Read SMELL : CHAPTER V. of Studies in the Psychology of Sex‚ Volume 4, free online book, by Havelock Ellis, on

The Evil Effects of Excessive Olfactory Stimulation-The Symptoms of Vanillism-The Occasional Dangerous Results of the Odors of Flowers-Effects of Flowers on the Voice.

The reality of the olfactory influences with which we have been concerned, however slight they may sometimes appear, is shown by the fact that odors, both agreeable and disagreeable, are stimulants, obeying the laws which hold good for stimulants generally. They whip up the nervous energies momentarily, but in the end, if the excitation is excessive and prolonged, they produce fatigue and exhaustion. This is clearly shown by Fere’s elaborate experiments on the influences of odors, as compared with other sensory stimulants, on the amount of muscular work performed with the ergograph. Commenting on the remark of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, that “man uses perfumes to impart energy to his passion,” Fere remarks: “But perfumes cannot keep up the fires which they light.” Their prolonged use involves fatigue, which is not different from that produced by excessive work, and reproduces all the bodily and psychic accompaniments of excessive work. It is well known that workers in perfumes are apt to suffer from the inhalation of the odors amid which they live. Dealers in musk are said to be specially liable to precocious dementia. The symptoms generally experienced by the men and women who work in vanilla factories where the crude fruit is prepared for commerce have often been studied and are well known. They are due to the inhalation of the scent, which has all the properties of the aromatic aldéhydes, and include skin eruptions, general excitement, sleeplessness, headache, excessive menstruation, and irritable bladder. There is nearly always sexual excitement, which may be very pronounced.

We are here in the presence, it may be insisted, not of a nervous influence only, but of a direct effect of odor on the vital processes. The experiments of Tardif on the influence of perfumes on frogs and rabbits showed that a poisonous effect was exerted; while Fere, by incubating fowls’ eggs in the presence of musk, found repeatedly that many abnormalities occurred, and that development was retarded even in the embryos that remained normal; while he obtained somewhat similar results by using essences of lavender, cloves, etc. The influence of odors is thus deeper than is indicated by their nervous effects; they act directly on nutrition. We are led, as Passy remarks, to regard odors as very intimately related to the physiological properties of organic substances, and the sense of smell as a detached fragment of generally sensibility, reacting to the same stimuli as general sensibility, but highly specialized in view of its protective function.

The reality and subtlety of the influence of odors is further shown, by the cases in which very intense effects are produced even by the temporary inhalation of flowers or perfumes or other odors. Such cases of idiosyncrasy in which a person-frequently of somewhat neurotic temperament-becomes acutely sensitive to some odor or odors have been recorded in medical literature for many centuries. In these cases the obnoxious odor produces congestion of the respiratory passages, sneezing, headache, fainting, etc., but occasionally, it has been recorded, even death. (Dr. J.N. Mackenzie, in his interesting and learned paper on “The Production of the so-called ‘Rose Cold,’ etc.,” American Journal of Medical Sciences, January, 1886, quotes many cases, and gives a number of references to ancient medical authors; see also Layet, art. “Odeur,” Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Sciences Medicales.)

An interesting phenomenon of the group-though it is almost too common to be described as an idiosyncrasy-is the tendency of the odor of certain flowers to affect the voice and sometimes even to produce complete loss of voice. The mechanism of the process is not fully understood, but it would appear that congestion and paresis of the larynx is produced and spasm of the bronchial tube. Botallus in 1565 recorded cases in which the scent of flowers brought on difficulty of breathing, and the danger of flowers from this point of view is well recognized by professional singers. Joal has studied this question in an elaborate paper (summarized in the British Medical Journal, March 3, 1895), and Dr. Cabanes has brought together (Figaro, January 20, 1894) the experiences of a number of well-known singers, teachers of singing, and laryngologists. Thus, Madame Renee Richard, of the Paris Opera, has frequently found that when her pupils have arrived with a bunch of violets fastened to the bodice or even with a violet and iris sachet beneath the corset, the voice has been marked by weakness and, on using the laryngoscope, she has found the vocal cords congested. Madame Calve confirmed this opinion, and stated that she was specially sensitive to tuberose and mimosa, and that on one occasion a bouquet of white lilac has caused her, for a time, complete loss of voice. The flowers mentioned are equally dangerous to a number of other singers; the most injurious flower of all is found to be the violet. The rose is seldom mentioned, and artificial perfumes are comparatively harmless, though some singers consider it desirable to be cautious in using them.