The problem with taking too many vitamins
Date published: 18th October 2013
A month into their journey, one of the team, along with the tent, most of the provisions and six dogs plunged into a crevasse, never to be seen again. Mawson and the other surviving member, Xavier Mertz, started to return to base, surviving in part by eating the remaining dogs. After a few weeks Mertz developed stomach pains and diarrhoea. Then his skin started to peel off and his hair fell out. He died incontinent and delirious a few days later.
Mawson suffered similar symptoms. With the kind of understatement typical of his generation of polar explorers he described the skin of the soles of his feet peeling off: "The sight of my feet gave me quite a shock, for the thickened skin of the soles had separated in each case as a complete layer... The new skin underneath was very much abraded and raw."
It was the suffering of early explorers and sailors that motivated the first studies of vitamins and their deficiency diseases.
At first sight Mawson's story seems to be another such tale - starvation combined with a lack of some vital nutrient. In fact, Mawson's description of his symptoms is an almost textbook description of vitamin A overdose - probably from eating dog liver. As little as 100g of husky liver could give a hungry explorer a fatal dose.
Mawson lived to the decent age of 76 but in his story we find the cautionary tale for our times - vitamins can be very bad for you.
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