Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery is challenging for a historian to review because it is not mainly about medical history. Rather, it is a work of literary criticism that explores themes related to scurvy, mostly encompassing the experiences of British sailors, explorers and settlers in the South Pacific during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This review nevertheless proceeds from the perspective of medical history. The premise of the book is something like this: The stresses on the bodies of European voyagers during this period of discovery produced a parallel discovery of something that ‘had lain hidden in the sensations, passions, sickness, and contingent circumstances of the voyager’ (p. 3). The ‘genius of scurvy’ confounded both the sufferer and the medical man as they confronted experiences that were impossible to communicate, characterised by confusion, pain and rapture. Such experiences, which can be glimpsed through the narratives of travellers, touched the literary imagination of the day. The experience of scurvy, and the responses of sailors, prisoners, medical men, naval officers and colonial officials, is exemplified in the Australian penal colony. The chapters of this book are arranged around a series of interrelated themes. The initial ‘prolegomena’ and the first chapter, ‘Enigma’, present the history of medical thinking on the subject as a litany of contradictory reasoning and dubious cures (pp. 38–9). ‘Miasma’, develops the notion of a ‘doctrine of effluvia’ emerging from the work of seventeenth century epicurean materialists. It compares the ‘pathological sensations’ of scurvy sufferers to experiences and encounters within early modern natural philosophy. ‘Nostalgia’, describes emerging illnesses characteristic of long voyages. These include ‘scorbutic nostalgia’, a disease distinguishable from ‘pure nostalgia’, and ‘calenture’, a feverish desire for land. ‘Australia’ examines the tragic circumstances under which shiploads of scorbutic exiles—many of them Irish political prisoners—were transported to an isolated colonial outpost practically bereft of fruit and vegetables. The resulting culture of destitution, crime and sadistic punishment, taking place in a strange and hostile landscape viewed through the distorted lens of scorbutic perception, is echoed in the art and literature of the period. Several aspects of this literary thesis are discussed in the final chapter, ‘Genera Mixta’. The book ends with a short ‘Coda’ on the biochemistry of scurvy written by neuroscientists James May and Fiona Harrison. This curious appendix points to a fundamental incoherence in the book’s approach to disease: it frequently interprets the bodily experiences of people in the past using ideas that they did not know. For instance, we now understand our bodies to have lost the capacity of our animal ancestors to synthesise vitamin C. In the book’s account, early modern sailors somehow ‘became aware how cruelly the failure of that mutant gene was to affect them’ when the symptoms of scurvy took hold (p. 6). In view of our present insight, past efforts to address this most prominent medical challenge are cast with astonishing insensitivity as ‘periodic fits of wilful ignorance that blinded the world to a necessary truth and an obvious cure: a dismal record then of lost opportunities and culpable amnesias’ (p. 30). This approach to the past speaks to methodological differences that tend to separate literary scholars and historians. A key insight shared by most recent historians of science and medicine is simply that ideas from the past ought typically to be approached as meaningful and coherent within their context. The interest of historical interpretation lies, to a significant extent, in accommodating one’s modern mind to the foreign circumstances of the past in order to contribute to an evolving body of interpretation. The texts of the literary scholar, by contrast, tend to float untethered in the eternal present of readers’ experience, open to creative reordering and reinterpretation. This account, for instance, approaches disease-causing effluvia by invoking a heterogeneous collection of texts spanning two centuries and more. Meanwhile, little thought is given to well-studied eighteenth-century experimental investigations into air, miasma and illness that informed much of the medical reasoning on scurvy in this period. Similarly, Orwell’s 1984 becomes ‘non-Australian scorbutic convict fiction’ for themes of institutional violence, nostalgia and bodily decay developed during earlier forays into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature (pp. 264–7). The book is well written and highly original. It is particularly valuable when it seeks to understand the ways in which the vivid experiences of scorbutic sailors and convicts flowed out into the literary imagination of the age. Ultimately, one’s opinion on it will depend on one’s reaction to passages like the following: It is we, from our postvitamin perspective, who understand the clinical and neurological importance of oranges and lemons and play the part of the lady shouting to Othello, exasperated that those with a vital interest in the matter are blind to what is so obvious or, having seen it, ignore it. (p. 34) Those seeking to understand past notions of health and disease might hesitate to play this part. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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