Review: Scurvy

Rating: ★★★★☆
by Stephen R. Bown

Scurvy! Say it with me now – Scurvy! Few words seem so salty and piratey, and it’s downright fun to say. But what exactly is it?

Stephen R. Bown covers the story of scurvy and the quest for its cure by tracing the efforts of three distinct individuals – James Lind, James Cook, and Gilber Blane (the surgeon, the captain, and the gentleman, respectively.) These men’s stories each make for a gripping read, and together they tell a fascinating tale about a terrible affliction that not only crippled its individual victims, but entire navies as well. Throughout most of history, long voyages manned by malnourished sailors short on Vitamin C inevitably gave way to a variety of dreaded symptoms, from spongy, bleeding gums to decades old wounds reopening. It’s easy to see how scurvy rose to such infamy, especially in days before nutrition was widely understood, and its cause was routinely attributed to unrelated factors such as poor sanitation or impurity of thought.

In an age that pre-dates the scientific method, and where status and birthright played more role in determining your credibility than skill or knowledge, scurvy was a terrifying “disease” with a surprisingly simple cure that none-the-less eluded the naval communities for far too long. Successful treatments were discovered time and again, but through human error, politics, and at times downright stubbornness, the reasons for these successes were constantly misinterpreted, resulting in thousands of deaths before the same treatment could be discovered again. It’s an altogether tragic tale that paints an incredible picture from the days of sail.

Scurvy is a highly enjoyable read about a frightening ailment that will have you stocking up on oranges for weeks to come.

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