Works in Progress - Autumn 2012

Of Mice and Literature

By Chloe Taft | March 18, 2013

Trapped for six weeks on a square-rigger recreating a historic voyage between Australia and Indonesia, Jonathan Lamb subsisted on salt meat and hardtack. It was enough to persuade him to learn more about scurvy. The disease, common to naval voyages until the last century, is caused by vitamin C deficiency. In addition to symptoms such as fatigue and inflammation, victims often experience delusions, fits of passion, intense nostalgia, and heightened sensitivity to light, touch, and sound.

Lamb, a humanities professor at Vanderbilt University, says Enlightenment efforts to understand scurvy challenged basic understanding of scientific experimentation, because the disease blurs boundaries between body and mind. He is breaking boundaries between the humanities and the hard sciences by collaborating with Vanderbilt neurologists, whose experiments with mice seek a neurological explanation for scurvy’s sensory symptoms.

Novelist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was afflicted with scurvy when he arrived in Mauritius in 1768. Even though he later wrote lyrically of the island’s trees in his love story Paul et Virginie, at the time he said they smelled of excrement. Lamb expects that understanding scurvy-related changes in perception, temperament, and memory may shed light on this and other mystifying passages in maritime journals and literature—including Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. His in-progress book, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, is due out in 2014.

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