Monthly Archives: May 2017

On the Scurvy

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here, and I’m sorry for that. Blame it on a very busy life, which can’t be all bad! First, a new grandbaby, born on the Ides of March, to our younger son and his wife, both in the Foreign Service, who had to come home from their posting in Azerbaijan for the happy event. Needless to say, we visited them in Baku last year – a very interesting place worth a post (but in a different blog, for sure!). The past couple of years have also seen me as Commander of the San Francisco Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States, the oldest – and a preeminent – U.S. naval history society.  My command tenure will end in December, and I’m already looking forward to doing some more writing and blogging. Here’s the first salvo—

In January, quite by chance, I came across a New York Review advertisement for a then new book, Scurvy – the Disease of Discovery by Vanderbilt University humanities chair Jonathan Lamb (Princeton University Press, 2017). I quickly added it to my Kindle library, and there, by and large, it has sat. While Professor Lamb does give an up to date description of our current scientific understanding of the cause and pathophysiology of the affliction (well known now to be due to a dietary shortage of ascorbic acid, which by some genetic fluke, humans lost the ability to synthesize many millennia ago), the book has been a slow slog for me. That’s because, at least as far as I’ve gotten into it, it’s really a history of the (non-medical) literature about the disease, made up of descriptions of the horrors of scurvy (and, strangely the “wonders” of it, too) by sufferers and observers from the 15th century forward. The author also makes some interesting side trips into, say, the history of the philosophy of science as it relates to the (mis)understanding(s) of the disease in the centuries leading up to our only relatively recent scientific insights. So far, I’m really disappointed by the author’s treatment of the history of the development of that understanding. His research on this matter seems pretty much limited to the British literature (the Dutch, French and perhaps others DID write about the disease) by way of reruns of the venerable Keevil / Lloyd & Coulter multivolume history of medicine in the Royal Navy. So nothing new here.

I plan to write a more thorough review – if ever I can successfully grind my way all the way through – really: this book is hard work! In the nonce, if any reader wishes to put forward a review earlier than that (whenever it might happen), feel free to send it to me and I’ll happily – even eagerly – post it, with appropriate attribution of course.