The Smell Report
The process by which a flower’s scent is extracted and preserved using alcohol distillation is believed to have been discovered by Avicenna, the 11th century Arabian alchemist and physician, who stumbled on it while ‘trying to isolate for Islam the soul of its holy rose’. Before this, perfumes consisted only of thick resins and gums and gooey unguents.
Avicenna also used his sense of smell in the diagnosis of illness – by noting changes in the smell of patients’ urine. He was not, however, the first doctor to diagnose diseases by their smell: the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, many centuries earlier, recommended sniffing patients’ body odour as an effective means of identifying their ailments.
The perceptive and correct observation that body odours can indicate illness may unfortunately have led to the development of the erroneous belief that these odours were the cause of disease – resulting in our misguided attempts to protect ourselves against plague and typhus by carrying scented pouches and torches. Belief in the therapeutic value of perfumes was firmly established much earlier. 17th and 18th century doctors promoting the use of perfumes to combat infection frequently referred to the therapeutic use of fragrances by eminent physicians of the Ancient world such as Hippocrates (who burned scented stakes to combat the plague of Athens), Galen and Crito (whose healing methods were based almost entirely on the use of aromatics).
The plague was not the only malady to be treated with fragrances. In the 17th, 18th and even into the 19th century, perfumes were widely used as remedies for almost any physical or mental disorder – including hysteria, amenorrhea, melancholia, hypochondria, headaches and the common cold – despite growing scepticism about their efficacy among some scientists.
By the early 19th century, the use of aromatics for medicinal purposes had been largely discredited by sceptical scientists, in favour of chemical medicaments. Many traditional practices persisted, including the addition of perfumes to pharmaceutical preparations, but the influence of ‘aromaphobic’ scientists, philosophers and moralists was widespread.
Until the late 18th century, the most popular fragrances for aesthetic rather than medical purposes were the powerful, heavy perfumes derived from animals – musk, civet and ambergris. These voluptuous perfumes fell from grace in the late 18th century, when advances in bodily hygiene encouraged a fashion for more subtle and delicate fragrances. Strong perfumes such as musk cast doubt upon the wearer’s cleanliness, and their associations with animal reproductive instincts became distasteful to the newly modest and fastidious trend-setters.
The psychologist Havelock Ellis highlights the discrediting of musk as a significant turning point in the history of sexuality. Until the late 18th century, he claims, women used perfume as a means of emphasising, rather than masking, their natural body odour. Animal perfumes such as musk had the same function as the corsets which were used to accentuate and exaggerate the female form. It seems that men, by contrast, have throughout history felt less need to advertise their masculinity with perfumes, or indeed any other devices. Their complacency is eloquently explained by the 13th century Arab poet Sheykh Moslehoddi Sadi:
"Essence of roses, fragrant aloes, paint, perfume and lust:
All these are ornaments of women.
Take a man; and his testicles are a sufficient ornament."
The French historian Alain Corbin notes a more general decline in ‘olfactory tolerance’ associated with the rise of bourgeois mentality in the late 18th century. According to Corbin, the puritanical bourgeoisie were largely responsible for the growing moralistic denunciation of fragrances. The ephemeral nature of perfumes symbolised waste and extravagance; their use indicated a decadent taste for pleasure antithetical to the work ethic, they had no useful, pragmatic function and were therefore immoral. The heady, animal perfumes were particularly distasteful to the prudish bourgeoisie, because of their blatant sexuality.
It is interesting to note that the current trend away from heavy, musky perfumes and towards lighter, more delicate fragrances is also associated with a moralistic tendency -exemplified by the rise of ‘political correctness’, obsession with ‘healthy’ eating and exercise, the so-called ‘new temperance’ movement and other puritanical elements.