I've finished reading "The Terror" by Dan Simmons (good book, I highly recommend it). Some minor spoilers ahead (they have almost nothing to do with the main plot).

By early 1848 most of the people on both ships showed signs of scurvy. The only "lucky" ones who were relatively healthy, even when other people started dying from it, were seamen who later on started to practice cannibalism. (It wasn't stated outright, but I believe they might have started doing that long before separating from the main group).

According to wikipedia, scurvy is caused by lack of Vitamin C. Most of the people these cannibalistic seamen ate were dead or dying from scurvy.

So, my question is: would eating flesh of a person who suffered scurvy actually help to fight your own scurvy?

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    Much to my own surprise I'm upvoting this and will offer an answer. – Carey Gregory Oct 5 '19 at 0:32

Scurvy, as you've said, is caused by a lack of vitamin C. This is an essential molecule in the construction of collagen, one of the main components of connective tissue in the body. Since many tissues contain vitamin C, it seems reasonable that eating different parts of an animal could give you enough to stave off scurvy.

There are some problems with this, however. Almost all of the significant sources of vitamin C are plant-based. Additionally heat can quickly denature Vitamin C, reducing concentrations in cooked foods (this data is for vegetables; I could not find data for meat). In human beings the liver, adrenals, and pancreas have the highest concentrations of vitamin C at about 0.15 mg/g (this concentration would presumably be lower in people with scurvy, though I could not find any evidence on this). The average human liver weighs 1500 g. The pancreas is small (100g) relative to this, with the adrenals being small enough to be a rounding error (11g combined).

If each sailor had an average liver and pancreas with the vitamin C concentration of a person without scurvy, eating those organs raw would give you 1600*0.15= 240 mg of vitamin C. Eating them cooked would, if meat follows the same trend as vegetables, give you about half that (120 mg).

6.5-10 mg of Vitamin C a day is enough to cure scurvy.

Therefore, based on the available evidence, if each cannibalistic sailor ate a cooked liver every 2 weeks or a raw liver every month, they likely would have gotten enough vitamin C to stave off scurvy.

And that's the weirdest stackexchange question I've ever answered.

  • I originally intended to answer this but it slipped through the cracks of my to-do list. Nice job of answering with pretty much the same bent I was going to take. I was going to add some discussion about Inuit and other arctic native peoples who have survived for millenia on 100% meat diets and the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes and survived on cannibalism for 72 days. The key for both seems to be eating the meat raw. – Carey Gregory Oct 24 '19 at 23:57
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    Nate, I believe it was a "typo", but vitamin C is not a part of collagen. Vitamin C is needed for hydroxylation of the amino acid proline in collagen, but vitamin C itself does not get incorporated into collagen..."Proline hydroxylation requires ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The most obvious, first effects (gingival and hair problems) of absence of ascorbic acid in humans come from the resulting defect in hydroxylation of proline residues of collagen, with reduced stability of the collagen molecule, causing scurvy." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroxyproline) – Jan Oct 25 '19 at 7:45
  • Thanks Jan, my physiology knowledge is clearly a little rusty. Answer edited to reflect that. – Nate Oct 27 '19 at 22:11

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