Alaska Life

An old Alaska cure for scurvy: Was the medicine worse than the disease?

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The gold rushes of the late 19th and early 20th century conjure images of prospectors crouched in streams with their gold pans, fortune hunters wielding pickaxes, dancehall girls mining the miners, and, in relatively rare instances, gold nuggets and immeasurable wealth. At least those are some of the popular conceptions of the gold rushes, especially the Klondike gold rush. The reality was far grittier. Mining camps and boomtowns were cesspools rife with cholera, meningitis, typhoid fever, venereal diseases and scurvy, among many other maladies.

As these were the olden days, every old-timer had a preferred folk remedy guaranteed to cure what ailed you. Spruce bark tea, pickles and potatoes were among the most common suggestions for scurvy, to varying degrees of success. Billie Moore, who played a significant role in the development of Skagway, offered a unique treatment for scurvy. But his suggested cure raises a greater question. Can the medicine be worse than the disease? In this case, it depends on how you feel about lice.

Scurvy is a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, typically manifesting in those who go a month or more with a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables. Symptoms include irritability, fatigue, joint and limb pain, bleeding gums, skin sores, and susceptibility to bruising. If left unchecked, scurvy leads to teeth falling out, severe pain and death.

For centuries, some doctors and observers had linked a lack of fruit consumption to the onset of scurvy, but the connection was not proven until 1932. Before the 1930s, no one knew of vitamin C, and the value of fruit as a treatment for scurvy was previously widely contested.

Most readers might associate scurvy with sailors. Scurvy was indeed common amongst soldiers and sailors, populations that tended to survive on simpler rations than they would have at home. During the 18th century, more British soldiers died from scurvy than in battle. Pity the poor pirates who spent less time in ports of call given the criminal aspect of their profession and thus had less access to the nutrients needed to stave off scurvy.

Yet, scurvy was also endemic during gold rushes, from California in the mid-19th century to Alaska rushes decades later. Prospectors tended to have severely limited diets due to high food costs in remote mining boomtowns, the shorter shelf life of vitamin C-rich options, and the overriding focus on fortune hunting. Mining was labor intensive and time consuming. So, most prospectors saved time and money with a simple diet of easily prepared staples like bacon, beans, coffee and flour, none of which contained sufficient vitamin C.

One doctor in the Yukon Territory during the Klondike gold rush stated, “gold rushers tended to become indolent and careless, only eating those things which are most easily cooked or prepared. During the busy time ... they work hard and for long hours, sparing little time for eating and much less for cooking.” The doctor was less empathetic to miners’ complaints, perhaps due to the number of cases.

As the cases of scurvy advanced in the remote boomtowns and mining camps, the symptoms became disturbingly visible, which is why some called the disease “black leg.” Another observer watched a young prospector try to work through the pain of his condition: “Now the discoverer worked like a man possessed. He was already suffering from scurvy brought on by meager rations and overstrain, but he had not time to consider treatment ... One he worked, his legs turning black and scabrous, his claim still unsurveyed and unregistered, he headed downhill for Grand Forks to get some raw potatoes to arrest his disease.”

Not that the prospectors could have known why they worked, but potatoes are a reasonable source of vitamin C. Many vegetables, let alone fruits, contain more vitamin C than potatoes, including turnips, broccoli, and cabbage. However, potatoes were usually more available, if still costly. Due to a combination of shortages and avaricious sellers, many prospectors were forced to trade gold for potatoes. To be fair, they paid for many things with gold. In one incident, a Klondike gold rush miner with scurvy refused his friends’ advice to eat some raw potatoes. The afflicted man instead went to a Dawson hospital, where he was fed only raw potatoes and charged $10 a day for the privilege.

Newcomers suffered the most. The Dawson Daily News offered the personal recollection of a prospector who came down with scurvy during his first northern winter. “My stock of grub became so low and so deficient in variety that the scurvy seized on me. If ever a man was in a frightful condition I was. My body and limbs turned black, my hair fell out, and I could have pulled any of my teeth from my mouth with my fingers with scarcely any effort. Sores covered my body like Job in his great affliction. Pain filled and racked me from head to foot.”

William “Billie” Moore (1822-1902) was a former steamboat captain who, in 1887, established a homestead at what is now Skagway. He believed the site was an investment, that it would become a gateway to goldfields in northwestern Canada, which he also thought would be discovered in short order. Though he had to wait a few years, he was proven right.

On July 17, 1897, the SS Portland landed at Seattle with a “ton of gold” and news of the Klondike gold strikes. From there began the Klondike gold rush. The ship’s golden cargo was loaded in Skagway at a wharf built by Moore.

Like many settler Alaskans, Moore struggled to fend off what he called the “dread disease of scurvy, which is often prevalent in the camps.” He believed that “stagnant blood is the cause of scurvy,” a common misconception of the time.

In 1947, Will H. Chase published “Reminiscences of Captain Billie Moore,” which transformed a series of interviews into a unified biography. In the book, Moore recounted the sage advice of an experienced sourdough regarding scurvy. The remedy did not include potatoes, lemons, limes, cabbage, spruce tea, pickles or any edible cure-all. Instead, he thought the solution for scurvy was exercise.

Per the book, “(I) bought me two full grown, healthy lice, one male and one female. I only paid a piece of chewing tobacco for them, and I tell you boys, that after I had turned them loose on my undershirt, I found that I did not feel as sleepy as I did before. After they had raised a small family, I found myself not lying down quite so much, as I did before.”

The narrative continues, “I know for a certainty that they drew blood from me, and the blood runs to the spot where they are busy, so naturally it follows that you have a better circulation. Then if you are successful in keeping a good-sized family, say about sixteen or twenty, and get them located in different spots, they surely will make the blood flow.”

The anecdote is pitched in such a way that it also appears to represent Moore’s opinion on scurvy cures. And yes, the suggestion seems clearly tongue-in-cheek and ludicrous. Yet, there were experienced Alaskans who swore it was the truth. Still, it is worth considering. Which would you rather endure a bout of scurvy or a lice infestation? Is the medicine worse than the disease?

Key sources:

Carpenter, Kenneth J. “The Discovery of Vitamin C.” Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 61, no. 3 (2012): 259-164.

Chase, Will H. “Reminiscences of Captain Billie Moore.” Kansas City, MO: Burton Publishing Company, 1947.

Fairbanks, Lulu M. “Ton of Gold Set World on Fire.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 22, 1964, 13C.

Highet, Megan J. “Gold Fever: Death and Disease During the Klondike Gold Rush, 1898-1904.” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 2008.

Newman, Sara. “Rushing to the Grave” National Park Service, N.D.,

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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