Thursday, October 28, 2010

Annals of Anosmia 5: Paradise Lost, Book Contract Gained

There was a time earlier in the decade when features editors couldn’t commission enough “how I lost my sense of smell” pieces. From 2003 to 2008, eight such essays appeared in major publications around the world. (This doesn’t count another four written by congenital anosmics—people who never had a sense of smell in the first place.)

Analysis of the “first person anosmic” genre reveals two key narrative elements: a recitation of doctors consulted, and a reference to the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Australian newspaper The Age just published another example of the art form, an essay by Peter Lowndes called “Losing my senses.” Lowndes was an enthusiastic epicure before contracting a heavy cold six years ago at the age of thirty-five. Afterwards he was left unable to smell and barely able to taste his food. Lowndes makes the expected bow to the rules of the genre:
In search of a remedy during those initial years I saw several allergists and an ear, nose and throat specialist, and dabbled with acupuncture, nasal sprays, changing my diet and several other suggested remedies. None of that helped.
He name checks “Dr. William Smith, a senior consultant at the clinical immunology and allergy department at Royal Adelaide Hospital,” but for some unfathomable reason fails to reference the 2004 Nobel Prize. Despite failing to score the maximum number of genre points, his description of tantalizing near-recoveries and ultimate surrender to a one-dimensional olfactory life is well written.

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle carries a story by Carolyn Jung about an anosmic local chef: “Carlo Middione can’t taste but still loves to cook.” Middione, now in his mid-seventies, was for many years the owner of Vivande Porta Via on Fillmore Street. Three years ago he lost his sense of smell in a car accident and eventually gave up his restaurant in frustration. (A pity—he’s clearly talented.)

Middione experienced disturbing episodes of parosmia in which formerly pleasurable smells became obnoxious. While he still enjoys the physical process of cooking and preparing food, he seems resigned to his shrunken sensory world. 

According to Jung, Middione is not the only chef to lose it:
Middione has some company in the professional chef world. Most notably, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago lost his sense of taste after undergoing chemotherapy for tongue cancer. And Kirk Webber, chef-owner of Cafe Kati in San Francisco, lost his sense of taste after suffering two concussions in a mugging in 2003.

These chefs eventually regained their ability to taste, although they are considerably younger than Middione, who’s in his mid-70s.
Jung also reports that food industry executive Barb Stuckey is writing a book about smell loss that features Middione. Ms. Stuckey enters a crowded marketplace. Bonnie Blodgett’s memoir of smell loss and recovery was published a few months ago. And next year cooking school student, accident victim, and NYT anosmia essayist Molly Birnbaum will publish a book recounting her recovery from anosmia. Looks like smell loss may soon get a shelf of its own in the self-help section.


EdC said...

I've only read some of these but I don't recall that any doctor or expert ever identified whether the problem was in the nose - loss of olefactory receptors - or in the brain - loss of ability to process signals from the O.R. Do you know? I would think the brain could recover better than the nose.

Olfacta said...

Hi Avery --

I'm sure you know that loss of smell can be an early symptom of Parkinson's, or so I've read. A man to whom I'm related by marriage lost his sense of smell years ago, although he continued to be offended by "smell strips" in the newspaper so I guess he could smell a little -- anyway, his doctor had initially attributed the loss to percussion from a nearby explosion. Turns out that wasn't it. He's now profoundly disabled by the disease. In his case it was the brain. I don't know if it would've made that much difference, but I'd certainly ask about it if I ever lost my sense of smell, even partially.

Avery Gilbert said...


Trauma (a blow to the head for example) severs the nerve fibers that run from the sensory cells in the nose to the olfactory bulbs & brain. Although new sensory cells may try to re-connect, they are not always successful.

Infection (flu, sinusitis) damages the sheet of sensory cells in the nose. If the damage is extensive enough, non-sensory tissue replaces it, with a loss of smell input to the brain.

Either way, loss of signal from the sensory cells leads to a shrinking of the olfactory bulbs and other smell-related areas of the brain, apparently from disuse.

It's frustrating that we're still at the stage of describing the basic pathology--and so far from treatments or a cure.

Avery Gilbert said...


I'm sorry to hear about your in-law. Sad to say, but smell loss is now a well-established leading indicator of Parkinsonism and Alzheimer's disease. Where there is no other obvious cause--head injury, flu, chemical exposure, or nasal polyps--smell loss in early middle age should be taken seriously as a symptom.

P.S. Maybe his doctor was indirectly correct--if the explosion was near enough to be concussive. Head trauma can increase the likelihood of Parkinson's, as in the case of boxers.