Scurvy in the Great Irish Famine: Evidence of vitamin C deficiency from a mid-19th-century skeletal population

Jonny Geber, Eileen Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scurvy has increasingly been recognized in archaeological populations since the 1980s but this study represents the first examination of the paleopathological findings of scurvy in a known famine population. The Great Famine (1845–1852) was a watershed in Irish history and resulted in the death of one million people and the mass emigration of just as many. It was initiated by a blight which completely wiped out the potato—virtually the only source of food for the poor of Ireland. This led to mass starvation and a widespread occurrence of infectious and metabolic diseases. A recent discovery of 970 human skeletons from mass burials dating to the height of the famine in Kilkenny City (1847–1851) provided an opportunity to study the skeletal manifestations of scurvy—a disease that became widespread at this time due to the sudden lack of Vitamin C which had previously almost exclusively been provided by the potato. A three‐scale diagnostic reliance approach has been employed as a statistical aid for diagnosing the disease in the population. A biocultural approach was adopted to enable the findings to be contextualized and the etiology and impact of the disease explored. The results indicate that scurvy indirectly influenced famine‐induced mortality. A sex and stature bias is evident among adults in which males and taller individuals displayed statistically significantly higher levels of scorbutic lesions. The findings have also suggested that new bone formation at the foramen rotundum is a diagnostic criterion for the paleopathological identification of scurvy, particularly among juveniles.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)512-524
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012


  • Vitamin C deficiency
  • Kilkenny
  • malnutrition
  • workhouse
  • foramen rotundum


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