The American explorer Frederick Albert Cook claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole in 1908, but it’s still not certain if he did.

Years earlier, as the physician for a Belgian Antarctic expedition on the ship Belgica, he saved many of the crew while the Belgica was trapped in the ice for more than a year. In the process, he also may have been the first to apply novel lifesaving treatments for scurvy and depression.

Cook was born in 1865 in Hortonville, New York, and graduated from the New York University Medical School in 1890. Tragically, he lost his wife and child in childbirth before he got the results of his exams. He escaped his trauma by joining Robert E. Perry’s 1891 Greenland expedition as a physician.

After that Arctic expedition, Cook continued his own explorations, including to the Antarctic on the Belgica in 1898. On the morning of July 11, Capt. Georges Lecointe dragged himself to Cook for help because he had lost the use of his legs. At that point, the ship had been trapped in pack ice for four months and had last seen sunshine two months before. Other men’s health also had been declining: One officer had died of scurvy, and others were suffering from a mysterious illness that seemed physical and psychological.

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet for at least three months. It causes weakness, anemia, gum disease, bleeding around hair follicles and other bruises and bleeding. Most animals and plants can make vitamin C, but humans and other primates must get it from their diet. Vitamin C is critical in the formation of collagen, which forms connective tissue, skin and muscles. Vitamin C also is needed to make dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine and other chemicals important for normal brain function. Without treatment, scurvy can cause severe bleeding, convulsions and death.

To save the captain, Cook remembered lessons he had learned from the Inuit, the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic who survived without the vitamin C from fresh fruit. Cook told the captain to drink only water and eat only penguin and seal meat. He also ordered him to stand naked in the light of a fire three times a day, which sounds like an early form of light therapy, now used to treat some forms of depression.

Within a week, the captain was up and about, and the rest of the men soon lined up for the same treatment. It turns out that oils in fish, walrus, seal and other meats that the Inuit eat contain enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy if they aren’t overcooked.

Cook used what he learned from the indigenous people of the Arctic to save his crew, and he should have lived out his life as a hero. Instead, he eventually went to prison for swindling thousands from investors in a Texas oil field Ponzi scheme. Cook was pardoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, just a few months before he died from stroke complications.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog, and professor David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at

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