James Lind lived from 1716 to 1794. He was a naval doctor who proved how to prevent or cure scurvy, and showed that fresh water could be produced by distilling sea water. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Lind was born in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Lind of Gorgie, an advocate who served as the Deputy Sheriff of Edinburgh. After leaving school he became an apprentice of George Langlands, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In 1739, he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon's mate, serving in the Mediterranean, West Africa, and in the West Indies. In 1746 he was promoted to surgeon on HMS Salisbury.
In 1747, Lind turned his attention to the problem of scurvy. This had for centuries plagued ships undertaking long voyages, on many voyages resulting in more deaths than enemy action. For over a century some ship's doctors employed by the British East India Company had claimed that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but its use was not widespread and the story was widely believed to be no more than folklore. Lind launched what may be the first systematic clinical experiment in the history of medicine, to find out one way or the other.
His theory was that scurvy could be prevented or cured by acids in the diet. He divided twelve sailors suffering from scurvy into six groups of two and gave each a different daily dietary supplement: a quart of cider; twenty-five drops of elixir of vitriol; six spoonful of vinegar; half a pint of seawater; two oranges and one lemon; or a spicy paste and a drink of barley water. The treatment of the fifth group had to stop after five days, when they ran out of fruit, but by then one sailor had recovered completely and the other was much improved. The pair on cider showed minor improvement, but none of the other eight sailors showed any improvement at all.
In 1748 Lind retired from the Navy and returned to Edinburgh, where he was granted a license to practice as a doctor. In 1753 he published A treatise of the scurvy relating his experiment and its outcome, but it had little impact. In 1758 James Lind was appointed chief physician of the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar at Portsmouth, and at last his findings became more widely noticed. Over the following decades more efforts were made to find effective means of prevention: many confused by the belief it was the acids in citrus fruits that worked rather than any other component. It was not until 1794 that the use of citrus began to take off, and still as a cure rather than a prevention, and it was only after 1800 that scurvy was really wiped out in the Royal Navy.
In 1758 Lind discovered that the steam from sea water condensed as drinkable water. At the time it was normal for a 240-man frigate to sail with over 100 tons of drinking water on board, supplemented by collected rain en route. Lind's idea again took decades to catch on, but by the early 1800s the Royal Navy was producing drinking water from distilled sea water on an increasing number of its ships. Lind died in 1794 in Gosport and was buried in Porchester Church.