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Captain Cook's Voyages of Discovery

Treatment of Scurvy



The Copley Medal awarded to Captain James Cook

The Copley Medal awarded to Captain James Cook. These images were downloaded from the website of the National Museum of Australia.

One of Cook’s most important contributions to long sea voyages was to find a way to prevent scurvy, the dread disease of early sailors.  Cook believed that one of his greatest accomplishments was his proof that men could stay at sea for long periods of time without succumbing to scurvy.

The status of medical knowledge about scurvy at sea may be seen in Dr. Anthony Addington’s famous essay published 15 years before Cook embarked on his first Pacific voyage.  Addington perceived scurvy as being related to diet, the quality of air, the state of decay of provisions, and the putrefaction of water.  Keeping water “sweet” aboard ship was deemed of key importance, as well as adding fermented liquids or hydrocholic acid to the water supply. 

Cook circumnavigated the world on his first voyage without losing a single man to scurvy, but his methods, including a diet of sauerkraut, wort of malt, and concentrated lemon and lime juice, were only partially responsible.  Cook’s success was also due to his strict regime of shipboard cleanliness.  In 1776, the Royal Society of London awarded Cook the Copley Medal for his paper giving an account of the method he took to preserve the health of the crew of the Resolution, during her voyage around the world.  Sir John Pringle’s address detailed the importance of Cook’s achievements and why he deserved this prize, given annually for scientific experimentation.*

*See: Pringle, “A Discourse upon some late improvements of the means for preserving the Health of Mariners.” Delivered at the anniversary meeting of the Royal Society, November 30, 1776.  In J. Cook. A Voyage Towards the South Pole, and Round the World.  London: for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1777.