I love a good mystery.
And I was a little surprised reading Red Madness: how a medical mystery changed what we eat by Gail Jarrow that it proved to be such a good one.
It’s about a disease I had never heard of, pellagra, that plagued various people around the world but seemed to be worse in the southern states of the United States in the early 20th century.
It’s a horrendous disease that caused extreme suffering; weakness, skin rashes and blisters, gastrointestinal issues, insanity, and eventually death. The pictures included in the book are fairly arresting but not sensational and provide a very good idea about how debilitating and painful pellagra could be for those afflicted. Personal stories of ‘pellagrins’ are interspersed throughout the book that convey their suffering and helpless.
The author spins this as a medical mystery that concerned doctors for years and eventually turned into a public health issue that involved government agencies trying to figure out the cause of and cure for the disease. Along the way we learn about food production, poverty, quality of life and other social issues that related to the US transitioning into a more industrial nation.
Until an epidemiologist, Joseph Goldberger, began making scientifically controlled tests, there were several pet theories as to how pellagra proliferated and was to be cured. Goldberger’s experiments on dogs, himself, other scientists and even prisoners (informed about the tests) eventually proved that the disease was related to a deficiency found in inadequate diets. (Now I know why niacin is so important!) It was especially fascinating to read about the doctors involved and how egos contributed to slow advancements in eradicating pellagra.
Overall, a very well researched historical book that looks at the social context, health issues and implications for economically poor people of the early 1900s. An interesting book for cross-disciplinary classroom use for science and social studies for grades 6/7 and up that have implications for even today. The importance of sound science in our everyday lives is brought home with a book like this, showing how advancements in many areas not just public health, have improved our quality of life.