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

Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

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. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Scurvy, a disabling and frequently fatal disease caused by lack of vitamin C, once cost navies more lives than shipwrecks and cannons. Until the early 19th century, a long voyage typically resulted in an appalling 50 percent death rate from illnesses, chiefly scurvy. Bown, a Canadian journalist, chronicles this horrific disease and the long search for its cure with gripping results. In 1753, naval surgeon James Lind brilliantly identified citrus as a promising treatment, but the medical and military establishments were slow to accept it. Then came the striking results of Capt. James Cook's care for his sailors' nutrition and hygiene during his famous seven-year South Sea voyage. So impressed was influential physician Sir Gilbert Blane that, in 1795, he was finally able to persuade the admiralty to issue daily rations of lemon juice. The improved health of the British "limeys" provided a decisive strategic advantage when Adm. Horatio Nelson faced the French at Trafalgar. Although scurvy is now mercifully rare, Bown's dramatic story of the hidden history of the great age of sail is a fascinating acquisition for most libraries.-Kathy Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida Lib. at St. Petersburg Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 andfor 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) Agent: Bill Hanna/Acacia House
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590075562
  • Publisher: New Millennium Entertainment
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 8 CDs, 9 hours
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen R. Bown was born in Ottawa and studied history at the University of Alberta. He has long been interested in the history of exploration and the Age of Sail. A former multimedia products producer and freelance writer, Bown contributes to magazines including Alaska, Mercator's World, Beautiful British Colombia, and The Beaver. He is also the author of Sightseers and Scholars: Scientific Travellers in the Golden Age of Natural History. Bown lives in the mountains west of Calgary, Alberta with his wife and son.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Medical Mystery 1
1 The Eighteenth-Century Seafaring World: The Age of Scurvy 9
2 Scurvy: The Plague of the Sea 27
3 Disaster and Victory in the South Seas: Lord Anson's Terrible Voyage 47
4 Found and Lost: The Search for a Cure Begins 71
5 An Ounce of Prevention: James Lind and the Salisbury Experiment 87
6 Unwinding the Knot: Rob and Wort and the Trials at Sea 113
7 Master Mariner: James Cook's Great Voyages in the Pacific 133
8 Man of Influence: Gilbert Blane and the West Indies Fleet 163
9 Blockade: The Defeat of Scurvy and Napoleon 185
Epilogue: The Mystery Solved 211
App Vitamin C Contained in Common Foods of the Age of Sail 219
Timeline 223
A Note on Sources and Further Reading 231
Bibliography 239
Acknowledgements 245
Index 247
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