Reading progress update: Chapters 1 & 2

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History - Jay Burreson, Penny Le Couteur

As a heads up, I am still really enjoying the book. 


Chapter 1 dealt with the spice trade and focused on the importance of peppers, nutmeg, and cloves - but mainly nutmeg. 


Not all of the information in this chapter was new to me, but enough of it was new to make it interesting and I liked how the spices were tied to the voyages of discovery as well as the rise of colonialism and the competition between the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company. 


I also enjoyed learning about eugenol and isoeugenol:

Plants do not produce these highly scented molecules for our benefit. As they cannot retreat from grazing animals, from sap-sucking and leaf-eating insects, or from fungal infestations, plants protect themselves with chemical warfare involving molecules such as eugenol and isoeugenol, as well as piperine, capsaicin, and zingerone. These are natural pesticides—very potent molecules. Humans can consume such compounds in small amounts since the detoxification process that occurs in our livers is very efficient. While a massive dose of a particular compound could theoretically overpower one of the liver’s many metabolic pathways, it’s reassuring to know that ingesting enough pepper or cloves to do this would be quite difficult. Even at a distance from a clove tree, the wonderful smell of eugenol is apparent. The compound is found in many parts of the plant, in addition to the dried flower buds that we’re familiar with. As long ago as 200 B.C., in the time of the Han dynasty, cloves were used as breath sweeteners for courtiers in the Chinese imperial court. Oil of clove was valued as a powerful antiseptic and a remedy for toothache. It is still sometimes used as a topical anesthetic in dentistry.

There is a section where the author describes that nutmeg has been used in the middle ages as a "cure" for the plague. Whereas in a previous Flat Book pick, this section would probably have been exploited for its myth and shock value, the other in this book quite calmly points out that the spice itself may have little to do with the reputation as a cure, but that in addition to its insecticidal qualities, people who could afford to buy the spice may also have lived in some distance from crowded cities, and may just have not been exposed to rats and other plague victims. 


I liked that balancing comment by the author. 


Chapter 2 focused on ascorbic acid - Vitamin C. 


I loved it. I was shocked to learn how long it took for people to recognise and accept the link between fresh food - especially fruit and veg - and scurvy. 


I found it staggering that, according to the authors, R.F. Scott didn't believe in the link between lemon juice (as used by the navy) and the absence of scurvy and may have fated his expedition because of it 


I also found this quite shocking (emphasis in bold is mine):

Because of expense and inconvenience, naval officers, physicians, the British admiralty, and shipowners could see no way of growing sufficient greens or citrus fruit on heavily manned vessels. Precious cargo space would have to be used for this purpose. Fresh or preserved citrus fruit was expensive, especially if it was to be allocated daily as a preventive measure. Economy and the profit margin ruled—although, in hindsight, it does seem that this was a false economy. Ships had to be manned above capacity to allow for a 30, 40 or even 50 percent death rate from scurvy. Even without a high death rate, the effectiveness of a crew suffering from scurvy would have been remarkably low. And then there was the humane factor—rarely considered during these centuries.

 That is a lot of loss of lives for profit, for the sake of a small dose of Vitamin C.