Title: Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail
Author: Stephen R. Bown
Genres: non-fiction, history, medical history, naval history, read for school, pirates
This blog post has a different format and style of writing than my regular posts- this an academic book review my class was assigned for the Golden Age of Piracy course that I'm taking this summer. It's long, but bear with me, I think you'll enjoy it!
In Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), Stephen R. Bown follows the convoluted history of the cure for scurvy during the Age of Sail (1700-1850) in Britain. Scurvy was eradicated after decades of conflicting research and bureaucratic red tape, courtesy of the British Admiralty. Ridding the British Navy of scurvy helped strengthen Britain’s economy as it entered the Industrial Revolution (198):
“The defeat of scurvy, and the concomitant increase in the time ships could spend at sea, was … the keystone in construction of the British-dominated global trade and communication network that flourished throughout the nineteenth century” (208).
Chapters are organized chronologically with the first two chapters giving the readers background information on the seafaring world and scurvy. Detailed descriptions of the horrible and unsanitary conditions that sailors suffered through while engaging in a dangerous occupation is blended with the history of scurvy and the symptoms and effects, physically and economically of this disease. The third chapter explains George Anson’s voyage to the South Seas, the greatest medical maritime disaster of all time, and how this disaster “was the beginning of a golden age of scurvy research… and raised public awareness of the social cost of scurvy” (68). Chapters 5, 7, and 8 focus on key historical figures that were monumental in the fight against scurvy: James Lind (the surgeon mentioned in the book’s subtitle), James Cook (the mariner) and Gilbert Blane (the gentleman). Each of these three gentleman used their experiences and social standing to further the cause and journey of scurvy research and a cure, with varying results. Other chapters explain debate in scientific and naval circles over citrus rob versus wort of malt as cures for scurvy.
Bown introduces and sets the book’s tone with a horrific, detailed description of the physical symptoms of scurvy suffered by thousands of sailors for centuries. Not only did scurvy affect the sailors and crew of the British Navy, but this preventable disease had disastrous social consequences for British citizens and the economy. This insidious disease killed over two million sailors, “more than storms, shipwreck, combat and all other diseases combined” (3).
Throughout the book, Bown intertwines narrative with scientific data to create an intriguing look at one of history’s most mysterious yet, preventable, illnesses. Primary sources such as, memoirs, journals, and casualty lists, were cited to describe personal accounts of ship life and the effects of scurvy from a sailor or surgeon’s point of view. Bown also used secondary sources to supplement his narrative: recorded folk cures for scurvy, histories on food and food preservation, biographies, and research on ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Ship logs that recorded the victuals ordered and stored on the Navy ships enlighten the reader about the bland and nutrition-deficient diet that sailors were forced to partake as part of their daily routine. Unfortunately, the bland and tasteless food rations, the damp quarters and unsanitary conditions, the four hours of sleep every night, plus the stress from the extreme physical labor all sailors experienced wore down the sailors’ immune systems and made them ripe victims for scurvy and numerous other diseases.
Although this was enjoyable read and Bown thoroughly researched his subject matter, there are a few weaknesses to the book. The first one is the 24-page chapter on Napoleon and Horatio Nelson which, at first read, appears out of place. It takes Brown thirteen pages of war strategy to explain how these two men and the Battle to Trafalgar were intertwined with scurvy:
“But with the defeat of scurvy, the warships of the Royal Navy never deserted their posts and the majority of Napoleon’s navy was kept bottled up in half a dozen separate ports throughout the war. The blockade disrupted France’s commerce and communication with her colonies, damaged the French economy, and weakened the country’s capacity to pay for the ongoing war” (198).
In other words, the expensive and preventive scurvy measures and rations were visibly paying off! Scurvy research had allowed the British Navy to build up their fleets due to the lack of deaths from scurvy. The increased manpower helped the British defeat the French whose forces were weakened from scurvy and other diseases and lack of support from Bonaparte. If these preventative measures had been in place decades earlier, the outcome of the American War for Independence might also have been in Britain’s favor! In the last two pages of Chapter 9, Brown points out the silent role the scurvy cure played in thrusting Britain onto to the world stage as a global empire:
“With a lower death toll of mariners on long voyages, the expense of manning ships and shipping goods was greatly reduced. Without scurvy tethering ships to port, global trade expanded throughout the nineteenth century, fuelling the Industrial Revolution” (208).
The second weakness I found was the glossing over of the Vitamin C research in the twentieth century, although this may be due to the fact that the book’s focus was on the Age of Sail. It still would have been nice to read how the scientific advancements of the microscope and germ theory aided scurvy research.
The cure for scurvy was also a social and humanitarian revolution. Instead of treating sailors as cheap and expendable, the preventive measures used in the 1800s changed the way the Admiralty viewed and treated the thousands of sailors in its care. The cure for scurvy had a ripple effect outside of Britain and increased trade and prosperity throughout the world.
Because of the non-academic nature of this book, I feel that multiple reading levels, reading styles, and research areas would benefit from reading this book. This book would appeal to readers and researchers of the Age of Sail, British naval history and medical history. As a college student and library employee, I would feel confident in recommending this for various reading needs and research purposes: AP History course, college history course, medical historians, naval historians, and amateur history buffs.