Bookshelf / Scurvy


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


"Only through the growing weight of shipboard experience, plus the efforts of a few influential naval officers, did bad theory give way to sound practice, and scurvy begin to vanish from the sailor's life. Today it is consigned largely to the pages of history—none more informative and readable than those of Stephen Bown."

– Natural History Magazine

"a swift and powerful geopolitical portrait, with scurvy as protagonist. Conquest of navies and of nations relied on taming the illness, the author writes, arguing deftly that America's War for Independence and Napoleon's campaign of conquest pivoted on the plight of scurvy-ridden ships."

– Dallas Morning News

"Bown is a meticulous researcher and a gripping storyteller. He not only delves into the fascinating turns in science and military history, but he puts the disease's origins and treatments in a social and political perspective."

– Canadian Geographic

"Bown really hits his stride with this one, weaving a tale of medical discovery into a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas that deserves to give the reigning king of the romance of science genre, Simon Winchester, a good run for his money."

– Toronto Star

"The author tells this remarkable story with the skill of a master mariner alternatively marshalling a mix of great characters and historical fact to ably navigate the mystery of Scurvy along."

– Globe And Mail

"A spirited, stimulating account of how the cure for the feared disease was found, lost, and found again. ... Splendid popular history."

– Kirkus Reviews

"This is one fabulous, accessible look at the history of seafaring' ... 'rarely were tales of naval surgeons and the British Admiralty so fascinating"

– The Herald Sun (Melbourne)

"For those interested in naval matters this is an interesting insight into the problems of disease on board ship, and the way in which the problem was solved. For the Napoleonic scholar it provides the forgotten weapon of the British Navy, a view of how the naval war was won, not just by better gunnery and the Nelson Touch but by the improvements in the care of the common sailor"

– Keith Oliver, Research Officer, Napoleonic Association (UK) Sept 2003

"Stephen Bown has written the definitive history of Scurvy. He tells a fascinating story with aplomb:"

– Derek Lundy, author of The Way of a Ship Sept 2003

"if one ventures a modest extrapolation of Bown's argument about how scurvy affected history, it would not be too wild to suggest that had not the gum-rotting scourge so enfeebled the British Navy in the latter years of the 18th century, we'd be looking at a very different map of North America today."

– Peter Black Log Cabin Chronicles

"this fascinating book describes the agonies of sailors through the centuries in the throes of that debilitating (at best) and lethal (at worst) malaise which baffled men of medicine and of science until the turn of the eighteenth century."
"Bown's book takes us through the hard truth about losses and sufferings, the science applied to analysis of the disease and the cure of the moment, through politics and the pressures on those seeking to alleviate the problem. It sheds light on the life and times of the seamen of yore and is an absorbing read."

– The National Maritime Museum (UK)

"Bown has produced a book that is as nauseating and infuriating in its depiction of the living conditions of sailors and the diseases they suffered as it is inspiring in its account of how dedicated individuals struggled to understand and defeat Scurvy, a malady that killed more mariners between 1600 and 1800 than all shipwrecks and battles combined."

– Press-Republican

"a fascinating 250-page account of how the British finally unlocked the key to the disease, just in time to turn the course of history."

– Rocky Mountain Outlook

"One of those 'dangerous' but excellent bedside books that you can easily find yourself reading for far too long in the evening."

– M2 Best Books (UK)

"With a talent for delivering science and history with clarity and enthusiasm, Bown documents the ravages of Scurvy (a degradation of connective tissue that results from a deficiency in ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C) through the age of sail-from the ships of Vasco da Gama in 1497, to the disastrous outbreaks that plagued the British navy until the late 1700s."

– SEE Magazine (Edmonton)

"Bown certainly has an effective way of rolling out the clues, details and developments and he does so with research that's simply exhaustive."

– CD Syndicated (Vancouver)

"Rolling along at a jaunty, adventuresome pace, Scurvy articulately chronicles a story centuries-long with nary a wasted word."

– Calgary Herald

"a dandy whodunit with lots of familiar characters, including our friend James Cook."

– Toronto Star

"Bown's dramatic story of the hidden history of the great age of sail is a fascinating acquisition for most libraries."

– Library Journal

"the definitive history of the "sailor's disease"

– Ottawa Life Magazine

"Bown tells the story well, and he presents a vivid picture of life aboard ship during the age of sail-brutal captains; dangerous work; rotting food; filthy, overcrowded living quarters; and the ultimate horror, scurvy."

– Publishers' Weekly

"The defeat of Napoleon's navy at Trafalgar was the pinnacle of success for the British navy under Nelson. Bown argues convincingly that this remarkable achievement was possible because the greatest medical mystery of the Age of Sail had been solved."

– Halifax Herald

"This book is wonderful history, but reads like a thriller."

– YBW-Books (UK)

"For those who like true-life medical history adventure tales, it's quite a yarn . . . Bown tells his tale with credible restraint aided by admirable research. "

– National Post

"Scurvy is superior popular history."

– The Age (Australia)

"Combining maritime, medical and exploration history, Bown's book has something for everyone."

– The Age (Australia)

"Another of those wonderful and informative books about little known facts which have changed the world. This is a fascinating one."

– Ballarat Courier

"Highly recommended, this is a medical mystery story without equal and a grand read."

– Esprit de Corps Magazine

"Some earlier mariners had learned that lemon juice cured scurvy, but no one in authority realized it could prevent it, too. It took the successive labors, over the course of 60 years, of surgeon James Lind, explorer James Cook, and aristocrat (and also physician) Gilbert Blane to force acknowledgment that scurvy was preventable. Bown's fluent history shows that medicine of the time wasn't yet experimental and analytic, or even materialistic, but still sought spiritual or essential reasons for disease."

– Booklist

"A good old yarn: a proper mix of military might, medical methodology and dietary deficiency . . . It is hard to imagine the cure of another disease offering such far-reaching political change."

– The Medical Post

"The solving of this medical mystery makes a great sea yarn and adds a refreshing spin to the age of exploration."

– Albany Democrat-Herald

"In writing that is fast on its feet, Bown introduces both drama and incredulity into the mix. . . . Bown describes how the disease played a significant role in international affairs, particularly the outcomes of the Americsn Revolution and the defeat of the French navy by the British in the late 18th century in this splendid, popular telling of the scurvy story."

– American Geographical Society

"During the eighteenth century, medicine had advanced little from the Dark Ages; there were few cures for anything. Bown's fascinating biography of that maritime age tells of two doctors and Captain James Cook--all sailing against prevailing winds--and how their contributions led to a cure for a common mariners--disease of the time, scurvy. "

– Audiofile Magazine

"What disease killed more sailors than all sea battles combined and who found the cure? Scurvy, a medical detective book, answers those questions and more. Bown begins his story back in the sixteenth century with stories of the men who didn't know what scurvy was and died on the sailing ships as a result of it. A horrible disease by all accounts and one with a huge impact on history. Bown also tells you who James Lind, James Cook and Gilbert Blane are and how the surgeon, the mariner, and the gentlemen worked individually to eliminate scurvy. This book would appeal to a wide range of individuals from anyone interested in the medical history of scurvy to those interested in war history or sailing."

– Science Advisory Board

"THE AGE OF SCURVY is a gripping book and a bargain, full of adventure, big events and human nature at its best and worst."

– New Scientist (UK)

"A deft historian, Bown weaves the influence of scurvy into the telling of Napoleon's defeat . . . [Scurvy] can be taken as a parable, the story of humble empiricism triumphant over the arrogant posturings of medical theory."

– Journal of Clinical Investigation