Appetite and Its Discontents: Science, Medicine, and the Urge to Eat, 1750-1950


Elizabeth A Williams
University of Chicago Press, £28.00

I was drawn to this title partly because of current concern about the ‘obesity epidemic’, with evidence emerging that appetite might have a genetic component. However, the author here is a historian and the narrative covers not only a broad swathe of time, but a huge range of disciplines impinging on the activity of eating.

The subtitle refers to the science of appetite and this is reflected in the development of science itself over two centuries. During this period ‘science’ was mostly understood to be observation rather than rigorously controlled trials and, especially in the early days, involved horrifying experiments on animals. However, much of the text discusses the lack of a clear definition of appetite and how it can be differentiated from hunger.

A great deal of medical thinking was tainted by moralistic opinions – for example, the condemnation of gluttony. It is interesting to see the ebb and flow of different schools of thought, especially when psychology emerged around 1900.

Arguments raged as to whether appetite was basically physiological or psychosomatic, with anorexia nervosa a major focus of these debates. I was surprised that fanciful notions such as vitalism persisted well into the 20th century.

My interest in obesity was not to be disappointed, as this is a theme of the final chapter. The text is copiously referenced and well written in a solidly factual style. It will appeal to those interested in how something we all intuitively think we understand is actually very hard to pin down.

Les Rose CBiol FRSB