prospect: an anthology of creative nonfiction,  spring 2008  


  by Jessica Wronowski '08

David Rome Prize

When speaking with the Ongee of the Andaman Islands, you do not ask, 'How are you?' but instead, 'How is your nose?' If your acquaintance is 'heavy with odor,' you must inhale deeply to relieve him. If he is lacking odor-energy, proper etiquette dictates that you blow on him.

In Western culture's medieval hierarchy of the senses, smell ranked last, deemed an avenue of lust, desire and beastly impulse.

Rarely are people described as having a beautiful nose. More often, they have a honker or a big schnoz.

I notice noses first. Some are lumpy and long like potatoes, others are pinched and small. My mother's nose is high and narrow, my father's wide and bumpy. Large noses are common in my family, but so is rhinoplasty. Dr. Tobias has sawed, sucked and chiseled a number of family noses into more appealing shapes. I worry over the unexpected effects of this alteration.

'Smell' is forced to multi-task as both noun and verb, always bearing a negative connotation unless paired with a more pleasing adjective.


Smell is my favorite of the five senses. Taste used to be its competitor, but not any more. This is because 1) Smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than taste, 2) Taste is 80 to 90% smell, and 3) I fall in love first by smell, my other senses always racing to catch up.

Once, I met an intelligent, interesting man with dark eyes and soft hair who asked, "When can I see you again?" I said, "Sorry, but I am much too busy right now." I was not busy, in fact I was quite bored, but I told him this because I could not tell him, "You smell too familiar."

Smell, taste, sex. They are closely related.

The Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago conducted a study relating smells to male erections. Pumpkin pie, liquorice, doughnuts, lavender and cola emit scents that increase penile blood flow. Mixtures were particularly effective: lavender/pumpkin pie, doughnut/black liquorice, pumpkin pie/doughnut.

Inhale. Grease, fuel, metallic sweat. Each night, I turned away and sank into the narrow space between the bed and the wall. He returned in the afternoons, opening my eyes with a grey finger, to which I said, "You smell dirty, like a boy." Every afternoon for an entire year that now, I don't believe happened. I don't believe it happened at all, except when I take my car to the shop and yawn in the smells. Then I think it did. Exhale.

Men unknowingly rate ovulating women as more attractive than menstruating women.

I walked through Barcelona alone, touching my stomach and sniffing. Thick exhaust on the Gran Via, salt and sweat at the end of Las Ramblas, clean rain on the escalators up to Parc Güell. Balancing my body against the handrail of the crowded metro, I searched first for "test" and then "pregnancy" in my pocket dictionary. The words, thick and syrupy, stuck to the roof of my mouth.

67% of pregnant women report increased smell sensitivity, 14% detect phantom smells.


Anosmia: loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial. May be caused by head injury, infection or blockage of the nose.

Types of smell: Camphor, musk, floral, peppermint, ether, pungent and putrid. In 1952, John Amoore proposed that these were the seven primary odors in existence. Amoore was wrong, but it would be nice, don't you think, if things were so simple? Nice if there were only seven smells, only seven memories.

Parts of smell: Olfactory epithelium, bulb and mucosa, receptor cells, Bowman's Glands, limbic system, thalamus, frontal cortex. A smell dissolves in the mucus of a small spongy area lodged in the inner chambers of the nose. To be detected, its chemicals must have a molecular weight less than 300. Nerves first send signals to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, the seat of emotion. The smell incites chains of emotional responses that can embrace or strangle long before it can even be named.

By 80 years old, 80% of people have a major smell dysfunction, 50% are anosmic. Schizophrenics and Alzheimer's patients often report a loss of smell.

"By the end, my grandmother didn't even know who I was, couldn't remember any of our names," said my friend. "She never smelled the flames, you know. Not until she could see the smoke."

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine can diagnose illness solely by smelling the afflicted patient's breath.

I wanted to be a doctor. I began preparing for my career in science early, gearing up for a life-long dedication. I spent time in labs, inhaling the scents of chemicals, Bunsen burners and latex gloves. I did this until the facts became constricting. Until I learned things like smells must weigh less than 300. What is 300? A memory must be heavier than that.


Parosmia: disorder of the sense of smell, involving the altered perception of odors. Dr. Karl L. Wuensch quotes a sufferer, who says, "The smell is so strong and magnified and distorted that it cannot be compared with external smells, because it is coming from inside you - there is no escape…and even when it isn't there it haunts you because you never know when it will come."

Memories are often described as haunting. This is one of the more accurate clichés.

'Proustian memory' refers to the ability to recall memories in response to smell. It is not the ability to smell the sweet warmth of vanilla and remember today is your friend's birthday. It is the ability to smell that vanilla and remember the cupcakes you once baked, which came out deflated and wrinkled like the face of a very old man. Your mother laughed, but you, you almost cried, and now as you smell the vanilla, you have to turn your head and pretend it's the wind making your eyes glisten.

Odor memory lasts longer than any other sensory memory.

I hold the tiny keys to five small boxes, each of which guards the unstable molecules of a particular smell. "It's not like I open them everyday," I explained. "Only when it's absolutely necessary." Here are the contents of the box labeled First: notes holding the faint smell of formaldehyde within their intricate folds, a discontinued soap called Mountain Spring, three roses, a sprig of baby's-breath and a corroded necklace abandoned in the summer rain.


Pam Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, has trapped the scents of burning hair, rotting flesh and wet human waste in a 'stench soup' that makes people swallow repetitively in anticipation of vomit. They scream, they run, they claim it's the worst thing to ever pass through their noses. The Department of Defense has expressed interest in purchasing the soup for use as a non-lethal weapon.

Smell never rests. It is the only sense that remains alert while you sleep.

When opinions prove faulty and words fall short, some U.S. dockside inspectors employ the 'Warwick Nose', a new electronic nose with heightened sniffing sensibilities, to resolve disputes between fishermen over the grading of their catch.

As a child, I breathed into a cold, empty popsicle box whenever I felt worried or afraid. The smell was both calming and addictive. As an adult, I eat less popsicles, but crawl into more occupied beds. The sensations are the same. Empty popsicle boxes have become synonymous with him. I find this romantic, more expressive than a deficient 'I love you.' He disagrees.


The subjective power of smell is best defined through contrast. In North America, citizens consistently rank vanilla as the most pleasing smell. In Ethiopia, members of the Dassanetch tribe prefer cow odor, believing it to be a marker of social status and fertility. Accordingly, Dassanetch men wash their hands in cattle urine and slather their bodies in manure. What then is the true meaning of the word 'attractive'?

Here are the contents of Sleep: lavender oil, one pouch of Zen tea, a worn red ribbon, two sticks of spearmint gum, which must occasionally be replaced, and Ralph Lauren's Blue, a perfume I can no longer wear.

Pater: baby powder, unspecified metal parts from the engine of a ferry, tomato seeds, Keihl's aftershave and a rawhide bone.

She: More than 60 paper swatches stolen from the fragrance section of a department store, each sprayed with a different perfume borrowed from her glass shelves. This box breaks the rules, defies the purpose, for she is shifty, never smells the same.

Untold: cinnamon, a small bottle of Spanish aceite, a worn passport that has spent nights in international terminals, Block Island sand, Pert Plus and the cardboard top of a popsicle box.

I have a relationship with the word 'pater,' one that we might come to understand by traversing two different cognitive paths. Path One: In your Latin-English Dictionary, look up the word 'pater.' You will find that it is the nominative form of a third declension noun meaning 'father.' Now, in your English dictionary, look up 'father.' It might say, "A man in relation to his natural child or children." We can both agree on this, for it is the meaning of 'father,' but aren't those six letters confining? Don't they fall short? Path Two: Open the box and sniff, but do not linger because the smells are quick to flee or change. You may feel confused, but I will breathe deeply and, liberated, say, "Yes, there he is."


Phantosmia: disorder of the sense of smell involving the subjective perception of non-existent odors.

Dogs and horses can smell fear. New studies suggest women can too. This is understanding beyond words, "the language of 1,000 tongues."

When Mr. White, my tenth grade English teacher, returned our essays, I checked for the grade first, smelled the paper second. The top scent was that of cigars, powerful, unmistakable, but always riding above a subtle base of coffee laced with fragile hints of old-man sweater, barely detectable whiffs of mothballs, which were maybe real, maybe my imagination. Mr. White was the first to teach me the value of rewriting. Now I revise incessantly: papers, essays, articles and especially memories. He would say, "Here, here, do you see? This is the unreliable narrator at its best."

Even in Spain, the symbols are the same. One line for negative, two for positive. The smells were so strong, so invasive, and yet still only one line materialized, slowly drawing itself pink and solitary within the small window. I kept the stick on the counter for an excessive hour, checking back every five minutes, waiting for a second line to appear. It never did. As I threw the test in the trash, I suddenly realized I had walked all day on an empty stomach and found I was very hungry. Barcelona was a strange city of surreal architecture, a natural home for phantoms.


The nose can detect between 4,000 and 10,000 different smells. With so many options, how do you choose just one? Why should you have to?

I open the boxes when I can't remember. When I forget what the word love means or what it is to sleep. I open them when my voice falters and I can only find one meaning. I open them most when I feel confined, but only when it is absolutely necessary.

Smells are nothing if not volatile.


Many of the facts on smell originated from "A Tutorial on the Sense of Smell" written by Tim Jacob of Cardiff University. I then confirmed these facts through other sources, the most useful being Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain by Mark Bear, Barry Connors and Michael Paradiso. Jacob's tutorial can be found at:

Cultural information, such as the Ongee fragment and the preferences of the Dassanetch tribe, came from Katie Fox's The Smell Report, a very informative series of articles on the sense of smell. It is available from the Social Issues Research Center's website:

Pam Dalton's research in stench is explored in ABC News' article "Scientists Find Most 'Offensive' Odors for Stink Bomb."

"The language of 1,000 tongues" references Hélène Cixous' essay "The Laugh of the Medusa".

Definitions of smell disorders (anosmia, parosmia, phantosmia) can be found in the medical dictionary at

I began this piece after stumbling upon a reference to Proustian memory in Dr. Karl's "Great Moments in Science" on ABC's interactive science website: