Fact Check

College Scurvy

Did a college student who restricted himself to only one foodstuff contract scurvy?

Published Nov. 12, 2003


Claim:   College student who restricts himself to only one foodstuff contracts scurvy.


Example:   [Dale, 1984]

A man at Aberdeen University spent his entire student grant within a fortnight. In order to keep himself alive for the rest of the term he cooked as much porridge as he could, lined a chest of drawers with greaseproof paper and poured in the porridge to set. Every time he needed a meal he would cut off a chunk, fry it, and eat it. He found this spend-then-diet routine most satisfactory and repeated it term after term. At the end of his third year he was admitted to hospital as Aberdeen's first recorded case of scurvy in 120 years.


Origins:   This story has been part of the campus lore canon since at least the mid-1970s. It appears to be more common in Great Britain than it does in North America, but Canadian and American tellings of it have been recorded.

Scurvy is a disease that strikes down those who are deficient in vitamin C (ascorbic acid). This illness is


relatively well contained in modern times, but in centuries past it took many lives, with its worst ravages noted among sailors whose long sea voyages kept them from having access to fruits and vegetables. (Vasco da Gama, for example, lost more than half his crew to this malady on his first trip around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497.) In 1747 lemons and oranges were fed to scurvy-riddled sailors with dramatic results, and in 1795 the British navy began doling out regular rations of lime juice during long sea forays (hence the slang term 'limeys' for British sailors), a practice that was highly successful in preventing the disease.

Scurvy is characterized by general lethargy, anemia, pain in the joints and muscles, impaired wound healing, gum disease, and skin hemorrhages. Those who have it are impaired by weakness, aches and pains everywhere, and the loosening of teeth in their gums. The disease is quickly cured by dosing with vitamin C and easily prevented the same way.

The legendary student who comes down with scurvy is said to have attended various institutes of higher learning, and is sometimes described as a grad student. But the greatest variation to be found in the tale is in the diet that supposedly was the young man's undoing — different versions have the hapless grind dining solely upon:

  • Porridge — cooked, stored, sliced, and fried (as in the example above)

  • Porridge — cooked fresh each day and immediately consumed

  • Ramen (a particular favorite in American tellings)

  • Unadorned pasta (macaroni, spaghetti)

  • Kraft Dinner (a pre-fab mix of macaroni and powdered cheese)

  • Hot dogs

  • Beer and potato chips (or 'crisps,' as they're called in Britain)

  • Pork pies and Guinness (a stout beer from Ireland)

The legend makes different points depending on how it's told. The porridge, ramen, and pasta versions present a woeful tale of a student who is forced by his poverty to restrict himself to one or two inexpensive foodstuffs which, though cheap, are nutritionally lacking. He contracts scurvy out of his inability to buy good food, his pursuit of knowledge thus bringing him to harm. Such versions underscore the privations of the scholastic life and are displayed by other (presumably better fed) collegians as examples of the hardships of student


In contrast, the hot dogs, potato chips, and pork pies versions deliver a just deserts message of an immature student acting in a hedonistically short-sighted manner, then having to pay the price for his folly. Such stories attempt to teach through example the necessity of the student's taking responsibility for his health when out from under parental constraint. Of course it is expected young people living away from home for the first time will go to bed later and eat less well than they did at home (mounted beggars race their steeds, after all), but the lesson here is to not take the kicking over of the traces too far lest dire consequences result.

Surprisingly, a version one would expect to see does not surface: the fad diet. Search as we might, we've yet to encounter a telling in which a foolhardy diet regimen adopted by someone looking to drop pounds in a hurry causes him to develop scurvy. Given the proliferation of exotic weight loss schemes and the importance society places on thinness, this lack comes as a bit of a shock. Do we therefore perceive weight conscious students as being more nutritionally knowledgeable or common-sensical than their impoverished or immature counterparts?

There have been real cases of scurvy in students brought on by their poor eating habits, but they occur far less frequently than the various tellings of the legend would have it. This is a legend that has traveled far beyond its occurrence, but real instances there have been — even if the "porridge only" aspect of the legend is missing from them.

In 1967 a medical journal published an article on the sorry case of a 27-year-old Nigerian student living in London who came down with scurvy because he hadn't been eating fruit or fresh vegetables, and in 2003 Reuters reported on an unnamed student who had developed scurvy "even though he was eating plenty of calories and had no deficiencies in most other vitamins and minerals. The student confessed to doctors that he ate no fruit and vegetables, consuming only a few types of foods — namely, cheese, crackers, soda, cookies, chocolate and water."

Scurvy is an illness that, though it belongs to another time, is still very much with us today even in affluent countries. It is more usually found among the elderly (who may be forgetting to eat right or whose fixed incomes restrict them to a limited diet) and alcoholics (who both forget to take care of mundane bodily needs like eating in their pursuit of demon rum and whose every cent goes towards liquor purchases). But it is also on the rise among the poor of well-off societies. The impoverished often stick to bad, unvaried diets deficient in vitamins, choosing convenience and ease of preparation over good food value. (It is possible to eat well on very little money, but doing so involves cooking dishes from scratch rather than from a mix or out of a box, a practice that is far more labor intensive and skill dependent.)

This poverty apparently extends to those attending university, according to the National Union of Students in Scotland, who in 1996 said student medical services had detected instances of malnutrition among undergraduates. In similar vein, a 1998 report from a university in the United States found that a significant number of students evidenced dangerously low levels of vitamin C.

Does this mean legions of college students are dragging their scurvy-riddled bodies to class each day? Oh, probably not. Though malnutrition and even vitamin C deficiency might be occurring often enough to be noted on campus, it takes a person twenty to forty days without vitamin C to develop scurvy. Remember, even very small amounts of ascorbic acid prevent this disease, and as well as the obvious citrus fruit sources (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits), this key vitamin is found in a number of other fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, cantaloupes, papayas, raspberries, kiwi fruits, tomatoes, watermelons, green peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes. A serving of any one of these will generally provide the recommended minimum dietary allowance (RDA) of 60 mg a day of vitamin C for an adult, but as little as a daily dose of 5-7 mg will prevent scurvy. Therefore, even a mere tomato slice a day should be enough to fend off this ailment or, for those really pinching the pennies, a quarter of a cup of cooked potatoes.

Barbara "an apple a day keeps the paramedics away" Mikkelson

Last updated:   27 April 2014


    Abrams, Corinne.   "A Friend of a Friend Told Me . . ."

    The [London] Daily Telegraph.   23 November 2002   (p. 10).

    Dale, Rodney.   It's True . . . It Happened to a Friend.

    London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1984.   ISBN 0-7156-1759-1   (p. 69).

    McBain, Barclay.   "Bad Diet 'Is Causing Scurvy' in Hard-Up Students."

    The [Glasgow] Herald.   1 May 1996   (p. 3).

    Smith, Michael.   "Up Stethoscope."

    The Scotsman.   10 July 1996   (p. 17).

    Reuters.   "Junk-Food Diet Gives Student Scurvy."

    23 January 2003.