cover image SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail

SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail

Stephen R. Bown, . . St. Martin's/Dunne, $23.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-312-31391-3

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 . (Mar.)