Skorbuuditeema Baltimaade arstide dissertatsioonides varasel uusajal [Scurvy as a topic of doctoral dissertations of Baltic physicians in the early modern period]


  • Arvo Tering



Scurvy was encountered oft en in the early modern era in connection with the absence of vitamin C on long sea journeys and in frequent wars. Even though the nature of the disease was not known, the effectiveness of foods and remedies rich in vitamin C became known through experience. Europe’s physicians nevertheless had only a vague idea of what scurvy was. Many other illnesses were thought to be scurvy due to the indefinite nature of its symptoms. Doctoral dissertations on scurvy were readily written and defended at European universities. As many as four physicians who later worked as doctors in the Baltic provinces did so as well in the latter half of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century: Benjamin Fischer and Conrad Rudolph Hertz who worked in Riga as military surgeons; Nicolaus Buchner, who was a doctor in Mitau (Jelgava), and Christian Ehrenfried Eschenbach, who worked for a time as a doctor in Tartu and later as a professor of medicine in Rostock. Of those dissertations, Nicolaus Buchner’s doctoral thesis drew upon his observations from his experience as a fi eld doctor with the German-Polish garrison in Dünamünde (Daugavgrīva) fortress, which was besieged by the Swedes during the Great Northern War in the latter half of 1701. His practical work as a doctor provided him with the opportunity to familiarize himself with all phases of the progress of scurvy. The causes of scurvy were generally thought to be the accumulation of salts resulting from the inhalation of salty sea air and the consumption of salted and smoked meat products, thus thickening the blood and leading to the afflictions of scurvy. Only Eschenbach’s position differed from the others. He maintained that the causes of this disease were more likely spoiled food and contaminated drinking water. The dissertations chiefly recommended agents promoting excretion, secretion and voiding (bloodletting, laxatives and medicines for inducing urination, perspiration and vomiting) as treatment for scurvy, as was usual at that time for the treatment of other illnesses as well, and medicines for cleansing the organism, some of which were toxic chemical preparations harmful to the organism. Yet among the recommended medicines were also some ten herbs that due to their content of vitamin C really did prove to be effective means for preventing and alleviating scurvy. Such herbs were scurvy grass (cochlearia), water cress (nasturtium), cress (lepidium), horseradish (raphanus rusticus), lemon juice (succus citri), pine shoots or fir shoots (summitates pinii vel abietis), garlic (allium) and onion (allium gepa). The authors of all four dissertations agreed on the positive effect of some of the substances listed above. Th is means that the practice in treating this disease that had evolved over generations was a step ahead of medical theories. Keywords: history of medicine, scurvy, early modern dissertations, Baltic provinces. Arvo Tering (b. 1949) is a Senior Researcher at the Tartu University Library. Correspondence: Tartu University Library, W. Struve 1, Tartu 50091, Estonia. E-mail:


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