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Appetite and Its Discontents

Science, Medicine, and the Urge to Eat, 1750-1950

Why do we eat? Is it instinct? Despite the necessity of food, anxieties about what and how to eat are widespread and persistent. In Appetite and Its Discontents, Elizabeth A. Williams explores contemporary worries about eating through the lens of science and medicine to show us how appetite—once a matter of personal inclination—became an object of science.
Williams charts the history of inquiry into appetite between 1750 and 1950, as scientific and medical concepts of appetite shifted alongside developments in physiology, natural history, psychology, and ethology. She shows how, in the eighteenth century, trust in appetite was undermined when researchers who investigated ingestion and digestion began claiming that science alone could say which ways of eating were healthy and which were not. She goes on to trace nineteenth- and twentieth-century conflicts over the nature of appetite between mechanists and vitalists, experimentalists and bedside physicians, and localists and holists, illuminating struggles that have never been resolved. By exploring the core disciplines in investigations in appetite and eating, Williams reframes the way we think about food, nutrition, and the nature of health itself..

416 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Food and Gastronomy

History: History of Ideas

History of Science


"An exceptionally well-researched and detailed examination of appetite as an object of scientific and medical inquiry. Despite its strict focus on disciplinary debates, the gendered dimensions of appetite, particularly appetite disorders, is afforded attention throughout the book. Williams is careful to comment on the oppressive aspects of health as defined by scientific medicine and the potentially stigmatizing effects for those who deviate from normative frameworks. Graduate students and scholars interested in medicalization and healthism would benefit from reading this work. Fat studies scholars may also find this book of interest as Williams discusses the shifting conceptualization of 'obesity' and the drive toward thinness as a marker of health and well-being."

Food, Culture & Society

"Historian of Science Elizabeth Williams' wonderful new book Appetite and its Discontents: Science, Medicine and the Urge to Eat, 1750–1950 offers a fascinating, erudite, and illuminating narrative of the complex and contested relationship between appetite and scientific research, using changing scientific understandings of the appetite as a way for telling a distinct narrative of modernity. . . . the author pulls together scientists and practitioners from a remarkably wide array of disciplinary backgrounds, and from across Europe and the United States, to paint a story of the gradual transformation of appetite from a natural and ultimately positive aspect of the human condition to something both troublesome and misleading. In so doing, this book defines a key yet previously ignored topic of historical research, narrating shifts in scientific thinking that have profound implications for understanding contemporary society."

Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences

"Deeply researched. . . .  [Williams] has written what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive account of scientific and medical thinking since the Enlightenment about appetite. Her book is clearly and elegantly written, prodigiously researched and copiously referenced. It should be essential reading for historians of science, medicine and food."

Social History of Medicine

"Williams displays remarkable skill and encyclopedic knowledge in mining the output of scholars and practitioners in a wide range of fields for their thought and research on appetite. . . . Williams's book is carefully researched and that she has provided a great resource for anyone interested in expanding the history of appetite, or anyone interested in related fields such as the history of nutrition."

British Journal for the History of Science

"This fascinating book, magisterial and yet accessible, opens up broad questions about human life and culture through a careful focus on the meaning of appetite as a central, albeit often ill examined, 'natural' human drive. . . . Chapter by elegant chapter, the author elucidates contextual changes and deftly illustrates significant arguments through focused analyses covering Hippocrates and Aristotle through 20th-century psychiatry and psychoanalysis. The limitations set by the author for cogent analysis scarcely limit the connections that will reward readers, from central themes of gender and identities to relationships of appetite and larger systems of production and consumption, especially as she poses questions linking these historical processes to contemporary issues that permeate science, medicine, and Western culture more generally. . . . Rewarding and stimulating. . . . Recommended."


"Excellent. . . . A fascinating commentary on the current state of thinking as regards questions of appetite. . . . Appetite and its Discontents is a work to be celebrated not only by historians of medicine but by many others besides. . . . [Williams's] work represents something like an invitation to further research and discovery, encouraging expansion and curiosity." 

European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health

"The narrative covers not only a broad swathe of time, but a huge range of disciplines impinging on the activity of eating. . . . 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."

The Biologist (UK)

"A magisterial historical overview of research on the physiology and psychology of hunger. [Williams] makes clear how this long history continues to inform modern approaches to eating, and her book is essential reading for anyone interested in either historical or contemporary notions of appetite. . . . Williams sketches an unusually broad and inclusive arc of medical inquiry into an ephemeral sensation that precisely resisted the kind of disciplinary classification that its researchers frequently tried to bestow upon it. Readers will become intimately familiar with the plurality of investigators, methods, and texts that comprise appetite's fascinating history. . . . This book thoroughly impresses with its ambitions, scope, and execution. Williams has certainly achieved her primary goals. She vividly illustrates the convoluted historical processes by which appetite became an 'object' for scientists and physicians from numerous disciplines to investigate and ultimately control. Perhaps even more significantly, she suggests how an awareness of the many contested philosophies and approaches employed to understand the fickle sensation of hunger may help restore a freedom to modern appetites increasingly governed by scientific rigidity and expert advice."

New Mexico Historical Review

"What kind of phenomenon is appetite? Is it a natural thing or something driven by the availability of culinary luxury? Can be appetite be trusted as a guide to good eating or something that should be moralized or managed? . . . [Williams] records thinking that saw (and still see) appetite as a division or union between mind and body, questions what is normal and what is pathological, and asks is appetite a personal responsibility or something we can turn over (or blame) on dietetic authorities. Eventually and inevitably, she comes to examine attitudes toward obesity, with wide ranging theories including glandular, pathological fat tissue, maladies of nutrition, heredity, or habit."

CHoW Line

"Williams has written a fascinating and comprehensive history of the efforts of Western science and medicine to elucidate the functions and dysfunctions of appetite from the eighteenth century to the present. Her analysis of the myriad disciplinary and clinical studies on this elusive entity yields new and important insights into the evolution of methods and experiments on hunger and eating in medical and scientific practice against the background of the dramatic changes in the food supply over time. This deeply learned history has lessons galore for all us contemporary eaters."

Robert A. Nye, Oregon State University

"There is no equivalent scientific history of appetite available today. This book is the product of immense and extraordinarily wide-ranging research and it provides an important public service: it shows the narrow historical limits of current frames for thinking about appetite and obesity, and vividly brings alive other ways of thinking which once held sway. I strongly recommend it."

Dana Simmons, University of California, Riverside

"Appetite and Its Discontents interrogates the myriad ways in which scientists in the fields of natural history, physiology, medicine, psychology, and ethology conceptualized the phenomenon of appetite, differentiated it from hunger, and identified it as an important object of study. . . . a deeply researched monograph."


"Williams' study is an instructive and stimulating treasure trove of insights about appetite spanning more than two centuries... She reminds us of how fruitful it is to historicize food and nutrition alongside social debates on responsibility."

NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin (translated from German)

“A novel and compelling addition to a growing body of work focused on the complex historical relationship between humans and food, Appetite and Its Discontents is sprawling and well researched, presenting broad overviews as well as specific case studies that trace a well-supported historical lineage. The text is a welcome contribution to historiographies of science, medicine, and nutrition, and may be of particular interest to scholars and students in these fields as well as those interested in histories of psychology, science and technology studies, and epistemology at large.”

H-Net Reviews

"Since appetite is so key to organisms’ basic survival yet also firmly rooted in both body and mind, it continues to pose urgent but unanswerable questions for society—and Williams’s history of appetite shows us that we should not necessarily wait for scientists to answer them for us. In this book, she convincingly demonstrates, by carefully tracing the contours of important disciplinary debates, that there has never been clear scientific
consensus around the ontology of appetite... Those interested in the narrow scientific or medical history of appetite will find Appetite and Its Discontents to be a detailed, overdue addition to the conversation."

Early American Literature

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Part One Anxieties of Appetite: Created Needs in the Enlightenment, 1750–1800
Introduction to Part One

1 Why We Eat: The Ancient Legacy
2 “False or Defective” Appetite in the Medical Enlightenment
3 Human and Animal Appetite in Natural History and Physiology

Part Two The Elusiveness of Appetite: Laboratory and Clinic, 1800–1850
Introduction to Part Two

4 Perils and Pleasures of Appetite at 1800: Xavier Bichat and Erasmus Darwin
5 The Physiology of Appetite to 1850
6 Extremes and Perplexities of Appetite in Clinical Medicine

Part Three Intelligent or “Blind and Unconscious”? Appetite, 1850–1900
Introduction to Part Three

7 The Drive to Eat in Nutritional Physiology
8 The Psychology of Ingestion: Appetite in Physiological and Animal Psychology
9 Peripheral or Central? Disordered Eating in Clinical Medicine

Part Four Appetite as a Scientific Object, 1900–1950
Introduction to Part Four

10 Psyche, Nerves, and Hormones in the Physiology of Ingestion
11 Appetite and the Nature-Nurture Divide: Eating Behavior in Psychology and Ethology
12 Somatic, Psychic, Psychosomatic: The Medicine of Troubled Appetite

Epilogue: Appetite after 1950

List of Abbreviations

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