The Scots magazine, 59: 653-655 (Sept. 1797)



MR EDITOR, Harley Street, May 1797.
I TAKE the liberty to enclose you a paper on the subject of a Cure for the Sea Scurvy. It is a copy of a Letter which I addressed last year to the First Lord of the Admiralty, who, I have every reason to think, has given it every due consideration; but as a discovery of so much real importance to mankind cannot be too generally known, I could wish you would record it in your list of Naval Communications. I am, Sir, Your most obedient Servant,
  William Young.

IN all former wars it has been invariably found, that the mortality of our seamen from disease has far exceeded that of oar loss by the enemy. The Hospital and Jail Fever and Sea Scurvy are the grand destroyers of that valuable body of men; the first of these diseases can only be avoided by air and a due attention to cleanliness, as has been repeatedly evinced in the India ships, where the disorder is so little known, that very crowded ships have frequently reached the place of their destination without the loss of a man; and it is a pleasing circumstance to find, that the same means have produced equal benefits to our Navy. The second disease, namely, the Sea Scurvy, is not so easily guarded against, and in its effects has been found not less destructive and fatal; nor ought we to be surprised at this, when it is considered, that men are impressed from ships arriving from long voyages, during which they have been living upon salt provisions, and their blood in a state highly scorbutic from the want of vegetable food. Various expedients have been adopted and introduced into use in our Navy to check the ravages of this truly formidable and cruel disease; but the very best yet fallen upon have hitherto been found insufficient to subdue it; they have only proved at best weak palliatives. Experience has evinced, that the only certain cure is vegetable diet; and it has always been deemed impossible to have this desideratum in sufficient quantity for the purpose during long voyages. My discovery goes to obviate that difficulty. I have found that desideratum; and your Lordship will doubtless be astonished when I assert, that I can insure to the largest ships' company in the British Navy a living vegetable diet occasionally, at as easy and cheap a rate as their daily allowance of bread, and most certainly in sufficient quantity to admit of every person on board, diseased of the scurvy, being put entirely upon that diet, by the simplest of means.

The discovery with me is not new. The idea occurred to me in the course of last war, whilst I resided in a very distant part the world, and at a time when I could not benefit my country by the communication of it. Perhaps since I came home, I have been but too criminal in not sooner making it known.

In the country where I resided, India, we feed our horses with a species of vetch, the same as is done here with oats; Europeans call it by the general name of gram; the natives call it bhoot; it is of an heart-like shape, not grown in this, nor I believe in any country of Europe; though I am persuaded it would grow here, as it is produced in India only during the cold season. The Linnean name of it I do not know. Our grooms, before they give this grain to our horses, always steep it for several hours in water, in large unglazed earthen pots, till it swells and begins to vegetate; an effect which is very soon produced in that warm climate. I have known it to split and put forth its bud in lesss than twenty-four hours in the hot season, in which state it is generally given to our horses, and is found to be a most heartening and nourishing food. If given dry, it is liable to swell in the stomach, and to produce the gripes or dry belly ache.

When the vegetative or growing power is called forth and produced, this grain becomes a living vegetable substance, is raw to the taste, and has the flavour of the same grain in the pod, when it has acquired its mature growth, before it begins to ripen; and the same effect takes place with every other feed that I have yet observed when it begins to vegetate and grow. But as we have not this species of vetch in this country, we must select some other grain, common to be had, as a substitute for it. I would make choice of white or grey peas, as coming nearest to bhoot or gram in quality, and as being the most wholesome and palatable, in a growing state, of any grain we have. I believe that wheat or barley might, in some measure, answer the purpose of a vegetable diet; but I have my doubts of their wholesomeness in a growing state, and I think them besides too small. We know that all sound corn, when steeped a certain time in water, will swell, and at length grow: it may then be said to be in its malting state, for this is the first process in making malt. I would propose, that every ship in our Navy, bound on a long voyage, and every vessel employed in the transport service, should be supplied with some hogsheads of good sound dry peas; the casks should be put up as tight as possible to exclude air and moisture. These should not be stowed in the hold, but in some other cool part of the ship, to avoid heating, lest the vegetative power of the grain should be called forth, which, if once excited and checked, cannot be reproduced, the living principle being extinguished and destroyed.

Next, let every ship be supplied with a certain number of kegs, or rather small tubs, of about two gallons each. Let these be filled about three-fourths with the grain you mean to use, say peas, and let sufficient water be poured over them just to cover them. They will soon begin to swell and absorb the greater part of the water. When they are completely swelled, you may, if you think fit, drain the remaining water off by a small vent at the bottom; but l do not think this material to the purpose. In summer l should suppose they will bud and begin to sprout in twenty-four hours, at least in eight-and-forty; in a hot climate much sooner; and I should imagine, where the thermometer is above the freezing point, in three or four days. In very cold weather the process might be quickened by keeping them in some warm part of the ship, only taking care not to exclude the air. These small tubs might be ranged on the poop in fine weather, and kept between decks when it blew hard, lest the spray and marine acid impede the principle of vegetation. When they have swelled and shot forth their buds, they are then in the state we wanted to bring them to; they are actually a living vegetable, and in taste will be found to resemble garden peas just arrived at their full growth before they begin to ripen. In order to preserve the men from the scurvy, it might be adviseable to give them one or two meals weekly of this food, which would have the flavour of green peas; but what would perhaps be the better, I would recommend that they eat it in its raw state, either alone, or with vinegar and mustard, as a sort of salad. Should it be thought that a sufficient supply of this article could not be had to allow of such frequent meals for a whole ships' company, I would then confine it to those men only who exhibited any symptoms of incipient scurvy, and make it their only diet. I can have no doubt of its salutary effects, provided the principle I set out with be acknowledged and admitted, that a vegetable diet, containing fixed air, is the only cure yet known for the Sea Scurvy.

I flatter myself I have now succeeded in establishing what I asserted in the beginning of this Letter, that I could put a ships' company upon a vegetable diet, at as cheap a rate as they can be supplied with bread; and I think I have gone beyond it, as common grey, and even white peas, are, in most years, much cheaper; nor is the simple process I have pointed out to be compared with the trouble and expence of making sea-biscuit. If unglazed earthen jars or pans were used, the process would be more certain, as the astringent quality of oak might be injurious to it. If the former should be objected to, as being liable to be broken on board ship, I would then recommend the use of elm tubs. Should any doubt be entertained of my principle, it may be easily ascertained by trying the experiment in a common flower-pot in a room. The only objection that occurs to me against it is, the additional consumption of water it would occasion, which in long voyages cannot always be spared. I feel the full force of this; but in an object of so much consequence as that of the health of our seamen, it ought to have but little weight, and any water left in the tubs or jars might be applied again to the same process, and after all need not be entirely lost, as it might serve the purpose of boiling the salt provisions of the ship’s company, which is now generally done with a mixture of salt and fresh water.

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