A spirited, stimulating account of how the cure for the feared disease was found, lost, and found again.
Scurvy can strike anyone whose diet lacks vitamin C, writes naval historian Bown (Sightseers and Scholars, not reviewed), but it became a scourge during the Age of Sail, when perhaps two million seafarers died from its effects. The author pursues the disease’s history on two fronts: how scurvy’s treatment hinged on the slow evolution of medical science, and the pivotal role played by the social and political connections of those proposing remedies for the disease. In fleet prose, Bown introduces both drama and incredulity into the mix. Lemon juice was used to defeat scurvy as early as 1593, and mariners of the Dutch East India Company drank it routinely into the 1630s. By the end of the 17th century, however, “the notion that scurvy was caused by foul vapors or an imbalance in the bodily humours had replaced the practical, commonsensical observations of seamen, much to the detriment of mariners.” James Lind, a ship’s surgeon who conducted controlled experiments, identified citrus juice as the cure for scurvy in 1753, but his work was contradicted by other respected, influential physicians who had the ear of men with the power to do something about the conditions that caused the disease . . . and did the wrong thing. Although the explorer James Cook, who had an instinctive regard for hygiene and diet, led scurvy-free voyages in the 1760s and ’70s, he was unsure about the most effective antiscorbutic. Not until 1795, when fashionable and well-connected physician Gilbert Blane persuaded naval authorities to issue daily rations of lemon juice to all sailors was scurvy conquered once and for all. Bown also describes how the disease played a significant role in international affairs, particularly in the outcomes of the American Revolution and the defeat of the French navy by the British in the late 18th century.
Splendid popular history. (Illustrated throughout)