Red Madness

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Calkins Creek

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. 

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book or how much it has benefited me in my classes at school (although, one unfortunate side effect of that was that I became known as “the pellagra girl” for a while in my AP US History class). I’d never even heard of this disease, however, it is a really integral part of US history from after the Civil War to after WWII.

Why is the Southern US famous for insane asylums? Pellagra

Why is bread enriched? Pellagra

Why is testing on prisoners illegal? Pellagra

Why are orphanages going out of style? Pellagra

Why are people in group homes (orphanages, asylums, jails, etc) fed better food? Pellagra

It’s a really interesting book and very easy to read (for non-fiction that is) and it gives a great look into the history of the US. The disease affected a lot more than you would think, and there is a lot of social, economical, and political history tied up in it too (for example: the disease was most common in the south and it had a “poor people’s disease” connotation, so that heated up post Civil War North/South tensions).

My one complaint is how uneven the pacing was. There were times that it drug by way too slowly and times that it seemed to go way too face.

Trigger Warning

Some of the photos are a bit graphic and there are some pretty intense descriptions. None of it bothered me, but then again I’m the girl who read an autopsy report during lunch. Some people might be a bit freaked out, but I doubt there is anything that would truly bother most people. If gross things aren’t up your alley, you may want to check out a different book.

Don’t google Pellagra to decide if it’s too graphic for you or not. I can almost guarantee that anything that comes up on google is much worse than anything that you’ll see in the book (such is the internet).


If you like US history you should read this book. If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, then this book is right up your alley. If you put the two together you get a great look at changes and developments in US healthcare from the Civil War to modern times. Personally, I would love to see this turned into a documentary series.

Don’t let the fact that it’s non-fiction scare you off. It’s not a text book, its a book that’s written for average people to read. There’s an index (but I don’t think you’ll need it too much) and everything is well explained.


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