The Chemistry of Famine: Nutritional Controversies and the Irish Famine c.1845-7’

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The activities of Irish medical practitioners in relieving the impact of the Irish Famine (c.1845-52) have been well documented. However, analysis of the function of contemporary medico-scientific ideas relating to food has remained mostly absent from Famine historiography. This is surprising, given the burgeoning influence of Liebigian chemistry and the rising social prominence of nutritional science in the 1840s. Within this article, I argue that the Famine opened up avenues for proponents of nutritional science to converse with discussion in politico-economic circles regarding Irish dietary transformation. Nutritional science was prominent within the activities of the Scientific Commission, the Central Board of Health, and in debates regarding soup kitchen schemes. However, the practical inefficacy of many scientific suggestions resulted in the forging of close associations between nutritional science and the inefficiencies of state relief policy, whilst emergent tensions between the state, science and public resulted in scientists increasingly distancing themselves from state-sponsored relief practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)444-462
JournalMedical History
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Oct 2013


  • nutrition and the Irish Famine
  • history of famine in Ireland
  • Liebig nutritional science
  • history of nutrition
  • famine and medicine


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