Friday, February 13, 2015

ISDP: Sixth Anniversary Edition

The scent alarm on the steampunk astrolabe in the living room just delivered a puff of cadaverine to remind us that today is the thirteenth of the month and time to roll out a new edition of I Smell Dead People. As if we needed reminding: date is auspicious. Today is Friday the 13th, and it was exactly six years ago today—on Friday the 13th, 2009—that that we posted our premier edition. Six years of chronicling gruesome discoveries prompted by the scent of decay. Ah, good times, good times.

Today’s collection of the olfactory macabre is an especially violent one. (Happy Valentine’s Day, BTW). But we begin with a rather featureless case at the Alexander Courts apartment complex in Dothan, Alabama, where a complaint about “a foul smell” led police to a dead body in one of the units. The deceased: white male. The cause: natural.

Out in Los Angeles things took a darker turn: “Elderly couple, adult son found decomposing in LA apartment.”
Their apartment manager entered the home in the 1100 block of Crenshaw Boulevard at about 3 p.m. Saturday because of a strong odor, police said.
(We have said it before: being an apartment manager is not a job for the squeamish.)

The case appears to be a double-murder-suicide. The son was 54 and his father 86. The exact cause of death has not been determined.

And on to our final item, as initially reported by KZTV in Corpus Christie, Texas: “A complaint about a foul smell led officers to a badly decomposed body.” The body in the house on Paul Jones Avenue was in an advanced stage of decomposition and the cause of death unclear.

On further investigation, the body turned out to be that of an adult woman and police treated the case as a homicide. The victim’s 15-year-old son was considered a suspect and he was arrested.

The eventual release of the arrest affidavit contained troubling details. The police first went to the home on a welfare check, not because someone reported the smell of decay. According to the Rules Committee, this disqualifies the incident for ISDP.
Holden Clark answered the door. His face and neck were bloodied. Inside the home, officers found the decomposed body of Clark’s mother, Pamela Clark, stuffed in a trash can in the kitchen.
Hmmmm . . . On the bright side hat means Mr. Clark may still be eligible for the Norman Bates Award™.
a friend of the boy went to the home and saw the body. The document says Holden Clark told that friend that he shot his mother and then dragged her body to the kitchen. The friend allegedly saw the body stuffed in a trash can. That friend later contacted another friend, who then called police.
Well, kudos to the other friend, at least.

Longtime ISDP fans know this isn’t the first case of living with the remains following a matricide. Recall 16-year-old Kit Darrant of Miami, Florida, who police say choked and stabbed his mother to death and lived in the home for another eight days. He threw some laundry detergent on the body to mask to odor before having friends over to party. The episode earned Mr. Darrant a nod for the 2012 Norman Bates Award.

Monday, February 9, 2015

FN Review: Sense of Smell, by Marcel van Brakel, et al.

I had my doubts when this oddly shaped book arrived in the mail. At nearly two hundred printed pages, its foldover, center-stitched format gives its open side a goofy beveled edge. It looks and feels like a gigantic pamphlet.

What’s inside, however, is fresh, compelling and thought-provoking.

Sense of Smell is a collective work, a co-creation of the faculty and students at Avans University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands who took part in a field study in Berlin and an intensive 48-hour brainstorming “sweatshop” that produced novel olfactory design concepts, some of which were later realized as art installations.

The book is arranged in themed sections: data, temporality, taboo, perfumication, and ethereal. Each section features essays, projects (descriptions of exhibits), and concepts. The layout—English (black) and Dutch (red) text side by side or over/under—is pleasing and the many color images are striking and beautifully printed.

I was wary initially of the essays which introduce each section. Brief overviews of smell topics risk being inaccurate or lightweight. And indeed, when the essay in the “Ethereal” section cited The Matrix as a philosophic reference, the alarm on the FN Bogosity Meter went off big time. Many of the other essays, however, are crisp, lucid and quite accurate. There is discernment at play here.

My only quibble with the essay “Cinesexual smell: The ecstatic olfactory face” is that “smelling a nice smell” is a conventionalized facial expression, rather than the involuntary expression of deeply emotional experience that author Patricia MacCormack assumes it to be. However all is forgiven because she includes the great image of Udo Kier as Baron Frankenstein reaching orgasm while fondling the entrails of a female zombie. Awesome. And speaking of entrails, fans of I Smell Dead People will enjoy Nienke Huitenga’s interview with forensic sniffer Harry Jongen.

Rosi Braidotti uses Pinka, Virginia Woolf’s cocker spaniel, as an olfactory lens to examine the author’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Woolf’s Flush, written from a dog’s sensory point of view, has a lot to recommend it. But Braidotti’s turgid academic prose (“Nomadic becomings express the positive structure of difference, unhinged from the binary system of dialectics that opposed it to Sameness”) snuffs out any motivation to follow her thesis. This one dud proves to be the exception among a set of readable and entertaining essays.

By now I have read most of the available cultural chestnuts about olfaction. So when, for example, Sense of Smell plays with the Warhol “smell museum” idea that I wrote about in my own book, I get fidgety. But I was pleased and excited to find anecdotes that were totally new to me, like Judy Garland’s BO problem and how she tried to solve it. I also had never heard of the Italian Futurist Carlo Carrà’s interest in olfactory-visual synesthesia, or of the Shinto benjo-gami (privy gods) in Japan. (This should give you some idea of range of ideas entertained in this volume.)

The concepts and design projects in Sense of Smell provide a comprehensive look at recent artistic and technological explorations of scent. Some, like Amy Radclife’s Scentography system, or the whole-body-odor extraction of Martynka Wawrzyniak, or Lernert & Sander’s potpourri stunt will be familiar to FN readers. And ISDP fans will have been all over the “Famous Deaths” installation (imagined smellscapes from the JFK assassination, etc.) that made waves recently.

There are many other entries to surprise and delight the olfactively-inclined reader, such as the piece on the stinky booby-trapped underwear design called Skunk Grenade, or the one about sneaker smell-fetish websites. (I admit I’d never heard of sneakerslaves until now, but having met the leading prophet of the Fart Smeller Movement I can’t say I’m surprised.)

The Lucid Dream Generator CMD Concept is the merest germ of an idea, but one that got me thinking. I believe there is a lot of potential here, given that commenters have made my “Dreaming of Smell” post one of the top rated search engine results on the topic. There are surely a lot of ways to use scent to bend the trajectory of dreams.

Bottom line: Sense of Smell is a beautifully produced omnium gatherum of the contemporary scene in olfactory art, design, and inspiration. If you want to get a sense of where creative minds are taking the field, you should get yourself a copy.

The book reviewed here is Sense of smell, edited by Marcel van Brakel, Wander Eikelboom, Frederik Duerinck, et al., 2014. Published by The Eriskay Connection. ISBN 978-94-92051-00-4

P.S. A earlier version of this post misidentified the academic affiliation of the authors. Hat tip to commenter Wander for pointing it out.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Annals of Anosmia 9: Awareness or Cure?

John Edwin Rhodes, M.D.

I get asked about smell loss a lot—by friends, neighbors, relatives, in-laws, and complete strangers. These conversations inevitably leave me feeling depressed. All I can do is explain the basic clinical facts and offer the glimmer of hope that their condition might improve on its own. I can’t tell them about promising new clinical research or therapies under development because there are none. And the fact that after decades of substantial research funding by NIH there are no therapies for smell loss is more than frustrating—it’s a scandal.

The lack of clinical progress goes back a long way. Consider the speech given in 1890 by John Edwin Rhodes, M.D., a graduate of the University of Chicago and Rush Medical College and a pillar of the ENT community. His topic was “Anosmia” and his published text is a succinct statement of clinical knowledge at the time. Here’s the key bit:
No treatment has been suggested that will relieve a case of true anosmia. If dependent upon local conditions, as deformity of nasal structure, excessive hypertrophy, or nasal polypi, surgical measures may result in complete, or at least partial relief.
This was the state of affairs in 1890 and it is a passable summary of where we stand today, 125 years later.

Sure, we now have more precise and rigorous tests for diagnosing olfactory dysfunction—we can grade smell loss into anosmia and various shades of hyposmia. We have precise anatomical descriptions of the pathological changes to the olfactory tissue in the nose. We know how brain areas linked to the olfactory cells of the nose shrink after an extended period of anosmia. We can confirm with EEG and fMRI and computer-controlled air-dilution olfactometry what John Edwin Rhodes observed by himself in a nineteenth century consulting room. We have filled in the details, but the big picture hasn’t changed a bit.

Individual cases of restored smell are newsworthy; most involve a peripheral cause, as in the dramatic recent case of rugby player Edward Baker. In the case of perfumer Kim Spadaro, a meningioma pressing on her olfactory nerves was resolved surgically, resulting in a happy restoration of smell.

For those whose anosmia results from head trauma or flu the prospects are bleak. Go to and search for “smell loss.” You’ll get 30 results, the vast majority of which concern smell impairment as a biomarker for other diseases. There are drug trials for allergic rhinitis and polyps, but nothing for primary anosmia resulting from head injury or flu. There is no therapy in sight and we are no closer to a cure than was Dr. Rhodes.

Meanwhile, anosmia has enjoyed a recent vogue of sorts. In previous Annals of Anosmia posts I noted the rise of a new features-page genre—the “first-person anosmic” essay—and its ritualized rhetorical elements. (In the mid-aughts these included a recitation of doctors consulted and a reference to the 2004 Nobel Prize.) As night follows day, magazine pieces became book proposals. Among the results were Bonnie Blodgett’s Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing—and Discovering—the Primal Sense, and Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.

In an essay posted a year and a half ago, Rebecca Steinitz pithily described the standard narrative and how it doesn’t square with her experience as an anosmic from birth.
I only discovered the word for people like me a few years ago. We are anosmic; we have anosmia: lack of the sense of smell.

Sometimes anosmia is defined as loss of the sense of smell. When people lose their sense of smell, they wax irate and nostalgic. They write articles in the New York Times about the tragedy and danger of not being able to smell burnt toast and how their friends don’t understand. They write books about traveling the world, searching for smell. They almost always regain what they have lost, because that is the nature of narratives of loss: you lose, you suffer, you recover.

Then there are those of us who never had what we’ve supposedly lost.
Over at New Scientist, anosmic Mick O’Hare took things to a new level of meta by reviewing an art installation by Eléonore de Bonneval called “Anosmia: Lives Without a Sense of Smell” which took place at the Kenzo Parfums showroom in Paris.

The biggest news on the anosmia front is the increase in advocacy. UK resident Duncan Boak, rendered anosmic by a traumatic brain injury in 2005, founded the organization Fifth Sense, whose purpose is to provide support and advice to those who suffer from smell and taste disorders (a worthy goal), and to address society’s lack of understanding about these disorders (a somewhat amorphous goal).

Among other things, Boak calls for scientists to saddle up and join the cause:
It’s time for science to come to the aid of olfaction, and we must harness it to develop our understanding of the role and function of the sense of smell, and treatment for olfactory disorders.
Newsflash for Mr. Boak: scientists are definitely aware of olfactory disorders. They have been getting NIH grant money for decades by claiming their research might eventually help people who suffer from anosmia. He might want to ask them why the millions of dollars spent to date have produced so little.

Fifth Sense also works to raise awareness of anosmia among the general public. In this they are joined by the Monell Chemical Senses Center (where I once worked long ago). Getting the word out on social media about support groups and coping strategies is certainly worthwhile. But what else can public awareness hope to accomplish in the absence of treatment options?

Monell, for its part, has tied the awareness campaign to a fundraising effort. Called “A sense of hope”, it comes with tagline (“Imagine life without a sense of smell”), celebrity spokesman (Bill Pullman) and monetary goal ($1.5 million over three years).

Monell does some great research on smell and taste. I admire my many former colleagues who work there. However, the anosmia campaign makes me uneasy. Given the long, dismal history of the field, is it wise to raise money on a promise you are unlikely to keep?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Blind Versus Sighted Smell-Off: Who Wins?

Smell has more than its share of bogus conventional wisdom. Case in point: the notion that blind people have a superior sense of smell by way of sensory compensation. I explored the evidence for this proposition in What the Nose Knows. It turns out the blind are no better than sighted people in terms of odor detection. While some studies find that the blind are better at naming odors, this is more likely due to cognitive factors (memory and practice) than to having a supersensitive nose. I concluded that superior smell in the blind is a canard, and I dubbed it the Helen Keller Fallacy.

My rejection of the CW would not have troubled the great lady herself. While acknowledging the importance of smell to her experience of the world, Helen Keller admitted that “I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal.”

Since my book came out there have been additional studies. I blogged about one that claimed superior performance by the blind; it offered no challenge to my earlier conclusion.

Now another study has popped up. In a recently published paper, a group of German researchers asked “Do the blind smell better?” They tested 46 blind and 46 normal-sighted people with the Sniffin’ Sticks test kit. The kit provides three measures of smell ability: odor identification, odor discrimination, and olfactory threshold (i.e., sensitivity). The result: no difference between the groups overall, or on any single measure.

The myth remains busted.

The study discussed here is “Do the blind smell better?” by Christoffer Luers, Stefanie Mikolajczak, Moritz Hahn, Claus Wittekindt, Dirk Beutner, Karl-Bernd Hüttenbrink, & Michael Damm, published in European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology 271:1933-1937, 2014.