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

by Stephen Bown

The great scourge of long-distance ocean voyages in the age of sail was scurvy. The vitamin-C-deficiency disease killed two-thirds of Vasco da Gama’s crew in the 15th century. When Ferdinand Magellan made his historic circumnavigation of the earth, only 18 of 250 sailors survived. Jacques Cartier was more fortunate: when he wintered in Quebec in 1535, the local people taught him to boil cedar bark as a cure for scurvy. Unfortunately, various remedies were lost time and again before the British adopted lemon juice as an antiscorbutic in 1795. Scurvy attempts to tell that story.

Author Stephen Bown picks three heroes around which to frame the narative: James Lind, a ship’s physician who performed the first controlled trial of six different remedies; James Cook, the mariner who reported no cases of scurvy on his lengthy voyages to the South Pacific; and Gilbert Blane, a gentleman physician who convinced the Admiralty to issue a daily ration of lemon juice to sailors. His villain is Sir John Pringle, President of the Royal Society, who advocated an ineffective treatment.

Unfortunately, this simplistic approach has largely been junked by historians. While Lind’s experiments were important, his evidence was not incontrovertible. His trial took up only two pages of his Treatise on the Scurvy, and Lind had his doubts about the results. Historian Michael Bartholomew has recently argued that Lind never accepted that fruit was a unique treatment for scurvy. Blane himself said that he wasn’t satisfied with any cure. Cook didn’t know which of his measures aboard ship had prevented scurvy. Indeed, Cook may have had scurvy cases but didn’t report them, a controversy Bown fails to address.

Scurvy is also too dependent on frequently repetitive descriptions of scurvy symptoms, naval battles, and shipboard life. There is little authoritative analysis of social conditions, political conditions, or medical history. Too often, Bown says the existing information is “confusing,” then moves on. Readers would be advised to read a more in-depth account, such as Kenneth Carpenter’s The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C.