Jonathan Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery

Jonathan Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016) 328 pp. £35.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780691182933

Scurvy impacted profoundly the history of Europe's expansion by sea and, consequently, influenced heavily its society, culture and artistic production. The scientific and medical history of scurvy was discussed by Kenneth J. Carpenter in The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (1986), but its implications for cultural history and literature are still understudied. Jonathan Lamb had already tackled this theme in chapter four of his Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840 (2001), and now, with Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, he attempts to fill this gap entirely.

The book reveals itself as an interesting and well-written discussion of the topic. Its introduction (Prolegomena) presents Cook's exploration as aiming at a double discovery, an external one (the Southern Continent) and an internal one (the causes and prevention of scurvy). This dichotomy is restated and expanded throughout the study. It also enumerates the causes and effects of the illness, which, at the end of the book, are again represented and further detailed in the Codaby neurologists James May and Fiona Harrison. The physical symptoms (cracking bones, loss of teeth, utter weakness, etc.), as well as the psychological ones (visions, personality changes, homesickness, longing for fresh food, etc.), are, then, identified in many literary authors: Milton, Ovid, Camoens, Coleridge, and others.

In chapter 1 (Enigma), Lamb presents the scientific and medical history of scurvy, accentuating its multifaceted character and the unorderly appearance of the symptoms, and discusses other relevant diseases (specifically, nyctalopia, pellagra, beriberi). Considerable space is dedicated to the progression of scurvy within the ship: from the individual to the crew; then, by lack of maintenance, from the crew to the ship itself; and again, after the hallucinations start, from the ship to the ocean and the air. This progression ‘proved how immune scurvy was to methods of definition and control’ (55) and resulted in the invalidation of observations, reports and scientific studies made during these missions.

Chapter 2 (Effluvia) is dedicated to the philosophical nature of perception and the possibility of altering the senses. Lamb points to works of Locke, Descartes, Boyle, Cavendish, and others, and ponders how they might be challenged by the hallucinogenic symptoms of scurvy. The theme of internal and external exploration is here further analysed and emphasis is placed on the ‘indefinition’ of the mission itself (completely different fauna and flora offered no point of comparison; new scientific apparatuses could not provide precise location; etc.) and on the ‘indefinition’ of scurvy (symptoms varied greatly from person to person; difficulty in separating hallucination and reality; etc.). This chapter argues, then, that scurvy is an ineffable disease: it resists language and it creates complete isolation, even within the sick themselves, since each individual experiences the illness in his or her own particular way.

In chapter 3 (Nostalgia), the complex interaction between the scorbutic experience and homesickness is explored. The relationship among scurvy and other feeding disturbances (anorexia, bulimia, etc.) is analyzed, as well as the details of hallucinations, dreams and optic illusions experienced by the sick. This part of the book also ponders if ‘nostalgia’ and ‘calenture’ are symptoms of scurvy or, actually, different diseases. It concludes that ‘scorbutic nostalgia was a nomenclatural novelty vindicated in medical practice, in the science of perception, and in poetry’ (152).

The fourth chapter (Australia) deals with the settlement of Australia, configured as two experiments: a natural one (radical fauna and flora to be explored and cultivated) and a social one (the colonization based on prisoners' rehabilitation). Both experiments are interpreted within the framing of radical exoticism, incommunicability and ineffability presented in previous chapters. Early settlers fell prey to diseases caused by poor nutrition, thus solving a medical debate and proving that sea and land scurvy were the same illness. Lamb also argues that the incarceration system developed in the colony outlined prisons as extensions of ships: prisoners would steal vegetables to avoid scurvy and, when arrested, would be fed poorly, worsening their situation. The low threshold for punishment, its brutality and the cyclic reefing effect of the incarceration system are all thoroughly analyzed. The creative language of naturalists and the new slangs and speech innovations of the Irish immigrants are considered as examples of isolation from the metropolis, where reports from the colony would be treated as unreliable and be considered ‘romances’. Lamb draws, in this chapter especially, from an impressive, vast amount of sources: novels, medical treatises, historical journals, memoirs, ship diaries, paintings, letters.

Chapter 5 (Genera Mixta) considers the influences of scurvy and the Terra Incognita exploration in literature production. In the author's own words: ‘I try to strap the culture and aesthetics of scurvy to its poetics’ (26). The discussion opens with the historical contrast between two literary genres: ‘romances’, condemned by the mentioned sources as misleading, immoral and silly; and ‘novels’, ingenious and worthy artistic creations. The author argues, then, that the word ‘romance’ was used continually to define the unreliableness of exploration reports, many times justly and unjustly blamed on scorbutic hallucinations. He shows next how the Terra Incognita was equated in the mentalities to the Earthly Paradise, and how many of the accounts of exploration provide the sources for works of literature: ‘The islands of romance […] combined with the first voyages of European discovery, provide scurvy with its early modern fictions: Amerigo Vespucci is used by Thomas More; Vasco da Gama supplies Camoens and then Milton; Dampier is Lemuel Gulliver's cousin; while Antonio Pigafetta's journal of Magellan's navigation of the Pacific provides the hint for Bacon's New Atlantis’ (228). He then proceeds to close the book with an analysis of The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman (1778), Paul et Virginie (1788), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and 1984 (1949).

Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery is a very learned contribution to the field. It presents thorough argumentation and a vast collection of sources, which could leave behind part of the general readers. It is a particularly useful study for specialists interested in the history of scurvy and its resonances in literature.

Aureo Lustosa Guerios Neto, University of Padua

 

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