Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat

by Gail Jarrow

A compelling account of a real-world medical mystery in the early twentieth century... read more

A compelling account of a real-world medical mystery in the early twentieth century chronicles efforts to determine the cause of pellagra, a debilitating and often deadly disease marked by a red, scaly rash, digestive problems, and mental deterioration, as well as eventual death. Most prevalent in the United States among the poor in the South, it went from relative obscurity to a major public health crisis. Moldy corn and germs were two commonly blamed culprits when Joseph Goldberger was assigned to investigate the cause. Goldberger, a meticulous observer and researcher, eventually theorized pellagra was the result of a dietary deficiency. Again and again he conducted experiments and found evidence supporting his theory — and refuting others — but there was incredible resistance among politicians, doctors, and others in the south, because Goldberger’s theory projected an aura of poverty. Goldberger turned to self-experimentation as he and other researchers set out to prove once and for all that pellagra could not be transmitted from person to person. A fascinating — and at times queasy — read about a disease that has changed the way we eat: The deficiency (nicotinic acid) is why so many packaged foods today are enriched with niacin and B vitamins. A few unfortunate design decisions aside (occasional pages of white on red are difficult to read), this is an intriguing look at the intersection of science and social science. Black-and-white photographs illustrate the volume. (Age 12 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2015

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