Alexander the Great is said to have had wonderful breath and to have exuded a fine body odor that permeated his clothing. Walt Whitman, no humble man, proclaimed that his own (unadorned)
armpits smelled “finer than a prayer.”
Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, had an extremely fine tuned nose. She remarked about the “dear, unmistakable” odors of those she loved. She said that her nose helped her to learn much about people.
She could deduce the work they engaged in from such things as wood, iron, paint, and drugs clinging to their clothing. “When a person passes quickly from one place to another,” she said, “I get a scent impression of where he has been the kitchen, the garden, or the sickroom.”
In old country houses Keller could smell layers of odors left by a succession of families, plants, perfumes, and draperies. She said that people had “personality” smells. Infants lacked a personality scent, and adults who lacked a distinctive person scent she seldom found lively or entertaining.
Keller found male scents stronger, more vivid, and more differentiated than those of women. Recent studies have shown that mothers recognize the scent of their own babies and can pick out clothing their children have worn. Babies will also prefer underarm pads worn by their mothers over those worn by other women (or their fathers), indicating smell recognition.
Because people are all a little different chemically and metabolically, we should be expected to have different personal odors. Study indicates that husbands and wives do not smell alike, so diet does not homogenize a couple’s smell. Perfumers are reputed to be able to smell differences between skin and hair colors.
Democritus writes of being able to distinguish virgins and non virgins by their odors. Medieval authorities claimed to be able to discriminate the odor of chastity in both sexes (resembling the chemicalionone, used in perfumery and flavoring) and that of unchastity (resembling boiling starch).
In 1886, Augustin Galopin, in Le Parfum de la Femme, classified women according to smell. Blondes, he said, smelled of amber; women with chestnut brown hair of violets; brunettes of ebony wood; and redheads smelled “peculiar.” (Shades of the bedbug story.)
Some psychiatrists have long claimed to be able to smell schizophrenics; the substance involved has been identified as trans 3 methylhexanoic acid in their sweat. On the other hand, some schizophrenics, whose senses seem to be “turned up,” claim to be able to smell hostility.
Physicians associate certain odors with certain illnesses, especially diseases resulting from inborn errors of metabolism, in which the usual metabolic pathways are subverted because enzymes are faulty or lacking.
The urine of children with phenylketonuriahas a sweet almond smell. In phenylketonuria, the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase is missing and phenylalanine builds up, which is toxic to the brain in the early years of life. Newborns are now routinely tested for the malady and treated by a diet low in phenylalanine.
Not many years ago, however, the disease went untreated, and the resulting retarded children were often institutionalized, imparting to institutions their sweet almond smell. Maple syrup urine disease is another metabolic disorder. And diabetics, who are metabolizing fats into ketones because they lack the hormone insulin to move sugar into their cells where it can be used, have a characteristic fruity ketone odor to their breath (an odor in the family with acetone, nail polish remover).
Francis Bacon and others wrote of the plague’s smell of “mellow apples.” Other smell descriptions of disease: typhus, mouselike; measles, like freshly plucked feathers; scarlatina, like fresh hot bread; eczema and impetigo, moldy; and nephritis, like chaff.
Healthy people should be free of such strange odors, and this perhaps provides a subliminal criterion for humans in the search for potential mates. Odor estrangement from one’s group is not good. A
few years ago, my friend Barb, a hospital dietitian, worked out a special diet for a patient with “fish odor syndrome,” or tnmethylaminuria.
The patient’s problem was related to excessive dietary choline, resulting in a buildup of trimethyl alanine generated by gut bacteria that could not be metabolized by the liver, again because of a lacking enzyme. His faulty protein metabolism resulted in a strong body odor of rotting fish, unpleasant to those around him. The diet improved his odor.