A journey of disease and discovery, a look at scurvy with Jonathan Lamb

lambInternal bleeding, black gums, morbidly sensitive skin, even “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home—these are just some of the symptoms of the disease associated with maritime travel: scurvy. Jonathan Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy and details the medical knowledge surrounding the disease, which stems from a vitamin deficiency and is still found today. Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, the book charts a unique eighteenth-century journey of discovery. Jonathan Lamb recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

 


Why did you write a book about a disease that doesn’t trouble us anymore?

JL: Actually it does. On a trip to Easter Island I met a woman who got scurvy from dieting. A survey of North American college students discovered that 40% had levels of vitamin C below the minimum level required for good health. War veterans, recent widowers, children addicted to food lacking vitamins A, B, C and D, people caught in sieges like the citizens of Aleppo in Syria or Mount Sinjar in Iraq, they are all vulnerable. Like goiter, rickets, pellagra and beriberi, scurvy is a nutritional disease. That is to say, you don’t catch it, like ebola or bubonic plague, it lies in wait for an interruption in the ingestion of fresh food, and then inevitably (if the interruption is long enough) it makes its fatal appearance. True there are no great outbreaks such as those that killed two-thirds of the complement of George Anson’s naval squadron in the 1740s, but it does to remember that it was rife, for instance, in the penal settlements of early Australia, and on Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctic, and among the South Asian regiments of the British Army in Iraq during the First World War. Eric Newby got it sailing on a windjammer to South Australia in 1939. The symptoms of scurvy’s cousin pellagra, a staggering walk and a distracted mind, are evident in Primo Levi’s account of the so-called Muselmaenner of Auschwitz in his memoir If this is a Man.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

JL: They are divided between purely physical effects and alterations in the nervous structure of the brain. Generally scurvy begins with sensitive gums, aching joints, blood-spots and bruising of the skin that eventually ulcerate. When this happens in the mouth, the gums turn black and swell. Sailors used to call it `bullocks’ liver.’ Teeth fall out, old fractures open up, cartilage disappears from the bones, artery walls weaken, the tendons shrink, and internal bleeding begins. Soon after this breathing becomes stertorous, the heart is under pressure, brain haemorrhages will occur, and death is not far away. While this is happening the mind is affected either with stupor or with powerful hallucinations and dreams. It was generally agreed by close observers of the disease that the imagination of scorbutic patients was desperately signaling to the body to get hold of the right kind of food: chiefly green vegetables, fish and meat. Of course dreams so vivid raised powerful expectations, and when the poor sailors awoke to find none of what they needed, they were prone to weep uncontrollably. The physical symptoms were owing to loss of collagen which the body cannot restore without an adequate supply of vitamin C: basically the scaffold and hydraulic system of the body collapse. The psychological symptoms were the result of free radicals, normally scavenged by the vitamin, clogging the synapses, resulting either in extreme lethargy or a morbid sensitivity to light, texture, smells and sounds.

Since we all know now that scurvy is cured by oranges and lemons, what was going to be new about your book?

JL: The thing is everybody always knew the cure of scurvy. If you could get hold of fresh fruit, kale, onions or potatoes you would soon recover. The problem was that at sea no fresh food was available, only salt meat, flour, dried peas, raisins, oil or butter and oatmeal. You needed a medicine capable of preventing or alleviating the symptoms of eating nothing but preserved food. But of course the medicine itself had to be preserved too. Ever since the days of Hawkins and Drake it was known that the juice of lemons, limes and oranges was a powerful antiscorbutic, the trouble was how to preserve it. Boiling got rid of the vitamin; sometimes the fruit (West Indian limes for instance) was naturally low in ascorbic acid; sometimes extremes of heat and cold ruined what virtue the juice had; and sometimes wicked contractors used imperfect fruit, or blended and diluted the juice to the point where it was useless. Besides these obstacles there was no agreement among surgeons and physicians as to whether a cure for scurvy was the same as a preventive. James Lind, famous for a clinical trial proving beyond doubt that citrus juice cured scurvy, had no faith in its value as a preventive, for like many other naval physicians he believed that scurvy was caused by defective food, not by food deficient in some vital principle. That is to say he thought the disease was caught from the environment, not from a genetic mutation in humans that prevents them from synthesizing a chemical crucial to life.

Well, even if Lind got it wrong, Cook got it right and there was no more serious scurvy after they got rid of it in his voyages of discovery, was there?

JL: That is the story that is generally told, but it is not quite true. On his three voyages to the Pacific scurvy occurred, but never fatally. Cook ran his ships with exemplary care for hygiene, warmth, dry clothes, clean air and regular stops for refreshment, and on top of that he was carrying a host of preserved dietary supplements that he hoped would keep scurvy at bay, including lime juice. He had a low opinion of the juice, privately favouring sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and spruce beer (fermented malt sharpened with pine needles and bark). But nutritional politics played a large part in his official endorsement of malt wort, the brainchild of a physician called David MacBride who was patronized by powerful people. Malt was easily concentrated, and it was a lot cheaper than citrus juice, and so it received official backing and was used well into the 19th century, even though it had no antiscorbutic value whatsoever. Many historians think Cook contributed to postponing the reforms of Nelson’s navy by forty years. From 1795 onwards Gilbert Blane saw to it that every sailor in the British Fleet drank an ounce of concentrated lime-juice per day, to which was owing the health of British seamen during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hence `limeys,’ the derogatory name applied by American sailors to their British cousins.

So that was that, end of story?

JL: Not really. You see these were all either theoretical or empirical solutions to the problem of scurvy. MacBride for instance considered that scurvy was a shortage of air in the body, and he believed that malt released carbon dioxide into the organs, ventilating them. Thomas Beddoes had a similar theory about oxygen. Thomas Trotter on the other hand, physician to the Channel Fleet in the early 1790s, said the only treatment of scurvy worthy the name was based on observation and experience, and strongly advocated lime-juice as both a preventive and a cure, although he thought its acidic qualities might corrode the mucus tissue and the stomach lining. But none of these men knew for sure what it was in air or lime-juice that caused them to prevent or cure scurvy. However they were agreed that the body needed more from food than carbohydrates and protein.

They were getting closer to the truth, weren’t they?

JL: Yes, in a way, although the best investigators of scurvy in the 17th century had reached the same conclusion. Those who had a theory of deficient food were on the right track, while those who thought scurvy was caused poisoned by spoilt supplies were wrong. However, it was the latter school that was destined to triumph in the latter part of the 19th century. A series of disastrous expeditions to the Arctic were to blame, beginning with Franklin’s where the evidence pointed to tainted cans of meat as responsible for the first stage of the tragedy. A few years later Nares’s expedition was afflicted with scurvy even though a copious amount of preserved lime juice was distributed among the crew. It was even observed that the symptoms of scurvy worsened as more of the juice was consumed. It was not long before an influential physician, Sir Almoth Wright, instituted a germ theory of scurvy that dominated medical thinking until the discovery of vitamin C in 1933. Captain Scott referred to sealmeat as an `antidote’ to the ptomaine poisoning he believed damaged cans of meat were causing among his men.

And that is the story, right?

JL: I wasn’t sure it was. Scurvy was regarded as a shameful disease, associated with dirt and malingering and horrid to watch and smell. The French historian of smell, Alain Corbin, says that in the catalogue of noisome diseases, scurvy was far and away the worst. The most frequent testimony coming out of the experience of scurvy is that it was hard to say what it was like to have it, and that it was impossible to describe the condition of those suffering from it. So you will often find commanders and doctors trying to cover up its presence, usually by calling it something else, such as rheumatism, dysentery, typhus or erysipelas. It is common to find surgeons reporting that their scorbutic patients recovered nicely after they had been dosed with malt—either a mistake or a lie. In 1834 at the penal settlement of Port Arthur half the convicts were showing signs of the disease, 19 were in the last stages of scorbutic decline in the hospital, yet only a single death from scurvy was reported for the whole year. It is hard to find pictures of scorbutic bodies and with the exception of Thomas Trotter’s books on naval medicine, there are very few closely observed accounts of its progress. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said scurvy was a matter for `shocking calculation’ why were accounts of it so coy or misleading? Here there was truly a `secret history’ to uncover.

You are a professor literature. Has scurvy anything to do with your specialism?

JL: Yes it does. There is a genre of utopian fiction that weaves stories around outbreaks of scurvy. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis begins with scorbutic English sailors being cured with blood oranges; Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville uses Bougainville’s experience of the same thing at Tahiti as the basis of fantasy about an island of free love, very similar in its outline to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Gabriel Francois Coyer wrote a supplement to Anson’s voyage, turning a tale of a stricken crew landing at a verdant island into the discovery of a civilization devoted to idle forms of artifice, breeding horses too delicate to ride, growing fruits that are beautifully coloured but inedible, and amusing themselves with operas and romances. Bernardin de St Pierre’s famous novel, Paul et Virginie, is an exquisite pastoral tale set on Mauritius which the author first reached when his nerves were so disordered by scurvy he found every shrub, tree, animal and bird on the island repellent. A fascinating story to come out of Cook’s second voyage is called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, and tells the story of the alleged eleventh man in the Adventure’s cutter whose crew were cut off by Maori while in search of antiscorbutic herbs, then killed and eaten. Bowman’s travels take him to nations that each cultivate a sense well beyond the degree of gross normality: one whose citizens can see in the dark, another where they enjoy extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and lastly one where responsiveness to touch is so exquisite it has carried sexual pleasure to a new height. There is a unique pattern in this fiction, for each story is fashioned out of two versions of the same story, modeled on the succumbing to scurvy and the recovery from it, where inexpressible pains are transformed into wonderful delights. So there you are, scorbutic fiction—a newly discovered genre.

Jonathan Lamb is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Things Things Say (Princeton) and The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century. His most recent book is Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery.

Presenting the trailer for Virus by Marilyn Roossinck

Virus by Marilyn Roossinck is your go-to guide to the fascinating world of viruses. This stunningly illustrated reference work offers an unprecedented look at 101 microbes that infect all branches of life on Earth—from humans and other animals to insects, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Check out our new trailer for an introduction:

 

 

VirusMarilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

A closer look at Zika

RoossinckThroughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Zika has been a reality for months, and now the continental United States is beginning to feel the impact. Given the potential for devastating birth defects, concern about rampant spread of the disease has been significant in recent months. Many experts now say Zika probably won’t spread in Rio this month, and transmission in the U.S. is likely to be offset by mosquito control. And yet, much remains unknown about the disease.

In Virus by Marilyn J. Roossinck, forthcoming later this month, the Zika virus is described as a linear, single component, single-stranded RNA of about 11,000 nucleotides, encoding ten proteins via a polyprotein. It is in the flaviviridae family and the flavivirus genus and tends to proliferate in tropical and subtropical climates south of the equator. Transmitted via mosquitos, it finds hosts in humans and other primates. Associated diseases include a mild fever and rash, with possible links to microcephaly and Guillain Barre syndrome. We do not yet have a vaccine.

Zika was first discovered in a Rhesus monkey and in mosquitos during routine surveillance of the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947 and 1948. The first human case of Zika was described in 1952, and over the course of the next few decades cases were seen in parts of central Africa, and later in Asia. Zika reached Brazil in 2015.

In the image below, Zika virus particles are in infected cells, viewed via transmission electron microscopy. The structured virus particles are colored in blue. Like other related viruses, the membrane proteins form a geometric structure.

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Zika, p. 95

Virus by Marilyn Roossinck takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the history and current research on known viruses from around the world.

Marilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Even celebrities misquote Albert Einstein

Calaprice_QuotableEinstein_pb_cvrAlice Calaprice is the editor of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a tome mentioned time and again in the media because famous folks continue to attribute words to Einstein that, realistically, he never actually said. Presidential candidates, reality stars, and more have used social media make erroneous references to Einstein’s words, perhaps hoping to give their own a bit more credibility. From the Grapevine recently compiled the most recent misquotes of Albert Einstein by public figures and demonstrated how easy it is to use The Ultimate Quotable Einstein to refute those citations:

Albert Einstein was a wise man, even outside the science laboratory. He has inspired painters, young students and comic book creators. Even budding romantics take advice from him.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that so many people today quote Einstein. Or, to be more precise, misquote Einstein.

“I believe they quote Einstein because of his iconic image as a genius,” Alice Calaprice, an Einstein expert, tells From The Grapevine. “Who would know better and be a better authority than the alleged smartest person in the world?”

Read more here.

 

Happy Birthday to Nikola Tesla

j9941Nikola Tesla was born on this day in 1856. Here are 10 facts from Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson:

1. Tesla has two meanings in Serbian: it can refer to a small ax called an adze or to a person with protruding teeth, a common characteristic of people in Nikola Tesla’s family.

2. The night Tesla was born there was a severe thunderstorm. The fearful midwife said, “He’ll be a child of the storm.” His mother responded, “No, of light.”

3. Initially Tesla wanted to be a teacher, but he switched to engineering in his second year at Joanneum Polytechnic School in order to work on building a spark-free motor.

4. One of his favorite hobbies was card-playing and gambling. “To sit down to a game of cards, was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”

5. When Tesla came to New York for the first time after living in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, he was shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of Americans.

6. In 1886, Tesla was abandoned by his business partners and could not find work—he took a job digging ditches to get by. A patent he filed that year for thermomagnetic motor helped him get back on his feet.

7. In April of 1887, he formed the Tesla Electric Company with his two business partners, Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. His first lab was located in New York’s financial district.

8. Mark Twain was a good friend of Tesla’s.

9. Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He treated it by administering electroshock therapy to himself.

10. Tesla told a reporter that he did not want to marry because he thought it would compromise his work. He did not have any known relationships with women.

If you would like to learn more, you can preview the introduction of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

#MammothMonday: What’s Next?

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In today’s #MammothMonday exclusive video, Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction, raises big questions about cloning technology and explains how she feels this controversial technology should be used.

[vimeo:https://vimeo.com/123646254]

You can also listen to Shapiro’s interview on NPR from this past weekend, where she discussed the motivations for bringing back an extinct species, along with some of the specific risks involved with releasing genetically engineered elephants into the wild.

Read Chapter 1, here.

#MammothMonday: How Does the Science of De-Extinction Work?

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Happy #MammothMonday! Today, Beth Shapiro clarifies the science of de-extinction. As she explains, if scientists possess a tiny bit of living tissue from a species that has gone extinct recently, they can bring back that animal through traditional means. However, if the species has been extinct for millions of years and there is no living tissue, the process of bringing the animal back to life is far more difficult. Beth had a terrific piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently that offers much more info, and geneticists have been sounding off on the discussion as well. Check out today’s original video:

[vimeo:https://vimeo.com/123646252]

Read about de-extinction, in How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction. Preview Chapter 1.

#MammothMonday: Could We Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon?

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Just days ago, scientists were finally successful in sequencing the full mammoth genome. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth offered commentary on this exciting and ethically controversial achievement. According to the BBC News, “A US team is already attempting to study the animals’ characteristics by inserting mammoth genes into elephant stem cells.”

For today’s #MammothMonday, Beth Shapiro expresses her doubts and concerns about bringing back the passenger pigeon, pointing out the unique difficulties involved in cloning a bird. Learn more about Shapiro’s reasoning in the video below.

[vimeo:https://vimeo.com/123646253]

Be sure to pick up a copy of How to Clone a Mammoth. You can read Chapter 1, here. Interested in learning more about passenger pigeons? Check out The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller. Read the Introduction.

Beth Shapiro at Kepler’s

Shapiro at Kelper's

Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, has begun her book tour across the US and the UK. Last Thursday, April 16, Beth had a wonderful event at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, where she gave an overview of her intriguing book and fielded questions from the audience. We are featuring content related to How to Clone a Mammoth every Monday on our blog as part of our #MammothMonday series. Be sure to read the first chapter and pick up a copy of the book.

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#MammothMonday: Can We Clone a Mammoth?

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In today’s #MammothMonday post, Beth Shapiro addresses a frequently asked question, “Can we clone a mammoth, if so when is it going to happen?”  In answering, Shapiro brings up a crucial point: What is the audience willing to consider a mammoth? Find out her answer and learn more about How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction in this video:

[vimeo:https://vimeo.com/123645248]

Be sure to read Chapter 1.

#MammothMonday: What to Bring Back?

How to Clone a Mammoth

Welcome to another #MammothMonday. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, was recently called by Brian Switek of National Geographic, “the perfect guide to the ongoing discussion about de-extinction.” Today, she continues in that role, answering the question, “What to Bring Back?” In this fascinating video, Beth discusses the thinking behind the decision to bring back a large mammal as opposed to passenger pigeons.

[vimeo:http://vimeo.com/123644108]

What do you think about the debate around cloning mammoths?