Dear Anika,

A pirate’s life was dangerous. They attacked other ships and battled other pirates as well as the law. But they were also at the mercy of another foe: sickness.

I talked about this with my friend Lawrence Hatter. He’s a history professor at Washington State University.

He told me the big era for pirates was 1710 to 1730. It was a time when lots of sailors were out of work. Some of them became pirates.

Here are four kinds of disease they might face on the job: scurvy, mosquito-borne diseases, infectious diseases and gangrene.

18th century engraving of Anne Bonny


“Scurvy was probably the major killer of sailors at the time,” Hatter said. “It’s a vitamin C deficiency.”

Most people get enough vitamin C by eating fruits and vegetables. It helps heal wounds. People with scurvy get too little vitamin C for a long time.

In pirate lingo, “scurvy” as in “ye scurvy dog” means disgusting. That’s because the worst symptoms were terrible. People with untreated scurvy can’t heal their wounds. Even worse, very old wounds can open back up.

Diseases from Mosquitoes

Many pirates sailed in tropical places. They encountered diseases like yellow fever and malaria. Those sicknesses don’t pass from person to person. They spread by mosquito bites. That’s why mosquitoes are the deadliest animals on Earth.

But people wouldn’t figure that out for nearly 200 more years. Pirates probably thought they got sick after eating bad food or breathing bad air.

Infectious Diseases—like dysentery, tuberculosis and food sickness

Today, we know all about germs. We take antibiotics to fight bacteria. We take medicine to help battle some viruses. We stay home, so we don’t pass sickness to other people.

But there were no antibiotics or antivirals in the 1700s. People didn’t even know bacteria and viruses caused disease. Plus, pirates lived very close together.

“Ships were very crowded spaces,” Hatter said. “Sailors aboard a ship would have only about 12 to 18 inches of space. They would sleep in hammocks right next to each other. So, if somebody got sick, it could spread very quickly.”


Sometimes pirates suffered battle injuries. But they could also get hurt in accidents—like falling from the sail riggings on their boats. They didn’t have great options for medical care on the ship.

“They wouldn’t really have known how to treat a wound,” Hatter said. “Other than if there’s any evidence of gangrene, you just have to keep cutting.”

You heard that right. Badly injured pirates needed surgery. There were no antibiotics, pain killers or clean operating rooms. Sometimes the surgeon was the ship’s cook or carpenter. Infection—like gangrene—was a problem.

It’s not all bad news, though. Hatter told me pirates may have been better off than other sailors.

“Part of the reason sailors joined a pirate ship was for better working conditions,” he said. “They were more democratic and less authoritarian. The pirate captain worked largely through consensus. So, pirates might have suffered less disease than normal sailors because their conditions and food were better.”

Maybe that was the real pirate’s booty.


Dr. Universe