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The Journal of Military History 67.2 (2003) 557-558

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Limeys: The True Story of One Man's War against Ignorance, the Establishment, and the Deadly Scurvy. By David Harvie. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-7509-2772-0. Illustrations. Notes and references. Bibliography. Index. Pp. vi, 314. $14.99.

David I. Harvie's Limeys, while subtitled "The True Story of One Man's War against Ignorance, the Establishment, and the Deadly Scurvy," is more than just a narrative of the work of the Scottish naval surgeon James Lind, who first recommended citrus fruits as a cure for the devastating disease. It is effectually a comprehensive history of efforts to treat, prevent, and eradicate the disease. Beginning with an account of the state of naval medicine in the Age of Sail followed by a description of the malady itself, it chronicles the events leading to Lind's advocacy of citrus juice, the long struggle for official Royal Navy acceptance of its use, and the surprising renewal of controversy over its effectiveness that did not subside until the identification of Vitamin C in the twentieth century.

Key events such as Anson's circumnavigation of the globe from 1740 to 1744, in which only 600 sailors of an initial squadron complement of 2000 survived, illustrate the deadliness of the ailment, the cause of which was not understood at the time (it was commonly thought to be a venereal disease). Subsequent experimentation and observation led James Lind to recommend use of lemon juice, as well as improvements in diet and shipboard cleanliness, not only as a cure but for prevention. Unfortunately, alternative cures (such as James Cook's sauerkraut) and bureaucratic infighting delayed official [End Page 557] adoption of the prescription until the 1790s, when the well-connected Gilbert Blane successfully lobbied for its employment.

Yet why is the book called Limeys, not Lemons? Because limes were cheaper to obtain from the West Indies, and their substitution for the more potent lemons led to the Scurvy's return in the mid-nineteenth century. Circumstances were especially dire on polar expeditions, leading to a renewed debate on the disease's nature and cures, including rejection in some quarters of the use of citrus juice. Fortunately, a 1918 study by London's Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine, including a historical inquiry by Alice Henderson Smith, discovered the mistake, recognizing that in the early nineteenth century the term lime juice included that from lemons. As Harvie states: "It seems incredible that it took almost a century for anyone to realize that two different fruits were involved in the confusion" (p. 268).

Limeys tells the story of the eradication of Scurvy in such intricate but interesting detail that a concise review is inadequate. Harvie's narrative is fascinating, readable, and solidly researched from both archival and published primary sources. Students of medical as well as maritime and naval history should find it useful, but the casual reader might enjoy it as well. This informative and entertaining book is highly recommended.


Frank Kalesnik
Orange County Community College
Middletown, New York