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Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail Hardcover – March 17, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0312313913 ISBN-10: 0312313918 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; First Edition edition (March 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312313918
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312313913
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #821,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From the 15th to the mid-19th centuries, scurvy caused more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat and all other diseases combined, according to Bown (Sightseers and Scholars). In this intriguing book, Bown tells how the preventative and cure-a diet that included fresh fruits and vegetables, which were rarely carried on sailing ships-was finally identified. For years, the mysterious illness was treated with oil of vitriol, bloodletting, sea water, wort of malt and, occasionally, lemon juice. Even after James Lind, a surgeon's mate in Britain's Royal Navy, showed in 1747 that citrus was the effective remedy, his treatment was not taken seriously, because he couldn't explain why it worked. On three voyages, from 1768 to 1781, Captain James Cook tested a wide array of antiscorbutics as preventatives, including fresh vegetables and citrus juice, but evidence of the effectiveness of the fresh produce was inconclusive, and the Royal Navy persisted in relying on the other, worthless, remedies. Scurvy continued to decimate ships' crews, and Bown speculates that failure to arrest the disease had global repercussions and may have been the reason for Britain's defeat in the American Revolution. Finally, in 1795, Gilbert Blaine, a gentleman physician, persuaded the admiralty to issue daily rations of lemon juice on all Royal Navy ships; although the active compound, ascorbic acid, was not isolated until more than a century later, this simple procedure kept the British sailors healthy and enabled them to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Bown tells the story well, and he presents a vivid picture of life aboard ship during the age of sail-brutal captains; dangerous work; rotting food; filthy, overcrowded living quarters; and the ultimate horror, scurvy. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The plague of eighteenth-century seafarers was scurvy, the consequence of the lack of vitamin C in the everyday diet. A condition in which body tissues break down, scurvy can kill quickly yet can be reversed even more quickly by drinking lemon or orange juice or eating fresh green vegetables. Some earlier mariners had learned that lemon juice cured scurvy, but no one in authority realized it could prevent it, too. It took the successive labors, over the course of 60 years, of surgeon James Lind, explorer James Cook, and aristocrat (and also physician) Gilbert Blane to force acknowledgment that scurvy was preventable. Bown's fluent history shows that medicine of the time wasn't yet experimental and analytic, or even materialistic, but still sought spiritual or essential reasons for disease. After Blane's triumph, scurvy-free British seamen destroyed Napoleon's numerically superior but scurvy-ridden navy, whereas 30 years earlier, Britain's sick sailors were overmatched by France's much larger (though also sick) forces, putting the kibosh on Britain's retention of its 13 American colonies. Excellent medical--and naval--history. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

I am an award-winning author of historical non-fiction with eight books to my credit, published internationally and translated into many languages.

My book Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail was an international critical success and was selected as one of the Globe and Mail's Top 100 books of 2004. A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates and the Making of the Modern World, was included in the Scientific American Book Club, the History Book Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club as well as being shortlisted for two awards. My next book, Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors' Association's Lela Common Award for Canadian History and won the 2009 B.C. Book Prize Booksellers' Choice Award.

After the publication of Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, in 2010, I received a phone call from The Right Honourable Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada, telling me how much he enjoyed the book. He stayed up all night reading it, but he said the lost sleep was worth it.

1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half was released in August 2011 in Canada and February 2012 in the United States. 1494 tells the true story involving a corrupt pope - Rodrigo Borgia, the patriarch of the family fictionalized in the hit Showtime series The Borgias - in an explosive feud between monarchs, clergy and explorers that split the globe between Spain and Portugal and made the world's oceans a battleground.

The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen was released in the US, Canada and the UK in the fall of 2012 to superior reviews and strong sales. Based on the discovery of hundreds of previously unused magazine and newspaper interviews and profiles, most from the New York Times, it presents a new perspective of Amundsen's personality and life and shows that he lived primarily in the United States for many years rather than in Norway as is commonly assumed.

My author facebook page is www.facebook.com/srbown on which I post interesting historical tidbits related to my writing several times per week. I also have an author website which has a complete list of reviews: www.stephenrbown.net

I live in Canmore in the Rocky Mountains with my wife Nicky and two children. When I'm not writing I'm usually reading, mountain biking, hiking and camping in the summer, and downhill and cross country skiing in the winter.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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This book is about the overlooked details involving scurvy, but goes into some great detail about life on a sailing vessel.
Amazon Customer
An interesting insite into life aboard sailing ships and the conditions endured by sailors and ignored by the admiralty in the age of sailing vessels.
Robert E. Humphrey
Brown does a fantastic job of outlining the history of scurvy and the quest for a cure in a very interesting and readable fashion.
Zecon

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a well-written, entertaining book. I read it mostly due to my interest in sea-faring and the "age of sail," as the author terms it. However, I found myself enjoying it just as much for the story it tells about the gradual discovery of a cure for a disease that crippled sea-faring nations for centuries. Particularly enlightening is the story of the bureacracy, the British Admiralty, that stubbornly ignored the potential cure, even as it suffered tremendous losses for its ignorance, and how vital privilege and influence is in challenging and changing such an establishment. The book's only minor flaw is that it focuses primarily on one country, Britain, without elaborating on how or why France or Spain failed to find a cause and a cure. I would recommend it highly.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on March 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book tackles a fascinating subject; scurvy which killed 100,000s of sailors. Many passages illuminate the causes and affects of this terrible disease, which quite simply results from a lack of vitamin C and causes the bond of the body to weaken, causing terrible bleeding in the gums and from the skin. The cure for scurvy was not understood for 100s of years and this book takes the reader on a quick stroll through this history. Why did Eskimoes, who ate no vegetables, not suffer scurvy? This question was posed by the English whose aptitude for eating limes gave them the nickname `limies' since limes appeared to counteract scurvy. Why did preserved meat not work? Why did cooked meat or limes not work? These questions were eventually answered by the man who found out the truth behind the disease. This is the books central theme and actually its main detraction. Since the book focuses on the men, reminiscent of the recent book on the OED, it detracts slightly from the overall history of scurvy. Nevertheless this is a welcomed addition on the subject, and a fascinating read.
Seth J. Frantzman
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Zecon on November 26, 2007
Format: Paperback
I've always been fascinated by the age of sail, particularly the period during the Napoleonic Wars. An incredible test of nations and the men at sea occurred during that war. Consequently I have enjoyed reading numerous fictional accounts of that war from authors such as Patrick O'Brien, Dudley Pope, and C.S. Forester. What I never fully grasped were all the reasons why the Brits were superior to the French and Spanish navies. Those authors always talked up the better training and discipline as the reason. They also pointed to the leadership purges of the French navy that occurred during the revolution. However, I intuitively recognized that there was something more to the story. The cure for scurvy was that something more. And the Brits got there first.

Brown does a fantastic job of outlining the history of scurvy and the quest for a cure in a very interesting and readable fashion. Outlining the course of scurvy at sea during the voyages of Anson and Cook, he is able to put a cost on scurvy. He details how rigid social structures prevented remedies from being taken seriously and reluctance by the Admiralty to invest in its men in terms of hygiene and diet permitted this affliction to rage for much longer than it should have. It is shocking to read how the medical professionals of the day diagnosed patients despite the evidence. When it appears that they are on the very verge of a cure, they seem to loose touch with logic and regress to useless remedies.

Brown tells the story of scurvy very well.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on October 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
For those who are not familiar with life aboard long-distance sailing ships during the Age of Sail, this book is quite an eye-opener. The author pulls no punches when describing the dreadful living conditions that had to be endured by sailors and, he is particularly graphic in his descriptions of the horrible effects that scurvy had on those afflicted. He recounts the attempts made by certain key individuals to understand and cure the disease as well as the frustrating steps taken backwards when any significant progress that was made was set aside and ignored mainly due to the bureaucratic inertia that pervaded the British Royal Navy at the time. The writing style is clear, friendly and quite engaging such that the book is difficult to put down. This book would likely be of most interest to history buffs, medical history buffs and anyone interested in people's lives and times during the Age of Sail.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Sophie Earp-Fulton on March 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I've always had an interest in the Age of Sail, but only recently started doing some knuckle-down reading. This book is a pretty good place to start if you're getting into maritime history, or diseases in history. Or both!
Brown's book flows pretty well, is often entertaining and informative. He uses a few first-hand accounts of the disease (one by a ship's surgeon) that prove to be both disturbing and engaging. Descriptions are bountiful, and whilst some information tends to be repeated a few times, it's never condescendingly done, nor does it read too drily.
Some of the theories at the time on what the cause of scurvy was are just mind-boggling. Some of the symptoms included lethargy and depression, so it was decided that scurvy was caused by laziness on the sailors' part and the cure was to work them harder! Poor blighters! And people who lucked onto finding the actual cure were laughed out of town and their theories forgotten - seems to be a pattern in history, doesn't it?
Turns out the cure for scurvy had a major role in England's naval capabilities, including colonisation and battles with the Europeans. Uh-huh, if the Brits hadn't discovered it, we might all be speaking French, or German, or whatever...hmmm.
Anyway, I'd recommend this to anyone with even a vague interest in history - it's a good read, and you can make others nauseous by describing the disease's effects upon the human body, and the squallid conditions of the ships. Fun for the whole family, really.
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