Sir Gilbert Blane was born on August 29, 1749, at Blanefield, Ayrshire, Scotland the fourth son of a merchant who he was named after. Little is known about his early life other than the fact that he attended school at Kirkoswald and Maybole. At the age of 14 he was accepted into the Faculty of Arts at Edinburgh University, with the intent of joining the church. Soon his course changed and he began studying medicine taking his M.D. from Glasgow University in 1778.
After graduating he traveled to London, where with letters of recommendation he began his medical career. He became the physician of Admiral (later Lord) George Rodney and traveled with Rodney to the West Indies in 1779. Blane soon became the Physician to the Fleet, being appointed over men who had more naval experience than he had. Blane saw action in six engagements and wrote an account of the Battle of Saintes. Upon his return to Britain, Blaine was awarded a pension from the Admiralty.
While he was with the fleet Blane published, at his own expense, his notes on naval hygiene including recommendations on improvements in hygiene and diet aboard naval vessels. One of Blane's recommendations was the inclusion of fruit into the diet of sailors, to prevent scurvy. At the time the British Navy was losing more men from infection and scurvy than it was losing as casualties of battle. Adhering to Blane's recommendations Rodney's fleet lost not a single man to disease or scurvy for a six month period, from December 1781 to May 1782.
Blane was not the first to discover that fresh fruit prevented scurvy in sailors. In 1747 James Lind, a naval surgeon, divided a group of twelve sailors with scurvy into six groups of two and gave each group a different treatment: the first group was given cider, the second dilute sulfuric acid, the third vinegar, the forth sea water, the fifth fresh oranges, the sixth a spicy paste and barley water. The treatment of group five stopped after six days when they ran out of fruit, but by that time one sailor had recovered and the other was on the way to recovery. In 1768-71 Captain James Cook circumnavigated the world and did not lose a single sailor to scurvy, a feat that was attributed to their stopping to replenish supplies of fruit throughout the voyage.
Blane returned to England at the end of the war in 1783 and established a practice being appointed to be physician at St. Thomas Hospital. In 1795 he was appointed commissioner of the Sick and Wounded Board of the Admiralty. As a commissioner he was able to push through the long needed addition of lemon juice to the provisions of British Naval vessels. Tough he did not discover the link between citrus fruit and scurvy prevention it was Blane who made sure that lemon juice was provided to sailors, an advance that provided the British Navy the man power it would need to fight the Napoleonic Wars. Blane married in 1786 and would have six sons and three daughters. He also served as the personal physician for the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. In 1812 he was sent to investigate the ill fateded Walcheren Expedition and for his service to the crown he was created a baronet.
Blane died in his home in Sackville Street, London on June 26, 1834.
Bown, Steven; Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail
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Leach, R. H.; Sir Gilbert Blane, Bart, MD FRS (1749-1832); Annals Royal College of Surgeons (1980)62:232-239
Wharton, Mary; Sir Gilbert Blane Bt (1749-1834); Annals Royal College of Surgeons (1984)66:375-376