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Power of Smell

By Robert Tisserand

Primitive man certainly used his nose more than we do today. Even if we wanted to follow each other's tracks, by sniffing the ground, what chance would we have of succeeding? Most of us live in a highly polluted atmosphere, and eat a mucus-forming diet; if you smoke you have even less of a sense of smell. Only by fasting can you rediscover the acuity of your senses, especially the sense of smell.

You can then appreciate the depth, beauty, and subtlety of, say, the odour of a fresh apple. It is almost like a glimpse into another world: you realise how our perception of the world is entirely dependent on the senses we use to perceive it. Thus although we all live in the same world, in a sense we live in entirely different worlds, according to our perception and interpretation of things.

This is how important our senses are to us. Our nose is probably less important to us than our eyes or ears, but it too has its value. The sense of smell forms the greater part of what we normally think of as our sense of taste. When you have a cold, and your nose is blocked, your tongue can still taste quite well, but the function of smell is impaired. Although we may know, intellectually, what foods we like, and what a balanced diet consists of, we still rely very much on our nose to guide us in cooking and preparing food, and our enjoyment of food is primarily a nasal phenomenon.

Just as the ear distinguishes between noise and music, so the nose distinguishes 'bad' and 'good' odours. Bad odours are often associated with lack of hygience, putrescence, and disease. In recent years, for example, air pollution has become a serious problem, but even coal smoke, car fumes, and industrial waste gases do not produce the stench that permeated the cities of Europe in the Middle Ages. When the dustmen go on strike for a few months we are reminded of what it used to mean to live in a city. Dan McKenzie comments on early nineteenth-century Edinburgh:

'And the whole stew was quite innocent of what we call drainage. Quite. Yet the waste-products of life, the lees and offscouring of humanity, all that housemaids called "slops", had to be got rid of. Very simple problem this, to our worthy Edinburgh forefathers. After dark the windows up in these "lands" were thrust open, and with a shrill cry of "Gardy-loo" (Gardez l'eau)the cascade of swipes and worse fell into the street below with a splash.'

Evil smells have always been counteracted by pleasant aromatics. If before the seventeenth-century the Englishman knew little of bathing, he at least knew, and used, plenty of perfume. The Egyptians mummified their dead with aromatic gums and spices; aromatics were used to counteract the plague, and holy or royal places and personages were always well incensed or perfumed. Each disease, too, is said to have its own individual smell. Dan McKenzie comments:

'Physicians of the last generation used to speak of typhus fever as having a close, mawkish odour, and the smell of smallpox is horrible... There are others, however, less powerful and repugnant... the acid smell of acute rheumatism for one, and I have sometimes thought I could detect a characteristic odour also in acute nephritis, a smell resembling that of chaff. The odour of a big haemorrhage is unmistakable and, to obstetricians particularly, ominous.'

One might add that in diabetes the breath and urine usually smell of acetone, the smell of nail-varnish remover. A sweet smell is said by Bacon to attend the plague:

'The plague is many times taken without a manifest sense, as hath been said. And they report that, where it is found, it hath the scent of a smell of a mellow apple; and (as some say) of May-flowers; and it is also received that smells of flowers that are mellow and luscious are ill for the plague, as white lilies, cowslips, and hyacynth.'

Here again we can see the homeopathic principle of simila similibus currentur, the cures like.

The smell of the breath, perspiration, urine and faces present a subjective, but nevertheless practical aid to diagnosis - an unattractive guide but one much used by doctors of previous centuries.

Some of the most infectious diseases, have the most abominable odours. Is it not appropriate that the most pleasant and odoriferous healing agents are also the most antiseptic? They not only cover up bad smells, but effectively destroy the bacteria that cause them; hence their use as air freshners, deodorants and antiseptic agents.

Althought man's sense of smell is not as acute as that of a dog or moth, we have, in theory, quite an acute sense of smell. As little of one part of ethyl mercaptan in two thousand million parts of water can be readily detected by the human nose, and distinguished from plain water. This is an exceptional example, a more prepresentative figure being one part in 10,000. A slightly higher concentration, 1:1,000 is necessary to distinguish bewteen many thousands of odours.

This is an extract from The Art of Aromatherapy by Robert Tisserand and published by The C W Daniel Company Ltd which has now been bought by Random House. ISBN number is 0 85207 140 X For more information, visit www.cwdaniel.com