Monday, May 5, 2014

NONFICTION MONDAY: Red Madness by Gail Jarrow


One hundred years ago, a mysterious and alarming illness spread across America’s South, striking tens of thousands of victims. No one knew what caused it or how to treat it. People were left weak, disfigured, insane, and in some cases, dead. Award-winning science and history writer Gail Jarrow tracks this disease, commonly known as pellagra, and highlights how doctors, scientists, and public health officials finally defeated it. Illustrated with 100 archival photographs, Red Madness includes stories about real-life pellagra victims and accounts of scientific investigations. It concludes with a glossary, timeline, further resources, author’s note, bibliography, and index.


I found the book to be quite fascinating.  I'd heard of pellagra before but I didn't know any of the details.  I had no idea that those who developed it had such severe symptoms leading for some to eventual death. And the solution was relatively simple and yet it took so long to find it.  And when it was found it took even longer to convince some doctors that the solution was correct. Sigh. Human beings can be so stubborn sometimes! 

The author does a nice job of tracking the disease from its first recorded appearance in the U.S. to the changes made that pretty much eliminated the disease (at least in the U.S.).  She makes the story more personal by sharing the experiences of individuals and the various results ranging from death to a yearly affliction.  Some of the cures sounded worse than the disease, I mean, arsenic? strychnine? Thank goodness we've learned a lot since then.

I have to say though that the photographs the author included in the book are particularly powerful.  The nasty rash that the clearest symptom of the disease shines through clearly even in black and white photographs.  

A great read for those who enjoy real life mysteries and people who solve them.

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