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Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a…

Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest…

by Stephen R. Bown

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Scurvy is the story of how dozens of smart, highly motivated people tried, for hundreds of years, to solve a medical mystery. That solving it took hundreds of years, even though thousands of lives and the viability of Europe’s oceangoing navies hung on a solution, suggests the difficulty of the problem. That the solution is now well-known, and can be summarized in terms simple enough for a child to grasp, suggests the difficulty of recounting the story for modern audiences. After only a chapter or two, the urge to shout “Fresh citrus juice, you fools!” back across the centuries is nearly overwhelming.

This is where Scurvy falls short. It narrates the story in novelistic detail, with an excellent sense of pace, and well-rounded portraits of the three figures mentioned in the subtitle. It shows the non-specialist reader everything about the history of scurvy-prevention research . . . except a comprehensive picture of the social and intellectual landscape within which that research took place. Bown’s narrative, good as it is, never brings alive a world where nobody knew which facts about scurvy and its mitigation were crucial, and which were irrelevant “noise.” It never sketches the conceptual framework – ideas about health, disease, medicine, nutrition, and cooking – into which 17th- and 18th-century researchers attempted to fit those facts. Instead, present-day knowledge (the solution was so simple!) subtly colors Bown’s analysis of their work.

His heroes’ struggles to find an answer thus, almost inevitably, come across as hopelessly clumsy and maddeningly pig-headed. They cling to “solutions” that we know to be useless, and, after stumbling on clues that we know to be vital, toss them aside and move blindly on. Bown never scolds them outright for these “failings,” but his tone of frustration and disapproval is palpable. Scurvy never breaks free of its present-day viewpoint, or explores the problem as it would have been seen by those who tried so hard, for so long, to solve it. Yet, understanding the past requires that we do just that. ( )
1 vote ABVR | May 19, 2013 |
This would have been a really good magazine article. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
I found this book fascinating, even though I'm not particularly interested in any of the subjects it might be listed under. First off, I had no idea how large a role scurvy played in the world before it could be prevented. The suffering of all those on board, including officers, was unbelievable, and the death toll staggering. This of course meant that ships had to set off with huge crews, just so there were enough staggering survivors to do the necessary work by the end of the voyage. The impact on the economy and other elements of society is hard to overstate - long ocean voyages were just not practical without some huge payoff.

The discussion of how the problem was solved was less compelling, for me. Even here, however, we see clearly how human foibles and fashions influence what we might think of as basic science. The efficacy of lemon juice was discovered, but discounted because the discoverer insisted on creating a lemon syrup by heating the juice, thereby destroying the vitamin C. Perhaps it was my frustration with this setback which made the remaining discussion less satisfying to me.

All in all, however, an amazing book. I highly recommend it. ( )
  beccabgood1 | May 29, 2010 |
very interesting. so much i didn't know. as another reviewer noted, a little drawn out. ( )
  mahallett | Dec 26, 2009 |
I forgot I read this until I saw it recommended. Very interesting but a little drawn out. ( )
  atiara | Nov 2, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312313926, Paperback)

Scurvy took a terrible toll in the Age of Sail, killing more sailors than were lost in all sea battles combined. The threat of the disease kept ships close to home and doomed those vessels that ventured too far from port. The willful ignorance of the royal medical elite, who endorsed ludicrous medical theories based on speculative research while ignoring the life-saving properties of citrus fruit, cost tens of thousands of lives and altered the course of many battles at sea. The cure for scurvy ranks among the greatest of human accomplishments, yet its impact on history has, until now, been largely ignored.

From the earliest recorded appearance of the disease in the sixteenth century, to the eighteenth century, where a man had only half a chance of surviving the scourge, to the early nineteenth century, when the British conquered scurvy and successfully blockaded the French and defeated Napoleon, Scurvy is a medical detective story for the ages, the fascinating true story of how James Lind (the surgeon), James Cook (the mariner), and Gilbert Blane (the gentleman) worked separately to eliminate the dreaded affliction.

Scurvy is an evocative journey back to the era of wooden ships and sails, when the disease infiltrated every aspect of seafaring life: press gangs "recruit" mariners on the way home from a late night at the pub; a terrible voyage in search of riches ends with a hobbled fleet and half the crew heaved overboard; Cook majestically travels the South Seas but suffers an unimaginable fate. Brimming with tales of ships, sailors, and baffling bureaucracy, Scurvy is a rare mix of compelling history and classic adventure story.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:43 -0400)

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Traces the discovery of the cure for scurvy by three determined individuals including a navy surgeon, a sea captain, and a charismatic gentleman, tracing the recorded history of the disease, along with its research and cure.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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