Walter B. Shelly, MD, PhD, 1917 – 2009
A pioneer of body odor research.
I work out in a fitness club located in a strip mall between Dress Barn and Blockbuster. The equipment’s up-to-date and the atmosphere is egalitarian: a mix of off-duty firefighters, Jerseyoid housewives, middle-aged schlubs, the occasional exotic dancer, the young, the buff, and the heavily tattooed. The patrons are courteous to a fault, in contrast to the “F**k me? No, f**ck you!” ethos that prevails in this northeastern corner of the Garden State.
As even your gym teacher has told you, fresh axillary sweat is odorless. One has to be deliberately negligent to stink as loudly as the guy in my gym.
This basic fact of modern hygiene was first documented scientifically in 1953 when Walter B. Shelley, a dermatology resident at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated that the acrid smell of BO emerges only after skin bacteria go to work on fresh secretions from the apocrine sweat glands. This process is expedited in hairy armpits, as he and his colleagues fearlessly proved by means of direct sniff tests.
Shelley’s intimate knowledge of sweat physiology came from his stint as an Army doctor in WW II at the Fort Knox Armored Medical Research Laboratory, where he ran a “hot room” to determine the limitations of sweating in tropical combat. Shelley was a prolific researcher who went on to become a world renowned expert on clinical dermatology.
Dr. Shelley died on January 30 in Grand Rapids, Ohio, at the age of ninety-one. His quirky obituary in the Toledo Blade is worth reading for the sense it gives of the determination and relentless energy that powered him through a lifetime of scientific achievement.
Hats off to a true pioneer.