Monday, June 30, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Red Madness: How a medical mystery changed what we eat by Gail Jarrow

This was an interesting, if gruesome and sometimes gross, book but I can't picture an audience for it at my library.

It's the story of an epidemic, pellagra, that swept the United States and how medical researchers finally conquered it. Pellagra was well-known, but always thought to be a European disease, probably caused by moldy corn. It was most severe in the spring, gradually wearing off until the winter arrived and the sufferer mostly recovered, only to fall ill again the next year. Symptoms included a distinctive rash on the face, hands and feet that eventually caused blistering and peeling skin, diarrhea, lassitude and exhaustion, and eventual madness and death. As doctors began to find more and more cases, especially in the South, a series of medical researchers struggled to find the causes of this horrible disease. Dr. Joseph Goldberger eventually became the main researcher, dedicated to destroying the disease that was killing thousands and condemning thousands more to misery and insanity. Eventually, after many experiments, he discovered that the disease was caused by a deficiency in diet. There wasn't enough research at the time to isolate the specific cause, but he found that pellagra could be quickly cured with the administration of Brewer's yeast and a healthy, varied diet that included lean meat, fresh milk and eggs. Unfortunately, politics, economics, and ignorance stood in his way and many more people died while Goldberger fought to prove his theory was correct and that a large number of people in the United States were suffering from malnutrition. Eventually he was proved correct and lived long enough to see the beginning of the end of the disease.

The text is interspersed with frequent stories about pellagra sufferers and original documents - letters, notes, and more. There are also numerous black and white photos, mostly of people suffering from pellagra, but also of families and life in the poor communities of the south. A question and answer section at the back summarizes the book and adds additional information about the disease and how it changed what food you eat today. There is also a glossary, timeline, additional sources for information, author's note, source notes, index, and picture credits.

As I said at the beginning, this was absolutely fascinating. Not just the details of the disease (which were pretty disgusting and I'm not much into medical stuff) but how it impacted history. For example, when they called a draft for World War II, over a quarter of the men were too malnourished to serve. It was interesting too, in light of the many arguments against additives in food to see the reasons behind some of them. It's amazing to see, in the light of all the discussions of health/healthy eating today, how these major diseases were completely eradicated - so much that nobody knows what they are (I checked - I have spent most of the last week approaching staff and randomly quizzing them, but so far nobody has ever heard of pellagra. Of course, I'm the only person from the South, which does make a difference.) However, I can't quite picture who'd I'd give this to at my library. It's not really going to interest, or be appropriate for, the average middle grade reader. The pictures of the pellagra suffers are often grotesque and the descriptions of the disease and those who suffered from it are nightmarish. Many went insane and/or committed suicide. It's also very dense text. I didn't really care for the layout of the source documents - they're separated from the main text by a red heading and a slightly different font, but unless you look really closely, they just look like they're starting a new section of the story, which makes it confusing when they end abruptly and you jump back into the main story. History can be a hard sell to this age group and while this is an interesting story, especially how science conquered a disease that had plagued people for centuries, it just doesn't have the oomph to grab their attention. It's really aimed at teen readers, but I only have two shelves of teen nonfiction and they're generally browsing things, like fashion, puberty, etc. (One last minor detail - there's a typo on page 10).

Verdict: I enjoyed reading this (if "enjoyed" is really the right word) but I wouldn't recommend it for the average public library. I think it might be of more interest in a high school library, especially if your classes study this era in history.

ISBN: 9781590787328; Published 2014 by Calkins Creek; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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