James Lind and the Mafia

March 24, 2022


mins read

Last year we wrote about our namesake James Lind and the ‘first clinical trial’, where Lind discovered that oranges and lemons were the cure for the sailor’s curse of scurvy. Prior to this, it’s estimated that scurvy killed 2 million sailors in the time between Columbus’ famous voyage and the start of the industrial revolution.

But the story doesn’t end there. This clinical trial led to the formation of the mafia. Fortunately, Lind didn’t stop doctoring to join the mob - though pictured above is what he might look like if he had. But he did help create it. Here’s how…

Step 1 - demand for lemons

If you’ve read our previous blog post then it won’t come as a surprise that Lind’s discovery led to an explosion in demand for citrus fruit from naval powers worldwide. The UK, European countries, and the US - all without lemon agriculture of their own - suddenly needed an abundant supply of this previously luxury commodity.

Step 2 - Sicily has lemons

Sicily has grown lemons since the 11th century, initially shipped in by Arabic conquers from North Africa. Lemon trees thrived and by 1800 Sicily had become “a vast lemon juice factory”. Sicily quickly became the largest exporter of lemons worldwide and made the producers of these lemons a lot of money.

Step 3 - Sicily doesn’t have security

19th century Sicily was a highly unequal society with what could only be called a relatively weak rule of law. Bandits, extortion and theft were commonplace.

In 1860 this was compounded when Sicily was invaded by the mainland (“unified”). This led to the sale of Church and state land and proliferation of smaller landowners, most of whom decided to get into the lemon business.

These citrus farmers resorted to armed guards to protect their valuable lemons. Those that couldn’t afford guards either became the victims of brigands or paid protection money to local enforcement groups (voluntarily or not, the MO hasn’t really changed).

Result - the mafia

So here we have the perfect cocktail of booming demand for lemons + concentrated supply from Sicily + weak rule of law. The result of all of this was the creation of the mafia. Some very clever people have even done research proving that Mafia presence correlates locally to the production of oranges and lemons.

So there you go. That’s how James Lind and his trial created the mafia, part of his legacy we won’t be replicating.

Further reading and references (just in case you don’t believe us):

Atlas Obscura - Can We Blame the Mafia on Lemons?

Cambridge Journals - Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons

Aeon - The big squeeze

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