Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, by Jonathan Lamb

Helen Bynum on a multilayered tale of an illness’ history that takes in art, science and more

January 19, 2017
Painting of Glaucus sea god

Greens, greens, and nothing but greens/Parsley, peppers, cabbages and…” raps Rapunzel’s stepmother in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The witch recalls a neighbour’s theft of garden produce to slake the cravings of his pregnant wife, and how she took their baby girl in return. It’s a world where greens (as well as beans) are significant and yearning can lead to unpredictable outcomes.

In its edible verdancy, Sondheim’s imaginary world of the musical is the antithesis of the scorbutic times and places – the “situations” – that pepper literary scholar Jonathan Lamb’s excellent new book, but there are also pertinent similarities. Sondheim took our favourite fairy tales and recombined them, creating a new layered version of events where everything was not as it seemed. So, too, has Lamb. He recombines history, poetry, fiction, art, personal testimony and science to deliver a fresh, complex version of scurvy’s past.

Scurvy’s prevention and treatment through the empirical prescription of citrus juice was once a clear and striking example of medical progress. The discovery of vitamins and vitamin-deficiency diseases in the 20th century finished the story. After we became less sure of medicine’s smooth passage from ignorance to enlightenment, the disease’s continued occurrence and the diverse explanations for its cause indicated that acquiring knowledge was not so simple. At its worst, it has been argued, correct ideas have been held back by vested interests or misused authority.

Lamb uses this awful condition to explore a series of intriguing themes, and one of the most prominent is one that perplexes me. How do we explain or communicate what suffering from scurvy (or any disease to which we have not personally been privy) meant, both to an individual during the ordeal and to others after recovery? The materials that Lamb uses to explore this intangible involve 17th-century views of sensory experience, the power of the mind and its emotions over the body, and the effects of profound sickness and bodily disintegration upon the psyche. His gaze encompasses the deliberations of scientists Robert Boyle and Thomas Willis and informed readings of Moby-Dick and The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. It is a heady but successful mix.

Scurvy is a disease of fear and longing, and Lamb has it overlapping with nostalgia and calenture. The latter was a feverish delirium suffered by sailors, who became prone to walking off the deck and plunging into the waters below, so convinced were they that they were seeing green fields rather than blue water. Its discussion is an excellent cue to ponder theories of colour vision and the importance of green in scorbutic nightmares.

Australia presents a fertile arena for Lamb’s explorations of land scurvy. He juxtaposes the very infertility of coastal New South Wales with its misrepresentation as a landscape suitable for a self-sustaining penal colony, deploying the striking images of the Port Jackson Painter among his sources. What sufferings may have been due to scurvy and what due to other vitamin deficiencies and general starvation are carefully teased out. Lamb teams up with scientists to keep an eye on contemporary ideas of vitamin C deficit. He has taken scurvy and unpacked it, revealing how it is a destroyer of the body but more importantly a cipher for the soul.

Helen Bynum is honorary research associate in the department of anthropology, University College London.

Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery
By Jonathan Lamb
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691147826
Published 14 December 2016

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