How an 18th Century Scottish Surgeon showed us how to do research properly

The HMS Salisbury was an 18th century British Warship.

In 1747, while in the Bay of Biscay, there was a surgeon on board by the name of James Lind.

As was typical of that era, the long period at sea had resulted in sailors falling ill due to scurvy – a disease we now know is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency.

Lind treated two of the sailors with citrus fruit – two oranges and one lemon a day. By the 6th day, one of the sailors was ready to resume work and the other sailor was recovering well.

What Lind had done was to conduct a clinical trial. It wasn’t the first clinical trial ever. But it was unique. What made it different was that he used control groups.

Control groups are used when seeking to compare. There’s a group being treated a certain way. And there are other groups being treated differently, not being treated at all, or being treated with a placebo.

In Lind’s case he was treating 12 sailors in six groups of two. Each group was treated differently. Only one of the other five groups showed any improvement – and that was very mild.

The study showed Lind that citrus fruits were an effective remedy for scurvy – though not necessarily the only remedy.

Sadly it took many decades before the preventative treatment was standardised in the British Navy.

But that doesn’t detract from the significance of Lind’s work. He had demonstrated how the use of control groups can add legitimacy to scientific experiments.

Research can be done badly. And it can be done well. Some parents don’t get their children vaccinated against measles/mumps/rubella for fear of their children developing autism. The root cause? Bad research. (And effective PR when, e.g., Donald Trump supports the bad science.)

So tread carefully with your own research initiatives. If you are thinking of conducting a survey, book a free 15-minute call with me by clicking here. We’ll have a conversation and quickly determine if I can help you.

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