Alan Atkinson reviews 'Scurvy: The disease of discovery' by Jonathan Lamb

Alan Atkinson reviews 'Scurvy: The disease of discovery' by Jonathan Lamb

Scurvy: The disease of discovery

by Jonathan Lamb

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $66 hb, 328 pp, 9780691147826

I have been dazzled and baffled by this book. The variety of learning, showing itself especially in a range of beautiful and apposite quotations, is wonderful. The depiction of scurvy as subjective experience is brilliant and deeply sympathetic. However, parts of the historical argument are very hard to follow, and altogether they suggest that the imagination at play in these pages is more thoroughly literary than historical. This review is written by an historian.

Scurvy is a disease which attacks both the body and the mind, and it can be fatal. It is the result of Vitamin C deficiency, experienced over months, say on long voyages by land or sea. Jonathan Lamb is a scholar in English literature, working from Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee; he has previously taught at Auckland and Princeton. In this book he is particularly concerned with the heightened imaginative sensibility brought on by scurvy, in its various stages, and he draws multifaceted connections between scurvy and creative writing.

The approach overall is exploratory and speculative, and the effect is often wonderfully suggestive. However, the book is overburdened with unproven and sometimes unlikely possibilities. Lamb’s use of scurvy to explain curiosities of literary style and insight is surely overdone. If an explorer is apparently obsessed with purposeless collecting, as François Péron was with seashells, it does not prove he had scurvy, and if he offers a minute account of an unremarkable phenomenon, as Nicolas Baudin did in describing an incident with an Australian snake, this can easily be explained by the scientific and scholarly habit of noting detail, even of uncertain significance. When an artist paints over a picture of icebergs with a picture of woodland, as William Hodges did on James Cook’s second voyage, surely the coincidence is too trivial to be proposed as an example of scorbutic nostalgia. The use of double negatives was common to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rhetoric. It does not prove scorbutic confusion. Nor does a description of the ocean as green instead of blue.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Published in April 2017, no. 390
Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson is currently attached to the University of Sydney, where he is Senior Tutor at St Paul’s College. The third and final volume of his book, The Europeans in Australia, won the Victorian Prize for Literature 2015, and has been shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and for the Ernest Scott Prize. He is also the author of Camden and The Commonwealth of Speech.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.