October 2016 marks the tercentenary of the birth of James Lind, the Edinburgh alumnus who pioneered the use of citrus fruits to treat scurvy.
Born into a family of merchants in Edinburgh, James Lind registered at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1731, eventually becoming a surgeon's mate and taking to the seas across the globe, experiencing at first hand the harsh realities of scurvy-related deaths on board naval ships. This piqued his interest in finding a cure for the disease, since most contemporary remedies were proving ineffective.
It was while serving as surgeon on HMS Salisbury in 1747 that he began to carry out his own experiments by selecting 12 sufferers and dividing them into six pairs. He gave each pair different additions to their basic diet: cider, seawater, a mixture of garlic, mustard and horseradish, spoonfuls of vinegar, and oranges and lemons. The results were conclusive. The pair given the oranges and lemons made a remarkable recovery, definitively establishing for the first time the superiority of citrus fruits above all other so-called cures.
It was after Lind’s crucial discovery that he decided to retire from the navy and enroll at the University of Edinburgh to earn professional qualifications. In 1753, he published 'A Treatise of the Scurvy' and in 1757 'An Essay on the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen in the Royal Navy', both of which did much to highlight the appalling living conditions and diet of seamen.
The consequence was, that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of oranges and lemons; one of those who had taken them, being at the end of 6 days fit for duty.
In 1758, Lind was appointed physician to the Naval Hospital at Haslar in Gosport where he continued his passion for health at sea by investigating the distillation of fresh water from salt water for supply to ships. Then came his seminal works on typhus fever in ships and the important 'Essay on Diseases Incidental to Europeans in Hot Climates' in which he summarised the prevalent diseases in each colony and gave advice on avoiding tropical infections.
Ironically, however, Lind did not live to witness his greatest achievement when in 1795 an official Admiralty order was issued on the supply of lemon juice to ships, more than 40 years after Lind’s experiments. And with that, scurvy was eradicated from the Royal Navy while Lind’s reputation as a naval hero was secured.
He is commemorated by a plaque in Teviot Place put up in 1955 by the Sunkist Growers of Citrus Fruit in California and Arizona.
His pioneering work in clinical trials is also remembered through the James Lind Alliance, a non-profit making initiative that brings patients, carers and clinicians together to identify and prioritise unanswered questions about the effects of treatments.