Miscellany — From the August 2013 issue

A Brief History of Scent

The smell of life and death — and everything in between

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In early 2002, a woman walking her dog in the woods adjacent to Tri-State Crematory in the Appalachian town of Noble, Georgia, found a human skull. Arriving investigators discovered body parts scattered all over the woods, and when they entered the crematory compound, they immediately called in FEMA.

What they encountered on the premises was a confusion of cadavers rotting in various holding crypts and earthen pits. A coffin left in the crematory yard contained a green-black stew of human bones. The scene was beyond grim: corpses jellying into dreadlocks of waxen gray material, fermented fat and muscle twisted around moldy bones. A skull and torso were found floating in the compound’s lake. In all, 334 sets of remains were found, some of which still bore toe tags.

The incinerator at Tri-State was in working order, and the manager, Ray Brent Marsh, couldn’t say why he had stockpiled the bodies. (“Not for lack of a desire to give those answers,” he said at his plea hearing, “but the lack of the answer.”) But where Marsh’s mess was a tragedy for the families of the dead, the United States Armed Forces saw an opportunity. There was a practical application for all that decay — specifically for the compounds known as putrescine and cadaverine, both of which smell like their names suggest.

Soldiers are exposed to death in its many stages — from the just-before wound, when an exploded abdomen leaks the odors of digestion, to the weeks-later smell of advanced decomposition. Many of the men and women thrust into these experiences were coming home unhinged, so the U.S. military was prompted to deploy, for the first time, scent as a training tool.

Pamela Dalton, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, remotely coordinated the odor-gathering effort at Tri-State as part of a program funded by the Department of Defense. “Volunteers collected samples of the air,” she explains. “I don’t think I’ve ever smelled anything more disturbing in my entire life.” Dalton works on olfactory strategies to treat (or preempt) post-traumatic stress disorder, her goal being to hinder the associative power of common war-zone odorants by inuring soldiers to them. Diesel fuel is one of the smells that can send a veteran around the bend. The same goes for cordite. And the smell of death, of course, is a reliable trigger.

“It’s a lot easier to associate a negative emotion with an odor,” Dalton told me. “That happens almost with one trial, where positive associations take a lot longer, sometimes two to three pairings.” If you smell a corpse in a well-lit room while watching war imagery with virtual-reality glasses, you may be less vulnerable to those sensory stimuli when you experience them in a war zone. The military wanted to create soldiers who wouldn’t come apart when an I.E.D. ripped off the leg or pierced the skull of someone nearby.

But there was another battlefield use for the samples collected at Tri-State. “I did some work around 1997,” Dalton told me, “to see if there was a ‘universal malodor’ that caused people from any culture to leave an area.” She explained that a certain branch of the military had “wanted to know if there was a single odor or set of odorants that would produce this effect.” The answer, Dalton said, was a nonlethal biological agent — she called it “a chemical, but not a chemical weapon” — known as Stench Soup. In one test trial, volunteers fitted with heart-rate and gastric-motility monitors were seated in a room into which Dalton pumped the odorant. They were told to turn down a dial when the stench became unbearable. In another test trial, volunteers were asked to drink a milkshake while smelling Stench Soup. Most couldn’t.

“What we realized rather quickly,” Dalton told me, “was that if [the odor] was going to transcend culture, it had to be something that had biological significance, and that’s why we focused on things like vomit. . . . We worked on our own formula for human feces. We did a rotting-sewage odor, rotting meat.” Stench Soup works on the principle that something truly repulsive needs to have something nice in it to make the olfactory mucosa want more. Said Dalton, “Combining these unpleasant formulas with . . . a floral or a fruity odor was what made the thing so disgusting none of us could stand it.”

Dalton sent me a sample. It arrived in a cloudy vial covered with some sort of sticky plastic wrap, which was suspended inside a glass specimen jar filled with Styrofoam peanuts, which in turn was sealed in a Ziploc bag. There was a little beige stir bar inside the vial. I recruited my downstairs neighbor and we went out to the alley behind the house. I closed the vial as soon as I opened it. The alley reeked all the way out to the street, at least twenty feet from where we stood. A passerby stopped and peered in. The vial had been open for fewer than three seconds.

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lives in Brooklyn. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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  • Eliz

    Am subscribing right new because this article was so good–rethinking why I want to smell the way I do, and how biology is way ahead of me!

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