Lessons from the British Navy: Why the Cure for Scurvy Took 200 Years to Be Implemented


The great challenge in innovation is not coming up with a discovery or great invention. The challenge is in making it stick, in nurturing it and growing it so that it spreads and changes the world. Numerous antibodies and barriers are ready to snuff out every great idea, even when it offers a solution that the world is clamoring for. The story of scurvy in the British Navy, as shared in Chapter 10 of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, illustrates this principle.

Scurvy cost the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers around the world for centuries. For the British Navy, that disease was one of the greatest challenges it faced. On long voyages, 30% or more of the crew might die from scurvy. Through confusion and error among England’s educated elite regarding scurvy, misinformation about its cause and its cure would persist into the 20th century. However, there was credible medical information in the early 1600s pointing to citrus fruits as a key aid in preventing and curing the disease. [See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).]

Physicians on land and at sea would later provide evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only ignored or resisted by those in the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community who perpetrated a form of “strategy fatigue” by making a general understanding of the nature of disease their primary quest, being uninterested in “merely empirical” work aimed at curing a given disease. For example, the work in the 1730s of physician John Bachstrom in Holland pointing to fresh fruits and vegetables as the decisive cure for scurvy was dismissed by the medical community of his day, for he was “a mere empirick” in the eyes of his elite peers. [Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.]

The adoption of the innovation of citrus fruit in treating scurvy took more than compelling evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753 – only to be ignored for decades. (To be accurate, the information from Lind and others was obscured by terrible confusion about physiology and disease, and continued to point to the dangers of various “airs” and climatic factors as key contributors to scurvy, obscuring the fact that it was a nutritional deficiency.) [See James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy. in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes and Cure, of that Disease. Together with a Critical and Chronological View of What Has Been Published on the Subject, Edinburgh: Printed by Sands, Murray and Cochran for A Kincaid and A Donaldson. Portions of the original reproduced online by the James Lind Library. Also see Carpenter, op. cit., pp. 51-52.]

In London, Blane became the private physician to Lord Rodney and sailed with him to the West Indies in 1779. Blane’s efforts to keep sailors healthy were increasingly successful, and through his connections to Rodney and others naval leaders, Blane was able to give lectures to senior leaders and gain support for improved practices across the entire navy. Drawing upon past work and a further demonstration of his own, he would introduce compelling evidence to naval leaders that lime juice prevented scurvy, leading the Navy to adopt lime juice in its global operations beginning in 1795. [David Nash Ford, “Biographies: Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834),” Royal Berkshire History (Finchampstead, UK: Nash Ford Publishing, 2005).] For nearly two centuries, the British Navy had been closed to a safe, inexpensive innovation from outsiders that solved what may have been its most vexing and costly problem. The citrus “sales pitch” fell on deaf ears until someone with the right connections to senior management could deliver it. It’s a tragic lesson of the dangers of closed innovation, of organizational rigidity, of devaluing the work of innovators, of listening to the wrong voices, of “not invented here,” and the importance of delivering the story of an innovation to the right people, through those who have the right contacts. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it often is. Thousands of needless deaths over centuries: welcome to the fruits of innovation fatigue.

Incidentally, innovation-related lessons from scurvy continued long after 1795. Though citrus juice was adopted in the British Navy, the nature of the disease and the reason for the cure were still unknowns. Without careful efforts to preserve knowledge and best practices, erosion can quickly occur. Thus when the Royal Navy undertook arctic expeditions in the 19th century, the leaders took with them a belief that good hygiene, good morale, and regular exercise prevented scurvy. Not surprisingly, scurvy was a recurring problem in these voyages. In the 20th century, when Robert Scott trekked into the Antarctic, tainted canned food was believed to be a cause of scurvy. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was not discovered until 1932. Likewise, we have seen many organizations lose best practices, healthy processes, and even technical capabilities and knowledge when efforts weren’t taken to preserve and pass on what they had.

(The above is based on an section of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, Chapter 10.)

Comments are closed.

Our Mission is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.