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Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail Paperback – July 14, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (August 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312313926
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312313920
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #660,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of those books that I read several years ago and realized I needed to read it again. I went out of my way to track it down and purchase it.

It amazes me when reading books about medical issues just how slow it was for people who were seemingly educated to grasp basic concepts. (hindsight is twenty-twenty!) Scurvy was figured out years (almost a decade?) before the advice was used to alleviate it. In the between time, the sailors and captains used things that bordered on witch doctoring! (Many captains had a medical chest full of medication vials that were numbered. If they were out of number 5, they would apparently sometimes add vial 2 and 3 to make 5. Makes my blood run cold.)

Scurvy, as outlined in this book, is a horrible malady, it does things that don't seem possible or logical. I knew that people could lose their teeth, but had no idea that their broken bones could break again! This is a medical lesson as well as a history lesson and a darn good story, all wound into one!

This book shows the various cures that were tried, both those that worked and those that were pointless. The book discusses different voyages where the sailors suffered from scurvy. The book also discusses what the doctors researching this tried and found out. The sheer number of years from finding and verifying a cure to that cure being used as a universal cure will astonish you.

If you are a medical history buff, this book is for you. If you find medical language, even in layman's terms to be boring, you are better off picking a different book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I love history of medicine. Like the belief in Galan' s "four body humors", believed for over 2000 years, because as in the Bible, the oldest knowledge is considered the best. And the oldest described diseases and cures (the older the better) were researched and accepted. This last sentence is based on learning from this excellent book.
Stubbornly, based on pride, doctors will stick to their quack theories even when they know better. This applies to Dr Pringle, who clung to his Malt Wort cure until his death, and b/c of his high position forced all others, including the Royal Navy, to accept this as the one and only atmosphere.
Reader, you will enjoy this mystery of history as much as I did!
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