Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, May 12, 2014

Red Madness by Gail Jarrow

Red Madness: how a medical mystery changed what we eat
by Gail Jarrow
Calkins Creek. 2014
ISBN: 9781590787328
Grades 7 to 12
I checked a copy of this book out from my local public library.

There was a time in U.S. history when the flour and cereals that were consumed were not fortified with Niacin (B3). In this superior nonfiction title,  Gail Jarrow shares a medical mystery of how doctors worked round the clock for years (1902-1938) to try and figure out the cause of this mysterious disease called pellagra and their race to find a cure. Organized chronologically, the book begins on March 1902 with the first documented case of pellagra and ends with discovery of vitamin P-P  (nicotinic acid) in 1937 by Conrad Elvehjem and the decision by the government in 1938 to begin enriching flour with B-complex vitamins - nicotinic acid, thiamin, and riboflavin.

Pellagra was caused by poor diet. It affected people who were poor, often farmers and mill workers, who could not afford fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and animal protein. Instead, what they ate was the 3-M diet: biscuits, cornmeal, corn grits, and molasses syrup.  Pellagra left people weak and disfigured. In the final stages of the disease came insanity and death. In 1914, Mississippi had 11,000 pellagra cases, and more than 1 in 10 pellagrins died.

This book is well researched. Jarrow weaves descriptions from actual cases taken from public health reports, newspapers, and studies from that time throughout the chapters. Black & white photos are plentiful, some showing the individuals stricken with the horrible disease. Back matter includes frequently asked questions about pellagra, glossary, a timeline, a bibliography of websites, source notes, bibliography, and index. In the author's notes, Jarrow shares the steps taken in researching and writing her book. 

Read a review with the author at SLJ

The complexity of the text and the many historical details that are woven in the book make this an excellent read for high school students studying American history. Pair it with Jim Murphy's An American Plague: the true and terrifying story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 or Outbreak: plagues that changed history by Bryn Barnard, 

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