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Scans Cite Scurvy as Cause of Settlers' Deaths

Imaging technology confirms it brought about French colonists' end

MONDAY, Nov. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Scurvy killed nearly half of the 79 French settlers who in 1604 established a colony on Saint Croix Island in the Saint Croix River, which runs between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

The cause of death was confirmed by American scientists using multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) to examine the skulls and leg bones from several burial sites on the island.

"MDCT images are extremely important to anthropologists because we can obtain bone measurements without destroying the artifact," study author Dr. John Benson, director of medical imaging at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine, said in a prepared statement.

"Using MDCT, we were able to visualize the entire skull from every angle, inside and out. Scans of the skull and leg bones revealed a thick, hard palate in the mouth and an extra layer of bony tissue on the femur and tibia, which we believe resulted from the internal bleeding associated with scurvy," Benson said.

The findings were presented Nov. 29 at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting in Chicago.

Scurvy is a condition caused by a lack of vitamin C that's characterized by general weakness.

One of the skulls had cut marks. The researchers believe this may indicate that surviving colonists on Saint Croix Island conducted an autopsy to better understand what was killing their fellow settlers.

More information

The National Library of Medicine has more about scurvy.

SOURCE: Radiological Society of North America, news release, Nov. 29, 2004
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