Aims & Objectives

The aims and objectives of the project are outlined below.


1. To bring together the different methods and approaches of a range of disciplines – economic and social history, agrarian history, environmental history, history of medicine and science – in order to reconstruct the history and impact of a single food plant (maize) and a single disease (pellagra) over the longue durée.

Modern-day Relevance

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. The ‘Rough Skin’ project provides a clear case where study of the past can shed light on the present, and vice versa.

Tracing Impact

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.

Sufferer's Perspective

4. To explore the experience of pellagra from the sufferer’s point of view, on the one hand, through all the stages of the disease, in particular the insanity stage, and its social and economic ramifications for peasant families; and, on the other hand, to identify and account for shifting responses and ideologies relative to the disease, and to relate evolving (and competing) medical theories with treatment, public health measures and local responses.

Wider Context

5. To compare and contrast the experience of maize and pellagra in other regions over the period – the Asturias in Spain, the southern United States, and Romania – with that of Italy; and to compare this with the reaction to other deficiency diseases of the time, equally preventable, such as beriberi and goitre.

Understanding the Data: VMAD

6. The Venetian Mental Aylums Database (VMAD) will be based on the thousands of patient records of the San Servolo and San Clemente asylums, the Veneto's two main asylums for the treatment of mental illness. The data set, focusing in particular on the pellagrous insane, will cover the period from 1860s through to 1912, in the broader context of all mental illnesses treated there. Patients can be followed from the intial request for admission (made by family members, local doctors and officials), through to their stay in hospital and their eventual discharge (or death). VMAD will provide a key source for the understanding of the social conditions of pellagrins, as well as changing treatment regimes. More broadly, it will allow us to answer questions about the construction of disease categories relating to mental illness in Europe over the period.

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