Dr James Lind

Hero or unwitting facilitator of imperial expansion?

James Lind (1716-1794) was a Scottish doctor and a pioneer of hygiene at sea. He helped to improve working conditions for sailors, many of whom suffered terribly from disease in the 18th century. Lind recommended better ventilation below decks, and a cleaner environment for sailors in general. His work advanced preventive medicine and the understanding of nutrition. He arguably conducted the first clinical trial, which showed that scurvy could be treated with a diet that includes citrus fruit.

His work led to major improvements in the health of sailors in both the merchant navy and the Royal Navy. During his life Britain was engaged in a huge imperial project of invading, colonising and subjugating people in many parts of the world, especially in Africa and Asia, propagating ideas of white supremacy as justification.

Lind’s advocacy of citrus fruit on board ship, when adopted 50 years later by the admiralty, facilitated this colonial expansion. It underlines the importance of placing science in an historical and political context, just as capitalism now benefits from state provision of healthcare.

A series of slides of Lind’s work can be found here.

John Puntis