Monday, September 17, 2007

Book Review: "Scurvy"

Every disease seems to have its book these days; Stephen Bown's Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery in the Age of Sail (St. Martin's, 2004) at least treats one of the more interesting of the bunch.

Bown has written a fairly good account of scurvy's impact on the English navy during the age of exploration through the Napoleonic wars and the long and circuitous effort to discover its cause and effective treatment options. Unfortunately he does little in a comparative way; discussing how scurvy affected other maritime nations during the time period and how non-English authorities went about trying to conquer it might have improved the book's scope nicely.

That said, the discussion of English attempts to figure out a cure for scurvy is decent. What surprised me - as it seems to have surprised Bown and others - is how many times the cure (ascorbic acid) was discovered, written about, and then promptly forgotten again, leading to the deaths of countless sailors as dozens of different ineffective methods were tried. Bown also offers biographical sketches of James Lind, James Cook and Gilbert Blane (his surgeon, seaman and gentleman), the three men perhaps most responsible - even if slightly indirectly - for the eventual end of scurvy as a serious threat to British naval might.

Aside from some noticeable repetitions, my major problem with Scurvy is the lack of citations. Bown throws this in his reader's face, writing in the "Note on Sources" "Because this is intended as a popular rather than scholarly book, I have elected not to include footnotes in the text." How insulting to assume that any reader - "scholar" or no - couldn't benefit from the inclusion of citations.