How did pirates really die?

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If you've seen the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, you might think that most pirates died by having dangerous objects rip through their bodies. However, swords, guns and cannonballs were not what sent most pirates to Davy Jones' locker (meaning, to their death). Instead, a pirate's greatest enemy was disease: food poisoning, malnutrition, infection. Here are a few of the conditions that the seafaring scoundrels had to contend with.

• Scurvy. Pirates often spent long periods of time at sea. Because electricity and refrigerators had not been invented, there was little they could do to preserve food. Therefore, their diet included meat, biscuits, rotten vegetables, stale water and rat droppings! Scurvy is a disease that results from a lack of vitamin C, which is abundant in fruits and vegetables. Symptoms include bleeding gums, fatigue, diarrhea, rotted teeth that fall out and death.

• Infection. Everyone in the 18th century had to put up with limited medical care. No one knew that germs caused infection or that there were simple ways to treat infections. Many pirates died from blood poisoning after injuries that could be easily treated today. On top of that, pirates lived in close quarters, so it was easy for infection to spread from one person to another. This would lead to epidemics of the flu, diarrhea and other contagious diseases on a ship. (Keep in mind that there were no toilets on pirate ships, which meant that the crew had to deposit their bodily products directly into the ocean -- and I doubt that anyone washed their hands after they went to the "bathroom.")

• Skin conditions. Pirates were a dirty lot. No one took baths back then, and pirates wore the same clothes day after day. This lack of cleanliness resulted in rashes, lice and even fleas.

Arrr, matey! Now you know why your parents bug you to take baths, change your clothes, and eat fruits and veggies!


Howard Bennett is a Washington pediatrician and author of health-related books for kids.


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