- Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery by Jonathan Lamb
Jonathan Lamb’s important contribution to the story of scurvy is neither patient centered nor physician centered. At the heart of this book lie literary texts, the interpretation of which are Lamb’s métier. Although there are parts of the book where the torrent of allusions to works of fiction, philosophy, and history threaten to overwhelm non-literary scholars, Lamb’s work bears careful reading by historians of medicine and maritime life. We learn that scurvy enjoyed such a longue durée as a disease of discovery—from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries—because it undermined the normative ways of perceiving of its sufferers and students, while at the same time generating new and troubling perceptions.
Scurvy has seven chapters. The prolegomena outlines the damage Vitamin C deficiency does to bodies and minds, then maps out the impending journey through mostly eighteenth-century (the chronological period in which Lamb is most comfortable) seas of scorbutic experience and scorbutically influenced representation. The first substantive chapter (“Enigma”) argues that scurvy’s persistence owes much to its ability to disrupt peoples’ assumptions about knowledge, perception, narrative, and time. Lamb posits that the dispute between toxicological versus nutritional deficiency schools of explanation reflected broader epistemological controversies pitting realists against empiricists. The next section delves deeper into the parallels between contrasting medical theories and understandings of [End Page 811] perception: what do our senses do, and how do we come to know anything when a disease like scurvy breaks down our senses of time and space, so much so that our imaginations have free reign over our minds? This particular and perplexing outcome is a function of vitamin C’s importance in the formation of neurotransmitters (p. 271). The following chapter makes a case for why contemporary and similarly perception-altering maladies—nostalgia and calenture—were not represented in the same way as scorbutic representations, while the fourth section argues for the essential identity between sea-scurvy and land-scurvy, as evidenced by the symptoms the earliest white colonists to Australia exhibited. Lamb contends that scurvy gave an “edge of creative friction between the evolution of the convict system and the new colony’s culture” (p. 192); for example, in the epidemic theft of food, the deliberate withholding of vitamin C-containing foods from convicts, even an “elliptical aesthetic” as portrayed by the Port Jackson painter (p. 216). Additional examples of a scorbutic imagination are the subject of Lamb’s final chapter (“Genera Mixta”). Instead of a conclusion, the book ends with a coda composed by James May and Fiona Harrison, which lucidly outlines the biochemical and physiological effects of vitamin C deficiency.
Scholars and the public have long known scurvy as the great medical challenge of the so-called Age of Discovery; Lamb’s argument is that scurvy also posed a contemporary epistemological and hermeneutical challenge. The disease forced thinkers and sufferers to confront not-knowable knowns. Scurvy dissolved both cells and categories of understanding, and this double discovery—of the limits of the body living apart from fresh food and the concomitant limits of human perception at the edges of the world—is the book’s chief contribution to scholarship. Different audiences of scholars will find more of use in certain sections. Historians of medicine will almost certainly find the first two or three chapters, and the coda, most profitable. Indeed, I think a strong case should have been made to the author to put the end at the beginning; having May and Harrison’s helpful discussion of disease at the book’s orientation would have made much of the subsequent dense prose easier to navigate. I can only imagine what some historians of naval medicine might make (or not) of sentences such as “Beddoes’s objections to Swift’s maritime utopia, namely that it originates in the bitterness and frustration incident to a valetudinarian rejection of normal sexuality” (p. 246). Lamb’s idiom is unapologetically that of the literary critic, thoroughly at ease...