Humans need vitamin C to live, and if we can’t manage to get it from our diets, we get a disease called scurvy. Scurvy is awful (you can google it, but maybe just trust me on this one?)--your connective tissue slowly breaks down, your teeth get loose and fall out, internal bleeding turns to internal hemorrhaging–it’s a long, slow, painful death, easily reversible with a dose of vitamin C. We don’t hear about scurvy much in our modern lives because we generally have access to fruits and vegetables and fortified food, which gives us enough vitamin C to keep our teeth, but over the course of human history, scurvy has claimed millions of lives. The fascinating circumstances that contributed to humanity’s discovery and subsequent loss of the knowledge about how to prevent scurvy is very relevant to our modern world.
For centuries, the disease was a common problem among sailors with limited diets during months- and years-long sea voyages. Although its symptoms were well-known and documented, preventing scurvy was a mystery until the 1740s, when James Lind, a Scottish physician, discovered that citrus fruits (which we now know are generally high in vitamin C) could ward off the disease. For the next hundred and fifty years (after this information finally reached the mainstream–I’m skipping some serious delays in information-dissemination here), sailors were given lemon or lime juice as part of their rations, and scurvy was banished to the past–except it popped up again as a major problem around the mid 19th-century–despite major technological advancements in food preservation. Amid increased interest in polar exploration in the 1870s, scientists and explorers the world over scrambled to solve the problem as arctic expeditions were relentlessly plagued by scurvy despite historical knowledge about how to prevent it. And this is the story that holds a lot of lessons for innovators today, which I promise we’ll get to soon. I’ve skipped over some fascinating details about this story, but if it interests you, I highly recommend Scott And Scurvy, a masterful essay by Maciej Ceglowski that will leave you convinced that our world can be really, really surprising.
In a nutshell, the knowledge that citrus prevented scurvy was lost because of a fascinating confluence of mostly-reasonable human decisions. After the initial discovery, limes became the citrus fruit of choice for long sea expeditions for its own set of fascinating reasons, but it’s important to note that the particular lime of choice at the time had less vitamin C than lemons. Advances in food preservation enabled this lime juice to be pumped through copper tubes on ships, which destroyed any bioavailable vitamin C in the juice. BUT, despite the lack of vitamin C on sea voyages, scurvy did not resurface because by that time, coincidentally, sea voyages were faster because of the invention of the steam engine, so sailors were not deprived of vitamin C long enough to start developing scurvy symptoms (which begin after around 6 months without vitamin C).
"It takes ongoing vigilance to ensure that important advances are preserved, and it’s so easy to just count the win and move on to the next shiny thing."
This was the state of the world in the 1870s when the American and European obsession with exploring (and claiming) the arctic frontier was at a fever pitch. Numerous expeditions set out with their copper-tube-processed lime juice and were prevented from achieving their imperialistic dreams of reaching the North Pole not from the desolate, bitter cold, but from scurvy. For decades, other theories about scurvy’s cause sprung up in the wake of doubt surrounding citrus’s effectiveness, and it wasn’t until two Norwegian scientists accidentally discovered an effective animal model (guinea pigs–the ONE mammal aside from primates that must source vitamin C from their diet) that the vitamin C compound and its direct relationship to scurvy was identified and codified in medicine.
Was this blog post just an excuse to tell you an elaborate story about scurvy because I haven’t been able to corner a live person long enough to explain this whole story? Maybe. But I do think it’s fascinating to think about what modern scurvy-like mysteries or phenomena are obscured by a similar complexity, faulty assumptions, and well-meaning people making mostly-reasonable decisions. Scurvy is a very straightforward consequence of a vitamin deficiency–by all reason, teasing out how to prevent it should have also been straightforward–but reality intervened.
There’s a good case here for being intentional about knowledge management. This story is complex enough in retrospect–imagine how chaotic it must have felt in the decades when citrus-enabled scurvy prevention was being called into question. Preventing the loss of important institutional knowledge is why good developers annotate their code and why project- and content-management software are billion-dollar industries. Documenting the “whys” behind decisions and conclusions can be a strong prophylactic against re-inventing the wheel when a project is passed to a new leader, or shelved and then un-shelved after some time has passed.
Another thing this story tells us is that even though the initial innovation attempt was successful in that we learned that citrus can prevent scurvy and many lives were saved, it wasn’t enough. This knowledge needed continual pressure-testing as new advances (copper tubing! cheaper limes!) entered the mix. It takes ongoing vigilance to ensure that important advances are preserved, and it’s so easy to just count the win and move on to the next shiny thing. One of the hardest things for those of us who innovate and support innovators to keep top of mind is the importance of understanding and re-interpreting the results of our experiments in the months and years following, and even harder to take a fresh, unbiased look at those results as context and reality evolve. This has definitely been on my mind as new tools like large language models become more accessible–how will these types of major advancements challenge our assumptions about how we work? Which previous understandings about our world will we need to re-assess?
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