Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa (1841/2)
Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa (1841/2)

This is a clever and important book, but it is not an easy read. Scurvy provides an intellectual and cultural history of a condition that is estimated to have first ravaged and then killed about two million mariners during the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’. The book charts the disease’s rise and fall and attempts to prevent and cure it across centuries and oceans. 

Despite the western world’s general belief that the efficacy of citrus juice was understood from early in the disease’s history, Lamb reveals that this was in fact far from the case. Different theories of cause and ideas for treatment continued to be put forward and gain momentum; Captain James Cook favoured a diet rich in malt, for example. Well-intentioned but devastating mistakes occurred, most prominently the replacement of ‘rob’, a medicinal syrup made from scarce and expensive Mediterranean citrus fruit, with that from cheap and plentiful West Indian limes (which possessed little vitamin C). It was not until midway through the 20th century that western explorations stopped being beset by scurvy. Indeed, the book’s informative coda by neuroscientists Fiona Harrison and Jim May details scurvy’s biochemistry and the vital importance of defeating through research what remains a live disease for vulnerable groups across the globe. 

Scurvy powerfully describes the disease’s historical and cultural significance. As Europeans attempted to explore and colonise across the globe, spending ever longer stretches at sea, sailors exhibited a range of debilitating and disturbing symptoms of physical and mental breakdown. For instance, one of scurvy’s main characteristics was a kind of homesick nostalgia; another was experiencing emotional extremes, so that sufferers wept or laughed uncontrollably or lost their tempers. Senses were heightened, veering between delight and disgust, and became unreliable tools with which to collect evidence (thus failing to meet a central requirement of empiricist thinking, the knowledge system that increasingly dominated the age). Thus, the boundary between what victims saw and the ways they experienced their world started to break down. Lamb’s central argument is compelling: as ‘discoverers’ sought to investigate and understand the new horizons opening up before them, their perceptions of what they faced changed. Europeans experienced the new places they encountered through the lens of their scurvy.

Rich in argument, Scurvy is a rewarding read; however, its vast scope and use of individual voyages to make larger thematic points means it is best suited to the specialist reader. The book is at its best when discussing the colonisation of Australia. Scurvy counterpoints its analysis with both graphic and beautiful scorbutic images, such as the haunting copperplate engraving Death and Life in Death by David Jones, which illustrated a 1929 edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and depicted a subcutaneous haemorrhage masquerading as a beauty spot.

Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery
by Jonathan Lamb
Princeton  328pp  £27.95

Claire Jowitt is a Professor of Early Modern Literature and History at the University of East Anglia.

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