peasants in this province. And due to the lack of cabbage soup, as people are used to it, if another sort of sour food is not substituted for it, scurvy may appear.

This was a major problem for a Russian province in the mid-nineteenth century. Aliakrinskii was right—nearly every account of Russian peasant foodways in these northern regions mentioned the centrality of cabbage, and particularly preserved (fermented) cabbage. Shchi, cabbage soup, was the most quintessentially Russian food. In response to a criticism of cabbage as a food, the Russian medical author Ia. S. Chistovich exclaimed “And sour or fermented cabbage? What could replace it for the Russian people?” as a note to his 1852 translation of A. Becquerel’s treatise on hygiene.

Aliakrinskii, though, was concerned not out of a fear of famine (cabbage soup was important, but grains were the major food source) but out of a fear of scurvy. No one yet knew exactly what caused scurvy, but in Russian medical circles, everyone believed that fermented cabbage (not plain cabbage) was one of the things that stopped it. And so, Aliakrinskii gave a series of short recipes (basically, recipes that peasants might be able to make) for substitutes that would, he claimed, stop scurvy’s progress.

To avoid that, the provincial government advises to substitute for cabbage soup as a hot dish a gruel of some sort of grain or a potato soup, adding to either while it is cooking cut up pickles and pickle brine, so the taste of that gruel or soup is a little sour; it is also good to add pepper and a bay leaf; and for a cold dish tyurya is recommended, that is, kvass with rye bread crumbs, pepper, and grated or ground horseradish; or kvass with chopped up salted cucumbers, adding to that onion and horseradish, or grated radish; or tolokno, of oat flour dissolved in kvass. And when there are beets in storage, then from there prepare Ukrainian buraki: for that put cut up beets in a tub, pour in water and, putting in there a bit of sour dough, let it ferment; then, having cut up the fermented beets finely, cook them with pepper and a bay leaf. To drink in every family there should be good kvass. When spring and summer come, it will be useful to make a hot dish like cabbage soup out of sorrel, and from beet greens that have been boiled and then cut up fine and mixed with kvass, adding in onion and horseradish, you get the cold dish called botvin’e. It is also useful in spring and summer to eat green onions, both garden ones and those that grow wild in low-lying meadows; for those one should first cut them up and pound them in a wooden mortar, and then mix them with kvass. (VGV (27 January 1868)).

The assumption in these recipes is that the thing that stopped scurvy was the particular sourness of fermented cabbage—not the cabbage itself, despite the fact that it is actually a good source of vitamin C. All of these recipes take what would otherwise be bland foods (gruel, potato soup, breadcrumbs, even beets) and add sourness to them. Sometimes that sourness comes from another fermented food—the kvass (the favorite lightly fermented drink of Russia) that featured in almost every recipe—or by adding fermentation—the instructions to ferment beets—or by adding pickles and pickle brine, probably the sourest option. They also mostly add other sharp, strong, almost spicy flavors: pepper, horseradish, onion, radish. This echoes other moments in which Russian culinary or medical writers associated a taste for such strong flavors with a native Russian healthiness—in 1841, in an article “And More on Food” in the journal The Economist, an anonymous Russian author claimed that “of the Russians, only the milksops [nezhenki] do not eat onions . . . our great-grandfathers did not know medicinal mixtures at all, and all because they were able to live, eat, and drink better than us, and also, how they loved onion, garlic, radish, pepper, and such foods!”






Mistletoe: Not just for kissing?

By Jennifer Munroe

As the holiday season draws near, mistletoe might come to mind, since the tradition of kissing under this otherwise culturally-absent plant prevails today. Native to North America, mistletoe grows in the west as well as in areas of the east. The first time I saw mistletoe growing high in the tree canopy as I was driving down the highway here in North Carolina, it seemed somehow out of place, with its wispy tendrils, quite unlike the version I’d seen in stores over the years. In England, mistletoe, or viscum album, grows as a shrub, with its small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries. It seems that today, the extracts of European mistletoe has been used for seizures, headaches, and even to treat cancer. And to think: I thought it was just for kissing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the following references to mistletoe from correspondence between Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, and her brother, Robert Boyle. Both letters express Jones’s concern for her sister-in-law, Margaret Boyle, as she suffers from frequent bouts of “scurbitical humour,” or fits related to scurvy.

In the first letter, Jones refers to a quantity of mistletoe that she has found in the recently-deceased Lady Clarendon’s “case”:

“Nature being soe farr weakened as to be unable to worke together wth ye remedys ye Dr had upon consulte agreed to give her. None of all which had so visible an operation as to wakening and rousing her as a large bottle of very quick spirit of Hartshorne that I procured for he held under her nose which ye Dr confesed was as proper as any thing that could be use to her (& which I give you notice of to invite you to put yourselfe into a good stock of it for my Dearest Sisters use which how you may doe, one that I know having lately stilled it in good quantity & selling it for 5s an ounce. Halfe a pinte would be enough for you at once which was about what we now had for this poore Lady … I intend this night if I can get Dr Cox to discourse with him about her, & then send you wt he directs his power he thinks rather better than ye Misselto I found in my Lady Claringdons case that ye Dr [saw her] foaming & puking at ye mouth differing things in these fits he she did ye later at least…” (BL Add 75354, ff. 101-104: Letter from Katherine to Robert 10 Aug, 1667?).

In the second letter, dated a week later, mistletoe is prescribed as a possible remedy for Margaret Boyle’s fits, but an alternative remedy, a “hartshorn spirit” of Jones’s making, figures as again as an arguably superior treatment:

“The misselto may be given about ye changes of ye moone if it could be got in quantities enough to be so employed but because its so great a raretie its seldome given but in a fit or upon discovery of ye approach of one. My Lady Warwicke is not yet come home when she does I shall god wiling make her send you some but my Lord Dretzwel can furnish you for he has one growing. Ye Hartshorne spirit I have spoken for as you [requested] but know not how to send a halfe pint bottle by ye post & therefore shal desire Mr Graham to send it as fast as he can” (BL Add 75354, ff. 107r-110v, dated  17 Aug 1667?).

While there is much that could be said about these letters, what’s curious to me is the way that mistletoe and hartshorn spirits function as competing treatments for scorbitical fits [related to scurvy] (and earlier in the first letter, ironically, the doctor insisted that Margaret Boyle not eat raw fruit when she began to feel unwell). Jones seems not quite to want to contradict the doctor’s prescription of mistletoe, but she certainly suggests her hartshorn might be more effective. In the first letter, that is, she makes it clear that even the doctor “confesed” that her hartshorn spirits, waved under the nose (which she can sell to interested parties for 5s an ounce, by the way…) vivified the ailing Lady Clarendon more effectively than other applications; and it seems the “foaming & puking at ye mouth” that Lady Clarendon experienced may well have stemmed from her use of the mistletoe in her case, as mistletoe ingestion induces vomiting. In both recipes, the references to mistletoe as a treatment are followed almost immediately by those for Jones’s own (and obviously preferred) hartshorn spirits, made from the shavings from a hart’s antlers, which produces ammonium carbonate. And while it seems that such a remedy would likely be an irritant to its user, Jones swears by it. Or at least she swears by her spirit of hartshorn. Maybe it is better, though, to leave the hartshorn on the hart and the mistletoe for kissing and just eat some fruit—or some fruitcake.

Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.


Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.