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

Stephen R. Bown

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

272 Pages


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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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1THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY SEAFARING WORLD: THE AGE OF SCURVYAN ENGLISH SAILOR RELAXED in an alehouse with companions after a long voyage from the West Indies. After over a year away, he wanted to celebrate his safe return. The merchant ship had returned to Portsmouth with a load of spices and exotic wood. It had been a good run; the winds and weather had been fair and the incidence of disease low. Still, he was lucky to have survived, and several of his fellow mariners had not. He had been ashore for several days, paid out by his captain, and he was enjoying his liberty, spending his hard-earned
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  • Stephen R. Bown

  • Stephen R. Bown was born in Ottawa and graduated in history from the University of Alberta. He has a special interest in the history of science and exploration. His books include The Naturalists: Scientific Travelers in the Golden Age of Natural History. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two young children.
  • Stephen R. Bown
    Stephen R. Bown