An Apple a Day – Nutritional Therapy in History

Angry doctorThe history of science is the history of struggle against entrenched error. Many of the world’s greatest discoveries initially were rejected by the scientific community. And those who pioneered those discoveries often were ridiculed and condemned as quacks or charlatans.

Columbus was bitterly attacked for believing the Earth was round. Bruno was burned at the stake for claiming that Earth was not the center of the Universe. Galileo was imprisoned for teaching that the Earth moved around the Sun. Even the Wright Brothers were ridiculed for claiming that a machine could fly.

In the field of medicine, in the year 130 A.D., the physician Galen announced certain anatomic theories that later proved to be correct, but at the time he was bitterly opposed and actually forced to flee from Rome to escape the frenzy of the mob. In the Sixteenth Century, the physician Andreas Vesalius was denounced as an impostor and heretic because of his discoveries in the field of human anatomy. His theories were accepted after his death but, at the time, his career was ruined, and he was forced to flee from Italy. William Harvey was disgraced as a physician for believing that blood was pumped by the heart and moved around the body through arteries. William Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, at first was called a quack and then condemned out of fear that his “ray” would invade the privacy of the bedroom. William Jenner, when he first developed a vaccine against smallpox. Also was called a quack and was strongly criticized as a physician for his supposedly cruel and inhuman experiments on children. And Ignaz Semmelweis was fired from his Vienna hospital post for requiring his maternity staff to wash their hands.

Centuries ago it was not unusual for entire naval expeditions to be wiped out by scurvy. Between 1600 and 1800 the casualty list of the British Navy alone was over one million sailors. Medical experts of the time were baffled as they searched in vain for some kind of strange bacterium, virus, or toxin that supposedly lurked in the dark holds of the ships. And yet, for hundreds of years, the cure was already known and written in the record.

In the winter of 1535, when the French explorer Jacques Cartier found his ships frozen in the ice off the St. Lawrence River, scurvy began to take its deadly toll. Out of a crew of one hundred and ten, twenty-five already had died, and most of the others were so ill they weren’t expected to recover.

And then a friendly Indian showed them the simple remedy. Tree bark and needles from the white pine—both rich in ascorbic acid, or vitamin C—were stirred into a drink which produced immediate improvement and swift recovery.

Upon returning to Europe, Cartier reported this incident to the medical authorities. But they were amused by such “witch –doctor cures of ignorant savages” and did nothing to follow it up.[1]

Yes, the cure for scurvy was known. But, because scientific arrogance, it took over two hundred years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives before the medical experts began to accept and apply this knowledge.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Finally, in 1747, John Lind, a young surgeon’s mate in the British Navy discovered that oranges and lemons produced relief from scurvy and recommended that the Royal Navy include citrus fruits in the stores of all its ships. And yet, it still took forty-eight more years before his recommendation was put into effect. When it was, of course, the British were able to surpass all other sea-fearing nations, and the “Limeys” (so-called because they carried limes aboard ship) soon became the rulers of the Seven Seas. It is no exaggeration to say that the greatness of the British Empire in large measure was the direct result of overcoming scientific prejudice against vitamin therapy.

The twentieth century has proven to be no exception to this pattern. Only two generations ago large portions of the American Southeast were decimated by the dread disease of pellagra. The well-known physician Sir William Osler, in his Principles and Practice of Medicine, explained that in one institution for the insane in Leonard, North Carolina, one-third of the inmates died of this disease during winter months. This proved, he said, that pellagra was contagious and caused probably by an as yet undiscovered virus. As far back as 1914, however, Dr. Joseph Goldberger had proven that this condition was related to diet, and later showed that it could be prevented simply by eating liver or yeast. But it wasn’t until the 1940’s—almost thirty years later—that the “modern” medical world fully accepted pellagra as a vitamin B deficiency.[2]

The story behind pernicious anemia is almost exactly the same. The reason that these diseases were so reluctantly accepted as vitamin deficiencies is because men tend to look for positive cause-and-effect relationships in which something causes something else. They find it more difficult to comprehend the negative relationship in which nothing or the lack of something can cause an effect. But perhaps of even more importance is the realy of intellectual pride. A man who has spent his life acquiring scientific knowledge far beyond the grasp of his fellow human beings is not usually inclined to listen with patience to someone who lacks that knowledge—especially if that person suggests that the solution the scientist’s most puzzling medical problem is to be found in a simple back-woods or near-primitive concoction of herbs and foods. The scientist is trained to search for complex answers and tends to look with smug amusement upon solutions that are not dependent upon his hard-earned skills.

(World Without Cancer, G. Edward Griffin, 1st edition 1974, p. 53-55)

[1] See Virgil J. Vogel’s American Indian Medicine (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970)

[2] See Edwin H. Ackerknecht, History and Geography of the Most Important Diseases (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., Inc., 1972) pp. 148-149

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