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Limeys. The true story of one man's war against Ignorance, the Establishment and the deadly Scurvy Harvie, David I. 2002

 

Carr 1983Limeys. The true story of one man's war against Ignorance, the Establishment and the deadly Scurvy
By David Harvie and published in 2002 by Sutton Publishing . ISBN 0-7509-2772-0

The content of this book is best summarised by the following sentence that is taken from the author's introduction: "The story of the defeat of scurvy at sea is an intriguing mix of pioneering achievement, bureaucratic inertia, wilful neglect and the corrosive poison that patronage induced in society." The 300+ pages that follow take the reader from the first accounts of the disease (Hippocrates) to the wide range of treatments that captains believed would cure their crews of scurvy. Some of these treatments would be laughable if it were not men's lives that were in the balance.

Through all the chaos and commotion surrounding scurvy there then appeared a man who was the first to apply a scientific approach to the condition. Dr. James Lind, a naval surgeon, experimented with different foods and noted their effects on his patients. In 1753 he published his conclusions in his book A Treatise of the Scurvy... which contained his recommendations for avoiding and treating scurvy. Unfortunately other naval surgeons were also publishing their own antiscorbutic recommendations. In the 18th century who you knew was often more important than what you knew. Hence, as Lind did not have a sponsor within the hierarchy of the Admiralty, it was the ideas of other surgeons that were favoured.

It is widely known that Cook was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1776 for his work on combating scurvy. After reading this book I now realise that Cook did not deserve that award. Cook's influence in promoting the "effectiveness" of other alleged remedies only served to confuse the situation and delay the eventual introduction of Lind's principles into the Navy; this came about in 1795 a year after Lind's death.

The book is well written and contains lots of extracts from original documents. There are extensive footnotes situated at the back of the book so as not to impede the reader's progress. There is also a comprehensive bibliography.

If you have the slightest interest in the history of scurvy and its treatment you need this upon your bookshelf.

Reviewer: Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 30, number 4 (2007).

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