the conquest of scurvy and a lesson for economists

There’s an incident from medical history, recounted by David Wootton in his book, Bad Medicine, that seems to me to tell us a lot about modern economics. In the early 17th century, Dutch and Portugese seamen discovered that scurvy could be cured or warded off by using lemons or oranges/ They did not know the underlying cause, but they did see the results. Scurvy, according to Wooton, was a major killer. To give an example: “During the Seven Years War, 184,899 sailors served in the British fleet (many of them press-ganged into service); 133,708 died from disease, mostly scurvy; 1,512 were killed in action.”
The Seven Years war was fought in the 1750s, almost a hundred and fifty years after the Dutch and Portugese discovery. Why, then, was there any scurvy in 1750?
Wooton’s story is incredible. Although English sea captains started giving their men fruit, this remedy was countermanded by the medical establishment. They persuaded the captains that fruit couldn’t work – it was simply an old wife’s tale. Why? Because obviously, scurvy was caused by a disbalance of humors – as was every other disease. And thus, fruit would not cure it. Wooton has dug up documents to show this:

“Ships’ captains had an effective way of preventing scurvy, but the doctors and the ships’ surgeons persuaded the captains that they did not know what they were doing, and that the doctors and surgeons (who were quite incapable of preventing scurvy) knew better. Bad knowledge drove out good. We can actually see this happening. There is no letter from a ship’s surgeon to his captain telling him to leave the lemons on the dock, but we do know that the Admiralty formally asked the College of Physicians for advice on how to combat scurvy. In 1740 they recommended vinegar, which is completely ineffectual, but now became standard issue on navy ships. In 1753 Ward’s Drop and Pill also became standard issue.”

Medical history, which is written to glorify rather than study medicine, has credited a doctor named Lind with being the first one to advise fruit to cure scurvy. As Wooton shows, this is a myth. Indeed, Lind did experiment with serving fresh fruit to scurvy patients, which did cure them. But then he decided to test the fruit, and he boiled lemon juice in the process, thus straining out the vitamin C. After a while, he decided fruit was useless against the disease, which he still attributed to various humoral causes.

I think that the equilibrium models of economics are much like the humoral models that controlled established medical thought up through the mid nineteenth century. There is the same crazy blindness regarding the real economy – and the same class distinctions that prevent economists from adopting economic policies that would benefit the workers more than the bosses. Austerity economics has been compared to bleeding – but I would say the same thing is true for neo-liberal policies in general. The neo-liberal economists have a tendency to pat themselves on the back for bringing down world poverty over the last thirty years, but what they really mean is that nations like China adopted clearly dirigiste policies to guide capitalism in their countries, and used heavy tariffs on imports to create vast surpluses from exports. This is just what they do – reproducing not the economics of Milton Friedman, but the economics of the New Deal, stripped of its liberal aspect. That is, stripped of the social security net that kept the workers from falling into misery. The latter could occur because the workers were even more immiserated in the past – but as that past becomes a memory, it is a good bet that New Deal economics will generate social nets in these countries.

Economists, though, go through a rigorous training to make them blind to these facts. And they especially learn no economic history, which is economics in the wild, free from the models of their ideal economic spaces. It is as if doctors still learned about the human body from the theory of the four humors.


Thanks you for writing this. At the risk of stating the obvious: in addition to the stupefying effect of theory, and their ignorance of what has actually happened, another important reason why economists think the way they do is the climate of opinion among those who write their paychecks. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Upton Sinclair