Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University and author of Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2017)
Scurvy, a disease often associated with long stretches of maritime travel, generated sensations exceeding the standard of what was normal. Eyes dazzled, skin was morbidly sensitive, emotions veered between disgust and delight. In this book, Jonathan Lamb presents an intellectual history of scurvy unlike any other, probing the speechless encounter with powerful sensations to tell the story of the disease that its victims couldn’t because they found their illness too terrible and, in some cases, too exciting.
Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy during the eighteenth-century age of geographical and scientific discovery. He explains the medical knowledge surrounding scurvy and the debates about its cause, prevention, and attempted cures. He vividly describes the phenomenon and experience of “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home, and then wept when such pleasures proved impossible to consume or reach. Lamb argues that a culture of scurvy arose in the colony of Australia, which was prey to the disease in its early years, and identifies a literature of scurvy in the works of such figures as Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Francis Bacon, and Jonathan Swift.
Masterful and illuminating, Scurvy shows how the journeys of discovery in the eighteenth century not only ventured outward to the ends of the earth, but were also an inward voyage into the realms of sensation and passion.
Praise for Scurvy
“Deeply informed by the history and literature of seafaring, Lamb’s book provides valuable insights into the workings of science that can even guide our expectations about research today.”
–Jonathon Keats, New Scientist (No. 3100, 19 November 2016)
“Expertly researched and richly written, Lamb’s study tracks the links in [scurvy] sufferers’ unusual symptoms–heightened senses, cravings, and emotions that became known as ‘scorbutic nostalgia,’ as well as a ghastly physical breakdown–through naval logs, physicians’ journals, and literature. . . . Lamb’s rigorously scholastic and elegantly lyrical account should intrigue both historians and literary critics.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This excellent book captures and analyzes the enigma of scurvy, not as therapy-not-discovered, but as almost unknowable experience. Lamb magically transforms one of the most tired subjects in medical and maritime history and historiography into something conceptually and historically rich and fresh.”
–Alison Bashford, author of Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism, and Public Health
“In this compelling and disturbing book, Lamb shows how scurvy, the most incommunicable of diseases, was tangled up with the production of new kinds of speaking and writing, from confession to romance, and new kinds of knowledge, aboard ship and in the penal colony. This is an achievement of scholarship that will be indispensable for future studies of travel, exploration, and their many fictions.”
–Simon Schaffer, coauthor of Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life
More Reviews of Scurvy
Review by Mike Jay
in the Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2016
Review by Rebecca Onion
in Slate, December 8, 2016
Review by Craig Owen Jones
in Pop Matters, December 6, 2016
Review by Jonathon Keats
in the New Scientist, November 17, 2016
Review by Steven Carroll
in the The Sydney Morning Herald, December 23, 2016