Sunday, May 30, 2010


Just one sniff and you'd wish you were one huge nose!

The nose is a sensory organ constantly exposed to the environment, its 50 million receptors being the only part of the brain not encased within the skull. The nose's 'intuitive deductive' capacity was of paramount importance to early man in distinguishing edible food and warning away from harmful substances. The nose is constantly receiving impressions, many involuntarily, which can awaken and unlock long forgotten memories of specific places, times and feelings. Smell can evoke extremely strong feelings, ranging from disgust and repugnance to well-being and euphoria. The role of pheromones in sexual attraction is now well recorded. But although the nose is capable of differentiating between thousands of different smells, the sense of smell remains the least understood of all the senses , in particular its relationship to emotion and memory.

One of the earliest writings on smell is by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who wrote a tract entitled 'On Odours'. Olfactory descriptions abound in the Deipnosphistae or 'Banquet of the philosophers' by Athenaeus (circa 200 A.D.) while the Latin word 'Sagacious', originally meant not only clever but also a keen sense of smell.

Scholars and poets of the Renaissance and Reformation were aware that olfactory imagery was used in Classical Greek and Roman literature to describe beauty, ugliness, moral worth and virtue. Olfactory imagery can be found in the writings of many English literary figures including Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Herbert and Herrick. In the twentieth century the power of smell has been explored by writers such as Marcel Proust and more recently by Patrick Suskind in his novel Perfume (1985) which was successfully adapted into film in 2006.

Although smell, or  more accurately, scent has been used in the rituals of religious worship, early Christians and later those of a Puritan persuasion, associated perfumes and highly scented fragrances with the Roman Empire which had persecuted their religion, so they often censored and disapproved of the usage of incense in ritual worship and personal use.

During the seventeenth century the physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) would have been well-acquainted with various malodorous smells for his era was one in which primitive sanitation, numerous diseases and variable personal hygiene standards thrived. For these reasons Browne like many others was highly appreciative of fragrances. Many of the smells of Browne's day, pleasant and not-so-pleasant are however now long lost to the sanitized odourlessness of modern life. There's considerable evidence that Browne's olfactory sense was acutely sensitive. Many of Browne's major writings includes reference to smell either in a medical capacity as a physician or in employing olfactory imagery.

In his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica Browne devotes a whole chapter upon the subject of smell (Bk 4 ch. 10) noting that every man may have a proper and peculiar savour; that the sense of smell is acuter in dogs than in man, and that the Greek philosopher Theophrastus recorded Alexander the Great to be sweet-smelling. After speculating upon why diet and ill-health may make some smell unpleasant the learned physician vigorously attacks a common false belief of his era that any single Nation of people can smell bad. Using two of the three determinators to ascertain truth, namely Reason and Experience, Browne argues that such a belief is none other than an irrational and harmful prejudice.

It was the Renaissance alchemist-physician Paracelsus who urged the medical practitioner to enquire into all the properties of Nature, thus when a Sperma-Ceti Whale was beached upon the Norfolk coast Browne duly investigated it. In a famous descriptive chapter of Pseudodoxia which incidentally, influenced the American author Herman Melville's description of a whale in Moby Dick, Browne wrote of his investigation of the whale's putrefying carcass-

But had we found a better account and tolerable Anatomy, of that prominent jowle of the Sperma Ceti Whale , then questary operation, or the stench of the last cast upon our shoar, permitted, we might have perhaps discovered some handsome order in those Net-like seases and sockets, made like honey-combs, containing that medicall matter'.

Browne's scientific investigation however was thwarted, for insufferable fetour denying that enquiry, the creature's abominable scent agitating his olfactory sensitivity. With a touch of learned humour he concluded his chapter upon the Sperma-Ceti Whale thus-

And yet if, as Paracelsus encourageth, Ordure makes the best Musk, and from the most fetid substances may be drawn the most odoriferous Essences; all that had not Vespasian Nose, might boldly swear, here was a subject fit for such extractions. (P.E. Bk 3 : 26)

Browne's allusion to the Roman Emperor Vespasian's nose originates from an anecdote recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars. When Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, complained of a tax his father had imposed upon public Urinals he was shown a coin from the first day's tax. Vespasian asked 'Does it smell bad my son ?' 'No father!' Titus replied. 'That's odd it comes straight from the Urinal!' Vespasian replied.

Smell, or more precisely, fragrance is featured in Browne's 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus in which the learned doctor exclaims-

...whereto agreeth the doctrine of Theophrastus. Arise O North-winde, and blow thou South upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out; For the North-winde closing the pores, and shutting up the effluviums, when the South doth after open and relax them; the Aromatical gummes do drop, and sweet odours fly actively from them.

Numerous botanical observations are placed at the heart of Browne's Discourse including this observation which is indicative of the Norwich physician's sensitive and appreciative olfactory sense -

That the richest odour of plants, surpasseth that of Animals may seem of some doubt, since animall-musk, seems to excell the vegetable, and we finde so noble a scent in the Tulip-Fly, and Goat-Beetle.

The conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus includes the medical observation that the sense of smell is diminished in sleep-

Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dulnesse of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours;

Finally, late in his life Browne wrote a highly unusual work entitled Museum Clausum, a list of imagined, lost and rumoured books, pictures and objects. It's in this miscellaneous tract that the following  humorous quip, accompanied by a quotation from the Roman poet Catullus can be found-

A transcendent Perfume made of the richest Odorates of both the Indies, kept in a Box made of the Muschie Stone of Niarienburg, with this Inscription,

Deos rogato Totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, Nasum.

Just one sniff and you'd wish you were one huge nose !

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