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Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat

Review

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat

For the first two decades of the 20th century, thousands of people in the United States were infected with an unknown disease. The disease caused severe diarrhea, fatigue, skin rashes, and in some cases, insanity. Many of the infected died, some a short time after they became infected; others suffered for years. A scientist named Francesco Frapoli originally called it pelle agra, which means “sour skin” in Italian. The name was later changed to pellagra.
 
What was this strange illness and where did it come from? In 1915, Dr. Joseph Goldberger finally solved the mystery --- he said it was caused by poor nutrition, specifically diets with little animal protein. As a result, the USDA started adding B-complex vitamins, niacin, thiamin and riboflavin to foods that aren’t naturally rich in pellagra-fighting compounds, like bread and cereal. The disease is virtually unheard of today.
 
An excellent source for anyone wanting to learn more about this mysterious malady. 
 
In RED MADNESS, author Gail Jarrow does an exhaustive study on this relatively unknown illness. She includes excerpts from newspapers, quotes from prominent doctors of the time period, copies of ads for medicines touted to “cure” pellagra, case studies of those affected by it and lots of photos. The book also includes a list of frequently asked questions about pellagra, a glossary, a timeline, an author’s note and more. 
 
This is an excellent source for anyone wanting to learn more about this mysterious malady. It is well-written, but I give it only a 4-out-of-5 star rating for several reasons: (1) I found a typo. That’s not a big deal, but it was rather unexpected, especially as I found it within the first few pages of the text. (2) The text is printed on shiny white paper, mostly black type on a plain white background. That’s fine, but in parts of the book, the text is white and printed on either a black or a red background. I found that a bit difficult to read as the combination creates a glare on the page. (3) I found the subject matter to be very interesting, and the author did a great job of presenting the story chronologically. However, I thought some of it was repetitive and could have been cut from the text.
 
If you’re curious about pellagra and want to learn more about it, this is certainly a go-to book to find answers.

Reviewed by Christine Irvin on April 9, 2014

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat
by Gail Jarrow