- Limeys: The True Story of One Man's War against Ignorance, the Establishment, and the Deadly Scurvy
David Harvie is a freelance film editor and writer, with an apparent penchant for bombastic subtitles. His book is a biography of James Lind, and a history of scurvy that takes the story well beyond Lind. That story is mostly a familiar one: Technological progress made it possible in the Renaissance for sailors to stay away from land long enough to become vitamin C-deprived, and suddenly scurvy, a disease difficult to locate in the works of ancient physicians, became a commonplace scourge of the seamen and explorers. Vasco da Gama may have [End Page 717] lost as many as 100 of his 160 men to the affliction in his epic 1498 voyage, but the Spanish expedition that first circumnavigated the globe, the Dutch in the East Indies, the English in the West Indies, and French explorers of North America were all similarly scarred by scurvy's symptoms—symptoms that run progressively from listlessness, through dry skin and skin lesions, to purplish gums, tooth loss, the opening of old wounds, and death.
All of these indications were manifest in the four-year (1740-44) circumnavigation by British commodore George Anson on a mission against Spanish shipping in the Pacific. Of the 2,000 men who sailed with him, 1,400 died, mostly of scurvy; worse, of the more than 1,000 who did not get separated from Anson and made it into the Pacific, only 145 returned. But Anson had captured a treasure galleon, and in that less-than-tenderhearted age the expedition was pronounced a success and he a hero. In fact, Anson was subsequently appointed first lord of the Admiralty, and in turn he appointed Lind, who was much impressed with the Anson disaster, chief physician at the Haslar naval hospital—the largest such hospital in the world.
At least one reason for that appointment was Lind's 1753 book, A Treatise on the Scurvy, in which he described a shipboard experiment conducted six years earlier that tested a claim that cider was effective against scurvy. Lind divided scorbutic sailors into six groups: one group was given citrus fruits, another cider, and the others were given a variety of substances regarded as possible scurvy cures. Citrus was the clear winner in what some have called the first controlled clinical trial in the history of medicine.
Lind revised his Treatise, wrote two other important (and well-received) books on naval hygiene (1762) and tropical medicine (1768), and perfected a system of seawater distillation; credit for that invention went to another, but Lind was acknowledged as the man who freed the Royal Navy from typhus. Ironically, however, such recognition did not extend to scurvy—at least not during his lifetime: Harvie shows that Lind suffered much Admiralty opposition, or at least indifference, to his ideas about the disease, so that nearly a half-century elapsed before the juice of limes or lemons was made a part of the daily regimen of the sailors of the Royal Navy, and fifty more years went by before those in the Merchant Navy could fairly be called "limeys."
The study continues with the scurvy outbreaks that took place during the Gold Rush and Arctic and Antarctic explorations, and provides an interesting sidelight on Rose's Lime Juice, originally intended as a scurvy preventive. It finishes with the relatively recent fascination of Linus Pauling with vitamin C.
Like any book, this one has some problems. One is partisanship: Lind is clearly the author's hero, and consequently Captain James Cook, who rejected Lind's views but always managed to provide his men with the best in hygiene and victuals, is dismissed as irrelevant—or even an obstructionist—in the struggle against scurvy. Another difficulty is a "present-mindedness" that affords the author some considerable latitude for criticizing events and individuals in centuries past. And another—this...