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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: Science, Medicine, and the Urge to Eat, 1750-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2020), 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.

Elizabeth A. Williams is professor emerita of history at Oklahoma State University.

Claire Clark is a medical educator, historian of medicine, and associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine. She teaches and writes about health behavior in historical context.

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