Saturday, December 12, 2009

National Geographic: The Intimate Sense of Smell

Discovering a great article on olfaction that doesn’t make you feel like a science dweeb is a rarity. That’s why the September 1986 edition of National Geographic is a must-have for anyone remotely interested in the sense of smell. For a fragrance lover, it is the equivalent of finding a hardcover copy of William Kauffman’s Perfume in excellent condition. The magazine includes an in-depth article titled “The Intimate Sense of Smell.” It’s length? A whopping 36 pages long; which is more ink than Scientific American gave the sense of smell in its “Senses” issue on December 12, 2006.

“The Intimate Sense of Smell” was written 18 years before Richard Axel and Linda Buck won the Nobel Prize for their research on the molecular basis for odor perception (a theory challenged by Luca Turin, who drives a convincing argument for vibration’s role in odor perception versus Axel and Buck’s focus on shape). Writer Boyd Gibbons examines the sense of smell from scientific, aesthetic, and emotional perspectives, including stories from the animal kingdom.

When it comes to describing scent Gibbons’ style is free from hyperbolic metaphor and fetishist cliché. In “The Intimate Sense of Smell” we learn that doctors used their noses to detect disease before high tech medicine. Many of the analogies between diseases and their odors are linked with the smell of food; typhoid smells like baking bread, scrofula smells like stale beer and yellow fever smells like a butcher shop. Gibbons reveals the methods of Detroit dope smugglers who used after-shave, green peppers, talcum and/or garlic in their cars to distract the noses of drug sniffing dogs. (Note to aspiring drug smugglers; these methods do not work.)

In 1986, little research was being done on the subject of anosmia; the loss of the sense of smell. Nicolaus Weickart, who was interviewed by Gibbons, poignantly illustrates the depth of this loss, “I’m a lawyer and a collector of histories…I smell a book before I read it. You go into one of those damp bookstores in Italy, and you smell that old leather, the musty pages. You can smell a touch of history. Now I can’t. It’s very sad.”

Perfume lovers are in for a rare treat; the inclusion of an interview with IFF perfumer Bernard Chant. This is historically important as Chant’s digital presence is limited to a speech he gave to the British Society of Perfumers in 1982 and a handful of obituaries from 1987. There are no photographs of Bernard Chant on the internet, but one opens “The Intimate Sense of Smell” in National Geographic. Edmond Roudnitska, who studied under the tutelage of Ernest Beaux and was Christian Dior’s in-house perfumer, is also included in the article.

The passing of 23 years and advances in the science of olfaction are two good reasons for National Geographic to revisit the sense of smell in the near future. In the meantime you can purchase a reprint of “The Intimate Sense of Smell” by calling 800-777-2800 or by visiting National Geographic. As an added bonus, look for the scratch and sniff "smell survey" conducted by Dr. Charles Wysocki and Dr. Avery Gilbert.