Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Armpit Pioneer

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.

The gym is spotless and without any discernible background odor. The same goes for the membership. Which is why it was so remarkable the other day when a guy stepped onto the treadmill next to mine reeking of BO. The stink radiated from his armpits with megawatt intensity. I finished my warmup trying to breathe as little as possible and on the drive home I pondered the nature of underarm odor.

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.


Olfacta said...

Sounds like a pretty good gym.

Mine has a sign in the lobby which says, roughly, that "members should refrain from wearing cologne or perfume 'in deference to our pregnant members'."

Um....In ten years I've seen only one visibly pregnant member, but there's this guy...and he's not the only one...when I see him, I run for my lemony-herbal scent, which I keep in the gym bag as a form of self-defense. Rules and pregnant members be damned.

Marc Schoenfeld said...

I know the feeling. I once had to breathe through my mouth for 40 minutes of working out on a machine because of a smelly guy and had a sore throat afterward due to him. Which is why I normally prefer swimming outdoors.

Avery Gilbert said...

Olfacta & Marc:

What is it about BO that makes it harder to ignore than a run of the mill malodor? It's so rude and intrusive. The culprit might as well be shoving his armpit in front of your nose. And to inhale under these circumstances is to submit to nasal intimidation.

Nathan Branch said...

We work quite hard as a culture to tamp down odor causing bacteria, so I wonder if aggressive BO in these situations is a deliberate signal/message of a counter-culture attitude?

Both instances in which I encountered aggressive BO at a gym, it originated with a overtly counter-cultural type: #1) older hippie female; #2) young gay leather-bar male. Both appeared aware of their own stench, yet uninterested in its effects on the seeming "conformists" around them.

Is strong BO now used a method of differentiating oneself from the washed masses?

Avery Gilbert said...


I love your phrase "aggressive BO." Do you mind if I appropriate it?

How about a formal definition?: "the deliberate and reckless broadcast of offensive bodily malodor."

That leaves the question of intent: there seems to be an element of perverse narcissism to aggressive BO. The message: You are the uptight one if you object to my natural scent. It's a chemosensory dare. Whadja gonna do 'bout it?

maria blogrom said...

I would be curious what means 'fresh' axillary sweat. How long does it take to that bacteria to work on? I was always amazed that early in the morning some people would smell terrible (take public transport) and out of respect I always tried to assume that they have some personal physical problem that they smell so bad.
So, you wash yourself, don't put any deodorant. Then you sweat. After how long you start smelling bad?