‘Scurvy’: Chronicling the Etiology of an Affliction

Jonathan Lamb's authoritative study affords an interesting perspective on one of history's most unpleasant afflictions.

To the extent that most people are familiar with scurvy today, it’s as a condition that, like bubonic plague, seems to belong to the past, or as a mock-serious admonishment to children reluctant to eat their greens. Students of history know it primarily as an ailment associated with the Age of Discovery, during which large numbers of mariners had to endure months away from land for the first time in history. Successive generations of writers perceived the link between lengthy sojourns at sea and increased incidents of scurvy among ships’ crews, and tried to make sense of it. As Jonathan Lamb stresses in this thought-provoking study, the irony of the history of scurvy is how often people hit upon the correct remedy — and how often society at large failed to recognize it as such.

Part of the mystery of scurvy was that it attacked the body in multiple ways. The presence of vitamin C in the body of a human being regulates or enables so many vital functions that, once it is removed or reduced to intolerably low levels, several systems break down in quick succession; black lesions appear on the legs and arms, and bones creak as the sinews holding them together begin to break down. To the layman, the most surprising symptom is the imbalance that occurs in the brain. Lamb notes the countless reports of hallucinations and mood swings in afflicted sailors — some began to apprehend peculiar changes in the colour and viscosity of the sea, or suspected their crew-mates of conspiring against them, while others became tearful, insisting on reporting their condition in minute detail, or fell into ecstasies at the sight of land or the taste of a piquant food. Scurvy, the quintessential bodily deficiency, was all too often effusive in its psychological effect.

None of this was understood in the 18th century; hence, the fruitless attempts to establish a pathology. Two schools of thought emerged, but the gulf between those who correctly deduced that the condition came about as a result of the lack of some element crucial to the function of the body and those who believed it to be a condition brought about by some sort of invasion of the body was wide, and the difficulties thrown about by these conflicting theories were all too often insurmountable.

Chronicling the etiology of any affliction has the potential for dry reading, and it’s to Lamb’s credit that the narrative is as readable as it is. The minute attention to detail certainly helps, and the frequent eye-opening (and sometimes eye-watering) anecdotes overturning this or that piece of received knowledge reveal just how contradictory previous perceptions of scurvy have been. (For years I have had an image in my head of James Cook as something approaching a Renaissance man — an excellent navigator and observer of men, whose prudence in making sure his crew adhered to the experimental diet prescribed for them by the Royal Navy’s physicians led to him losing not a single man through scurvy. How chastening to find him earnestly recommending to doctors the efficacy of malt wort in 1776 — one of the elements in the sailors’ diet that had no effect whatsoever on the disease!)

Later, the book explores what Lamb refers to as ‘the poetics of scurvy’. Taking Australia as an example, and acknowledging the existence of ‘land scurvy’ in the fledgling, under-developed penal colony established by the British from 1788 onwards, he explores the ways in which the condition influenced literary and artistic output, focusing among other endeavours on the small but fascinating body of work left by an unknown artist known to history only as the Port Jackson Painter. Possibly an enlisted man rather than one of the convicts, his output ceased before the end of the century, but in the brief period of his flourishing, he produced several extraordinary depictions of life in the colony that are sometimes so impressionistic as to reflect in their composition the ever-present spectre of scurvy.

Citing a remarkable portrait of a local Aborigine named Balloderree, Lamb invokes the peculiar ‘scorbutic romance’ of life in the colony to explain its properties: the painting is not allegorical per se, but rather a reflection of the pain of life in those early years and ‘defiance’ of it, or even a certain ‘yielding to a reverie that is inexpressible because there is no messenger and no message, just the extraordinary peculiarity of the situation’ (p. 215). Thus we arrive back at the impossibility of anyone ever truly understanding the nature of scurvy until experiencing it for themselves; yet even then, as Lamb notes, each experience is unique to the sufferer. Inasmuch as each experience of it was never truly communicable, there was indeed no message to be sent, and no message to be received.

Lamb’s writing style is elegant and occasionally extravagant, but never ugly, and only very occasionally tending toward the unwieldy. The enthusiasm for the subject is infectious (no pun intended), but the interdisciplinary range of the book is wide, and those without any grounding in art appreciation may find certain parts hard going. Similarly, the non-specialist may wish to keep Robert Hughes’ excellent account of the penal colony’s early years, The Fatal Shore, at hand during the chapter on Australia. In so doing one can make the best use of this book, which surely deserves a place among the plethora of social histories to have appeared in recent years on the subject of disease and illness.

RATING 8 / 10