Obsession and olfaction: scent and the seduction of books
I have an unusually short attention span. This is not a good thing, especially for anyone contemplating a PhD, as I was in the mid-1990s. ‘You don’t need to be smart to do a PhD’, my supervisor initially advised me, ‘you just need to work hard’, and I soon grasped what she meant by that somewhat backhanded comment. From the outset, students have to work hard not to be distracted by the university environment, not least campus life. Those studying in the 1990s were particularly vulnerable to all those books and journals they’d stumble across while scouring libraries in a way few students do in today’s digital age. Put more evocatively by my late grandfather, ‘books are more addictive than drugs’.
As an undergrad at UBC in Vancouver (Canada) in the late 1980s, I regularly retreated to the Main Library after lectures to prepare for seminars and draft essays. But it was not long before I was led astray and began to work my way through the contents of a random set of shelves near my regular seat. Containing Russian novels, I began with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, moved on to Pushkin and Lermontov, laughed my way through Gogol’s Dead Souls and eventually plunged deeper into the Russian literature of the absurd as a result of his wonderful short story, ‘The Nose’. I only really avoided becoming completely sidelined and getting no credit for my extra work by enrolling in a Russian literature class in my final year.
By the time I moved to England in 1995 and started my PhD on the history of the British brewing industry, the dangers of such diversions were recognised. Rather than potentially miss endless deadlines and eventually plead for an extension, I shelved all those appealing titles I would much rather have been reading while in business archives up to my neck in dusty company ledgers and promised myself I’d return to my steadily expanding book list at a later date. Despite heavy withdrawal symptoms, I finished my thesis early and enjoyed the next months doing a little teaching and indulging my old habit. Among the first titles ticked off my bucket list were Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. These two volumes captured my imagination like no others before, opening up a whole new realm, allowing me to ‘see’ the world in new, more pungent, ways.
Lucky to have completed my PhD at a time when there were many jobs for hungry post-docs, I walked into a research post at the Medical School in Birmingham (UK). I even chose it over a conventional history appointment elsewhere, because, among other things, it promised new avenues of research and intriguing sources, not least patient ledgers and outmoded medical textbooks, which animated a bygone world of sporadic health and prevalent illness. Appointed to write a history of Birmingham’s teaching hospitals, I quickly lost myself in the city’s remarkable medical past. My teaching and research now focused on the history of disease and its treatment in Victorian England and I had more than a dozen hospital archives and their associated medical specialties to keep my fleeting interest in check. That said, I continually returned to the subject of smell and soon found myself hooked again, this time writing a paper for a conference in London intended to bring together ‘olfactory scholars’ from a range of academic disciplines and occupational backgrounds. Soon after, my book loans began to attract the attention of colleagues and library staff, who frequently inquired into the connections between hospital architecture and Coco Chanel. Some even began to look forward to my more unusual inter-library loans; a request for a historical study of camphor, entitled Dragon’s Brain Perfume, stimulated a particularly lively exchange at the loan desk.
Where all this extra reading was heading only became clear in 2008, when I organised my own conference in Birmingham on the history of the senses during the Enlightenment. After two stimulating days, I found myself in a lively conversation with another habitué, our keynote speaker; Mark Smith, through his works How Race is Made and The Smell of Battle,
has since rewritten key chapters in America history by reconceptualising them through senses, besides just the visual. When I heard he was still seeking a volume on smell for a new series he was editing for University of Illinois Press, I knew I had found an outlet for my extra-curricular activities. The book ultimately took several additional years to write as the study’s chronology lengthen considerably following early discussions with the publisher and new studies of smell and olfaction began to appear in increasingly rapid succession. Entitled Past Scents, the resulting publication isn’t just an attempt to summarise this innovative field, but it became a very personal work into which I poured all of my previous research interests, from Russian literature to English brewing, and, more recently, institutional medicine to global public health. To be honest, the last months of writing also began to feel a bit of a chore, in contrast to those early days when I was just engaged in some leisurely reading. In fact, I eventually had to lay other gripping titles aside in the interest of submitting my final draft on time. Now that the work is done, I can finally get on with some other reading. And my experience tells me that the germ of another project awaits me in that intimidating, if less fragrant, stack of carefully-chosen volumes.
Jonathan Reinarz is Director of The History of Medicine Unit and Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham. His latest book is Past Scents (University of Illinois Press, 2014).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Giulio Nesi.