Professor David Gentilcore

Professor of Early Modern History

David GentilcoreContact details

  • Tel: +44 (0)116 252 2834
  • Email:
  • Office: Attenborough 510
  • Office Hour: I am on study leave for the academic year 2017/18: EURIAS fellow, Institut d'études avancées (IMéRA), Aix-Marseille Université, France.

Personal details

I joined the Department of History at the Leicester in 1994 as Wellcome Trust Lecturer in the History of Medicine, following a research fellowship at the Cambridge Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and a stint as director of the Canadian Academic Centre in Italy (Rome).

I am the author of seven books and was awarded the Royal Society of Canada’s ‘Jason A. Hannah’ medal for Medical charlatanism in early modern Italy (Oxford 2006) and, in 2012, the ‘Salvatore De Renzi International Prize’ by the Università degli Studi di Salerno for my work in the history of medicine. I am book reviews editor for the peer-reviewed journal Food & History (published by the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food & Brepols).

My interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy, and have ranged from studies on popular religion during the Counter-Reformation, healers and healing in the Kingdom of Naples, the licensing and operations of medical charlatans in early modern Italy, through to food and health in early- and late-modern Europe as a whole. My current project builds on a study of the reception and assimilation of New World plants, like the tomato and the potato, to look at the impact of maize on Italian society, in particular the pellagra epidemic that ravaged north-eastern Italy from 1750 to 1930.

During 2003-8, I was a core member of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in ‘Cultures and Practices of health’, held jointly at the Universities of Warwick and Leicester. I have been visiting fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London; Hannah Visiting Professor at McMaster University, Canada (2001-2); visiting professor at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Florence, 2006). I held a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (2007-10) to pursue my project on the reception and assimilation of New World plants in Italy. I was Principal Investigator on the ‘Rough Skin’ project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (2013-16), which investigates the effects of the pellagra epidemic in northern Italy, and am currently beginning a new project on the culture of water in early modern Europe.


'Americans in Italy: the impact of New World plants, 1500-1800', in L. Markey and E. Horodowich, eds. The discovery of the New World in Early Modern Italy: Encounters with the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

'Caught between unorthodox medicine and unorthodox religion: revisiting the case of Costantino Saccardini, charlatan-heretic', in L. Nyholm Kallestrup, ed. Contesting orthodoxy in early modern Europe (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017), 57-68

VMAD: Venetian Mental Asylums Database, 1842-1912 (SN 8058): co-authored with Egidio Priani, deposited at UK Data Service, July 2016. Includes dataset and supporting documentation.

‘Louis Sambon and the clash of pellagra etiologies in Italy and the United States, 1904-15’, The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 2015, in press (epub available).

Food and health in early modern Europe: diet, medicine and society, 1450-1800 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

‘Peasants and pellagra in 19th-century Italy’, History Today, 64 (Sept, 2014), pp. 32-8.

‘“Con trattenimenti e buffoniane”. Ciarlatani, protomedici e le origini di un gruppo professionale’, in Interpretare e curare.Medicina nel Rinascimento, M. Conforti, A. Carlino, A. Clericuzio, eds. (Rome: Carocci, 2013).

Tempi sì calamitosi: epidemics and public health’, in A companion to early modern Naples, T. Astarita, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 281-306.

‘“Italic scurvy”, “pellarina”, “pellagra”: medical reactions to a new disease in Italy, 1770-1830’, in A medical history of skin: scratching the surface, J. Reinarz and K. Siena, eds. (London: Pickering and Chatto, Studies for the Society for the Social History of Medicine, 2013), pp. 57-69.

More publications


I teach a range of undergraduate modules on the history of early modern Europe, including, ‘Food, diet and health in early modern Europe’ (third year option), and contribute to ‘Varieties of Cultural History’. At the MA level, I teach a module entitled ‘Patients and Practitioners: The Patient-Practitioner Relationship in Early Modern Europe’.


I am interested in the social and cultural history of Italy, particularly in the period from 1500 to 1800, although with an increasing tendency to stray into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have concentrated on the relationships between different levels of society with regard to beliefs and practices, especially in the areas of religion, medicine and healing, and, more recently, dietary habits.

In geographical terms, my core research has broadened out from an initial focus on a single region (southern Apulia), then a state (the Kingdom of Naples), and now include the entire Italian peninsula and islands. I am working on what I like to think of as my ‘New World trilogy’. The first volume is a social and cultural study of the tomato’s Italian history, Pomodoro!, the second an agrarian and dietary history of the potato, The potato in Italy, and the third a history of maize and the terrible disease pellagra, from 1750-1930, as part of my ESRC project (see below). I am also writing a book called Food and health in early modern Europe, for Bloomsbury.

Current research projects

Rough Skin: Maize, Pellagra and Society in Italy, 1750-1930.

ESRC Research Grant (£537,792). September 2013 – August 2016. 
Professor David Gentilcore (Principal Investigator); Mr Egidio Priani (Research Assistant)

Aims and objectives

1.  To bring together the different methods and approaches of a range of disciplines in order to reconstruct the history and impact of a single food plant (maize) and a single disease (pellagra) over the longue durée.
2.  To explore relevance of the historical maize-pellagra link to the present-day, when human diet that is energy dense and nutrient poor has led to a (man-made) pandemic of obesity, diabetes and associated chronic diseases. 
3.  To trace the impact of maize cultivation and consumption on society and responses to it, from the point of view of those who bore the brunt of the changes brought about, as well as from the point of view social elites, political and medical in particular.
4.  To explore the experience of pellagra from the sufferer’s point of view and its social and economic ramifications for peasant families; and to identify and account for shifting responses and ideologies relative to the disease.
5.  To compare and contrast the experience of maize and pellagra in other regions over the period with that of Italy; and to compare this with the reaction to other deficiency diseases of the time, such as beriberi and goitre.
6.  To prepare a data set based on the clinical files of pellagra-sufferers hospitalised at the San Servolo Psychiatric Hospital, Venice, one of Italy’s main asylums for the treatment of mental illness.


  • Social, cultural and religious history (early modern Italy)
  • Social history of medicine (early modern Europe)
  • History of food, diet and health (early- and late-modern Europe)

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