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Book Review


Jonathan Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. xi + 305. Bibliography and Index. $35.00 (cloth).


     Caused by the depletion of Vitamin C from the body, an almost inevitable nutritional consequence of trans-oceanic voyaging, scurvy ranks amongst the archetypal diseases of the age of discovery. According to Jonathan Lamb's estimates, it claimed the lives of perhaps two million sailors on the vast fleets that fueled the imperial and commercial ventures of the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. While best known in today's popular culture for its effects on the teeth, scurvy devastated the entire body. Rotting gums, hemorrhages, swelling, and bloody stools were hardly the most frightening physical symptoms of the disease: as scurvy advanced, the connective tissue of the body dissolved, causing it, quite literally, to come apart at its seams. In the last stages of the disease, its victims were said to "rattle and creek when they moved" (14). Scurvy also worked insidiously on the mind, and it is the mental effects of the disease, notably the "magnified sensations and tearful melancholy" it produced, that are at the heart of Jonathan Lamb's new book Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, a wide-ranging, non-linear, and often challenging book, which ranges from the history of science to literary analysis with a freedom that is by turns exhilarating and exasperating (3).

     The most straightforward of Lamb's interwoven themes is an account of the long struggle to identity the cause of the disease, which remained mysterious into the twentieth century.  Some doctors and scientists believed the disease was caused by the presence onboard ships of airborne miasmas or invisible toxins in sailor's food, others that it stemmed from something absent in their diets. Until the discovery of vitamins in the 1930s, there was no way to conclusively resolve this debate. Thus, Lamb stresses, it is impossible to write the history of the disease as a history of progress. Instead, the history of scurvy is one of epidemiological and epistemological uncertainty.

     Lamb's real interest, however, is less in recovering the debates about how to cure scurvy than in detailing its psychological effects, the "strange affective counterpart to physical decay," that accompanied the disease (58). One such effect was a languor as torpid as the stillest seas, but this symptom co-existed with a remarkable form of nervous agitation. Lamb's exploration of the sensory hallucinations, feverish nostalgia, and terrible mental agonies that scurvy caused are the most evocative and compelling parts of the book. Vitamin C is essential for the healthy function of the nervous system, playing an important role in the creation of the chemicals that moderate sensory perception. As scurvy took hold, its victims experienced a world without sensory boundaries, seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting with unbearable intensity. Scorbutic sailors, Lamb tells us, literally died from overstimulation, killed by the mere act of eating the fruit and fresh water for which they had been longing, and even by the sight of land (82).

     There is great beauty in Lamb's account of these agonies as he seeks to uncover the affective history of scurvy. He lingers on any trace of the subjective experience of the unraveling mind. In the process, he shows great willingness to speculate and push his evidence in pursuit of the "lonely and largely incommunicable intensities" of the disease, engaging in close reading techniques drawn from literary analysis (Lamb is a professor of English), and engaging in extended discussions on Enlightenment theories of time, space, and perception. (83) This can make for difficult and digressive reading, and Scurvy sometimes feels like a literary equivalent of a hallucination, fragmented in its analysis, capricious in its gaze, in way that suggests both the scorbutic mind and the nineteenth-century experimenters with nitrous oxide, whose accounts are mined by Lamb for insights into psychedelic states of consciousness.

     If occasionally prone to interpretive oddity, Lamb's insights into how scurvy affected perception have important implications for historians interested in the history of discovery and empire. Lamb's recognition of scurvy's drug-like effects provides a powerful lens for reading the oddities, exaggerations, and surreal corners of European travel literature. At sea, where sensory stimulation was limited, it resulted in disproportionately close attention to stray clouds, long passages describing the exact color of water. On land, travelers frequently expressed the incommunicability of their experiences: things were too vivid, too odd, too intense to communicate. Sometimes read as a rhetorical strategy, Lamb reinterprets them as a form of dazzlement, of sensation without proportion imbued with nostalgic overtones.

     Though many of these readings are of essentially literary consequence, others are of great importance to world history. This is particularly true of Lamb's chapter on the exploration and colonization of Australia, which Lamb shows was profoundly influenced by scurvy. Cook's account of Botany Bay as lush and fertile shaped English plans for a colony there; yet, the colonists who arrived found little of the greenery that Cook's scorbutic eye had seen. Even worse, the Bay proved "exceptional in the annals of scurvy in providing a landfall effectually destitute of antiscorbutics" (165). The results were devastating. With local sources of vitamin C extremely scarce on the ground, scurvy became endemic. It greatly exacerbated the suffering of the convicts who populated the colony and textured interactions with Australia's aboriginal people. As Lamb adroitly notes, a famous painting from early Australia shows a scorbutic sailor risking his life to steal a handful of leafy greens from a party of Aborigines. Convicts also stole greens from each other at remarkable rates: Lamb shows that theft from the small gardens convicts were allowed to keep was a leading cause the brutal punishments inflected on the languid and hallucinatory population of the colony.

     A reader looking for a straight forward account of scurvy and its treatments will come away from this book disappointed. Indeed, many historians are likely to find Lambs free mixture of poetry, travel literature, painting, philosophy, and dense theories of medicine and optics somewhat maddening. Indeed, the book suffers somewhat from a lack of clarity of purpose and its willingness to chase and then abandon rabbit holes. Nevertheless, as a mediation on the interior experience of travel and discovery, and of the essential inexpressibility of much historical experience, the work is immensely satisfying, even if its thesis is often elusive.

Dylan Ruediger is Coordinator of Career Diversity for Historians at the American Historical Association. He can be reached at


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