Tuesday, June 07, 2005
I'm amused to see that the new edition of Scurvy has had its subtitle changed from "how a surgeon, a master mariner, blah blah solved the greatest medical mystery in the Age of Sail" to "helped Britain to win the Battle of Trafalgar". Now that's a pretty good cash in on an anniversary, no?*
Anyway, this book isn't really as interesting as you might think it's going to be. It has plenty of opportunity to be interesting, given that it gets to cover
* the symptoms of scurvy (unpleasant)
* the prevailing medical theories at the time (a bit daft)
* the living and working conditions of mariners in the Great Age of Sail (appalling)
* the career of Captain James T. Cook (brilliant)
But somehow it still manages not be a very interesting story. I think the problem is that the author tries to present it as a narrative, and it doesn't make that interesting a narrative because it's a bit like once upon a time there was scurvy, and some people tried to cure it using X, but it didn't work. Then they tried to cure it using Y, but that didn't work either. Then they tried to cure it using Z, and that did work but it was too expensive to use on a daily basis, so they didn't use it. Then England went to war and decided that scurvy really needed to be cured, so they cured it. The end.
I suppose the most interesting thing about that is the notion that governments only bother their arses trying to cure fatal diseases when there's a danger that the national economy and/or security will be compromised because all of the able-bodied men and women who are working/defending the country are dropping like flies.
Hmm, I wonder if there's any comparison to be drawn between this and the HIV/AIDS epidemic? Hmm.
*This year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.