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.
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.