Photo by Rickie-Tom Schünemann on Unsplash

But do you stink?  I wouldn’t know.  My sense of smell went on vacation about twenty years ago and returns for only a few seconds seconds now and then.  I was tested for a few dire medical conditions that can cause loss of sense of smell but mine wasn’t one of them.  (It was a bad cold too many plane flights and bad luck.) The medical name for inability to smell things is anosmia and it was a relatively uncommon condition.

Nowadays, things have changed. Some people have lost the ability to smell due to COVID. Just last week BBC Future ran a piece suggesting that air pollution (specifically PM2.5–the collective name for small airborne pollution particules we breathe every day) may be damaging our ability to smell.

Think about how much we rely on our sense of smell:  to detect danger (smoke, gas escaping, a gathering storm); to enhance our environment (who wants to live with the stink of a cat box?); to increase our appreciation of life (the scent of our favorite flower, the smell of a loved one’s skin).   The most famous scent in Western literature is likely Proust’s description of madeleines.*  For me, if I could still smell it, the aroma of Old Spice would immediately bring my father to mind.

There are some pluses to not being able to smell:  Jill McCabe Johnson writes about one study that tested what stinks:

In the search for universally offensive, weapons-grade odors, researchers have observed that people react most to scent cocktails of biological odors like vomit, body odors, poop and burnt hair, plus rotting garbage and flesh, the combination of which induced nausea, faster heart rates, and a desperate desire to get the heck out of there. Interestingly, a mishmash of odors was worse than any single odor, producing a sense of panic and causing some testers to scream.

Shortly after I lost my sense of smell, I went to Southern India with a small group of people.  My nose doctor commented that it was probably a good time to take the trip there.  (He couldn’t fix my problem but at least he had a sense of humor.)  The smell of a crowded city is overwhelming:  diesel fuel, animal and human waste, standing water, smoke, spices, incense, and dense crowds of people.  For me, it was just one big bad odor, which I thought  of as the smell of India.  For my traveling companions, it was a different experience and an unexpected stressor. Unlike the participants in the study, they didn’t scream but nearly everyone broke down in tears at some point–the smells were that powerful.

My point (and yes, I do have one) is this:  when you encounter someone or something that really stinks, just remember all the other smells —fragrances that make your life happier–bread fresh from the oven, ocean air, a baby’s head. For me and others with anosmia who can’t do that, we still can Stop and Remember the Smell of Roses.


* I have not read Remembrance of Things Past, but I sure do know the reference (and you can read it here).



About Alexis

Alexis Rankin Popik, author of Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, is an award-winning short story writer whose work has appeared in The Berkshire Review and Potpourri Magazine. She has penned numerous articles about local history that have been published in Connecticut Explored and the University of Connecticut School of Law and The Hartford Seminary publications. A former union organizer, Popik traveled the country educating shipyard workers about health and safety and founded a labor-management health plan before turning to writing fiction full-time. She lives with her husband in New England.
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