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'Theory' Or 'Testimony' - Which to Follow When Your Life Depends On It ?

Polar explorers had to decide what foods to take with them on their expeditions. 'Scott of the Antarctic' listened to the nutrition 'experts' of his day. That decision cost him his life.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, himself a veteran of several polar expeditions, gives this account of Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole in his classic work, 'The Fat of The Land',

"Scott began his second venture as he had begun the first, by asking the medical men of Britain for protection from scurvy and by receiving from them once more the good old advice about lime juice, fruits, cleanliness, ventilation and the rest. In winter quarters he again placed reliance on that advice and on constant medical supervision, on a planned and carefully varied diet, on numerous scientific tests to determine the condition of the men, on exercise, sanitation in all its standard forms. The men lived on the foods of the United Kingdom, supplemented by the fruit and garden produce of New Zealand....

On the first expedition the results had been disappointing, now they were tragic. Scurvy did not prevent them from reaching the South Pole, but it commenced to sap their strength in the early part of the return journey and progressed so rapidly that the growing weakness prevented them, if only by a few miles, from getting back to the final provision depot". (pp.146-7)

In spite of its failure, Scott's expedition became the stuff of legends. Every English schoolboy came to know the final words of Scott's colleague, Captain Oates, who sacrificed his life for the sake of his mates after he had become too weak to continue, "I'm just going outside and may be some time", the ultimate example of British understatement and stiff upper lip.

The real tragedy, however, lay in the failure to absorb the lessons of another recent expedition, that of Shackleton. Stefansson writes,

"The organisation, and the rest of the first Shackleton expedition, went with a hurrah. They were as careless as Scott had been careful ; they did not have Scott's type of backing, scientific or financial. They arrived helter-skelter on the shores of the Antarctic Continent, pitched camp, and discovered they did not have nearly enough food for the winter, nor had they used such painstaking care as Scott to provide themselves with fruits and other antiscorbutics in New Zealand. Compared with Scott's, their routine was slipshod as to cleanliness, exercise, and several of the ordinary hygienic prescriptions." (p.146)

Shackleton's cavalier approach was a reflection of the man's personality. In the event, however, it turned out to be fortunate, for the same lack of preparation led indirectly to the success of his mission,

"What is important is that Scott's men, with unlimited quantities of jams and marmalades, vegetables and fruits, grains, curries, and potted meats, had been little inclined to add seals and penguins to their dietary. With Shackleton it was neither wisdom nor the acceptance of good advice but dire necessity which drove to such use of penguin and seal... half the food during their stay in the Antarctic was fresh meat. In spite of the lack of care (indeed, as it now appears, because of that lack), Shackleton's expedition had better average health than Scott's. There was never a sign of scurvy, every man retained his full strength, and they accomplished that spring what most authorities consider the greatest physical achievement of southern exploration." (p.146)

Scott knew Shackleton personally, and was fully aware of his experience. He also would have known how, a decade earlier, the Norwegian explorers Nansen and Johansen,

"had wintered in the Franz Joseph Islands in 1895-96. They had lived in a hut of stones and walrus leather. The ventilation was slight, to conserve fuel ; the blubber fire smoked, so the the air was additionally bad ; within the house there was not a ray of daylight for months, and the two men practically hibernated, seldom going outdoors at all and taking as little exercise as appears humanly possible ; they never bathed and seldom washed face or hands. Yet their health was perfect all winter and they came out of their confinement in as good physical condition as any men ever did out of Arctic wintering. Their food had been exclusively meat, the lean and the fat of walrus, eaten fresh and usually boiled. Tens if not thousands of scientists in medicine and the related branches must have seen this account, for Nansen's books were best-sellers." (p.144)

Nansen's account, as with Shackleton's, contradicted the standard medical advice of the day. This put Scott in the difficult position of having to choose between the two when planning his own expedition. In fact, the nutrition orthodoxy contradicted the experience of hundreds of European explorers and traders, not to mention the wisdom of indigenous peoples, right across the polar regions and Canada over several hundred years, all of who knew perfectly well how to deal with the threat of scurvy - with a diet of fresh meat.

The 'experts', on the other hand, had their own theory on how to treat the disease, and no amount of testimony could shake them from their position. This consisted of the belief that, "scurvy is caused by meat and cured by vegetables." (p.142) This idea originated in the attempts of British naval officers, including Captain Cook, to deal with the disease on long sea voyages where the crew had to subsist on a diet of dry biscuits and salted meat. On reaching land, fresh food of any kind quickly relieved symptoms of the disease. "Finally the doctors standardised on lime juice as the best of preventives and cures. They named it a sure cure, a specific." (p.142)

Once established, this idea became an entrenched dogma. The problem was, however, that it often DID NOT WORK. This was especially so during polar expeditions. Here the lime juice had to be stored on board at the start of the voyage, and it soon deteriorated (p.147). In the Arctic substitute vegetables were not available, and such that were brought in canned form were usually cooked for long periods, destroying any remaining vitamin C they might contain. This led to tragedy on multiple occasions, which was duly reported back to the authorities, but who refused to budge on the issue and instead explained the failures away on other factors.

"The good physicians retained their faith in lime juice as a specific by overlooking its constant failure upon severe test. How stoutly the medical profession kept the faith is shown in connections with many a British polar expedition, for instance, that of of Sir George Nares... The doctors, as will be seen when we consider how they later advised Scott, soon forgot whatever impression was made by the opinion of Nares and the facts he adduced to support it" (p.143).

Nares argued that fresh meat would have saved the lives of his crew. Instead of taking his experience on board, he ended up facing a disciplinary tribunal "for not having used enough lime juice." (p.205)

This kind of dogmatic insistence on a theory, no matter how much it fails to stand up to reality, is something very familiar to anyone following the nutrition debate today. The refusal appears to be institutional, the establishment convinces itself 'it knows', the question has been settled, and no amount of testimony or evidence will cause them to reconsider. This stubbornness exists even though the original story of how the orthodoxy came into being is usually entirely random and has NOTHING to do with the 'scientific certainty' claimed for it later.

Scott of the Antarctic paid for his faith in the medical establishment with his life and the lives of his men. Lets not repeat his error.

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