Book Review: Smell Detectives

Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America

Melanie A. Kiechle, University of Washington Press (2019)

i got into audiobooks properly last year (last year!), which in my case means actually restarting my Audible subscription. Uh, how is it going? Well, I’ve just paused the subscription. 

But at least I finished this book! Which is a series of case studies that details a historical period when American public health response transitioned from centuries-old belief in miasma theory to germ theory. 

The description, from the university press website:  

What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? And how did odors matter in the formation of a modern environmental consciousness? Smell Detectives follows the nineteenth-century Americans who used their noses to make sense of the sanitary challenges caused by rapid urban and industrial growth. Melanie Kiechle examines nuisance complaints, medical writings, domestic advice, and myriad discussions of what constituted fresh air, and argues that nineteenth-century city dwellers, anxious about the air they breathed, attempted to create healthier cities by detecting and then mitigating the most menacing odors.

Medical theories in the nineteenth century assumed that foul odors caused disease and that overcrowded cities—filled with new and stronger stinks—were synonymous with disease and danger. But the sources of offending odors proved difficult to pinpoint. The creation of city health boards introduced new conflicts between complaining citizens and the officials in charge of the air. Smell Detectives looks at the relationship between the construction of scientific expertise, on the one hand, and “common sense”—the olfactory experiences of common people—on the other. Although the rise of germ theory revolutionized medical knowledge and ultimately undid this form of sensory knowing, Smell Detectives recovers how city residents used their sense of smell and their health concerns about foul odors to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.

 I was rec’d on this title, back when the pandemic was a concern, a crisis, but also a curiousity. The fatigue hasn’t set in yet. We mostly had the bandwidth to imagine our own policies or how to achieve some kind of ‘perfect’ pandemic response. My country was doing pretty well in fact, even if I thought all the celebration was premature, because the factors that would doom us were still there, and look at where we are now. 

But let’s celebrate the fact that I did managed to finish a book. And I’m glad it’s this book. As usual I didn’t quite retain the actual facts of the case studies (other than, wtf, they reversed the course of the Chicago river???), but the sum of the text really left an impression on me. I started the book knowing the general shape of the historical period, what with Lister and carbolic acid, and the public disbelief that most sicknesses were caused by tiny critters smaller than the eye can see, but it was fascinating to plug up the gaps of my understanding with the angle this book presented. It was really a presentation on a time when the public health agenda could be dictated persuasively by the public, because most human beings have a sense of smell and objectively you can’t deny a person’s claim that a small is “bad”. Much of miasma theory IS unfounded at the microscopic level, but at the… newtonian (???) level, the logic that drives miasma theory for centuries was immaculate, and the established protocol was correct. More ventilation, better spacing, good air. But how is an air good is explained by nothing factual in miasma theory, which is why it couldn’t resolve water-borne diseases like typhoid or cholera, but also why essential oils as a business still persists.  The quality of a nice scent is an indicator of some positive fact perhaps, but scent means practically nothing in modern medicine except psychology (as I would argue). But we all are susceptible to the homeopathic theory of transitive property, so you know, i still have my bottles of juicy figs.

As presented in the book, the historical transition, while a triumph of science, also marked the substantive loss of the public voice. They’re still present, but they’re never going to be fully valid until some scientific evidence backs up their claim, which until that happens, is either ignored, or marked as hysterical. Stop me if this sounds familiar to you. Modern scientific thinking is truly a revolutionary mode in civilisation, but it’s also true that when the locus of expertise is no longer situated within the general population, ‘the people’ were useful as far as to serve anecdata or testimonials. The emotive power of the public voice is now divorced from the claim of knowledge, and in this pandemic we see the consequences of this repeatedly.

In addition to this book, I was also, like everyone else outside the disciplines, catching up on the histories and the discourse and the thinking in epidemiology and just related medical disciplines, not that I managed to understand most of it. But having all that in my head, really made me understood the general reluctance in public health to acknowledge the aerosolised nature of this disease, because it goes against the general sanitation protocols germ theory emphasised (a hard-won fight, because no one believed in germs when the implication your nose is lying), and the impact on other parts of society. 

For example, in this Wired piece, The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill: 

Part of medical rhetoric is understanding why certain ideas take hold and others don’t. So as spring turned to summer, Randall started to investigate how Wells’ contemporaries perceived him. That’s how she found the writings of Alexander Langmuir, the influential chief epidemiologist of the newly established CDC. Like his peers, Langmuir had been brought up in the Gospel of Personal Cleanliness, an obsession that made handwashing the bedrock of US public health policy. He seemed to view Wells’ ideas about airborne transmission as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the “miasma theory” that had prevailed for centuries. Langmuir dismissed them as little more than “interesting theoretical points.”

To get a glimpse into that future, you need only peek into the classrooms where Li teaches or the Crossfit gym where Marr jumps boxes and slams medicine balls. In the earliest days of the pandemic, Li convinced the administrators at the University of Hong Kong to spend most of its Covid-19 budget on upgrading the ventilation in buildings and buses rather than on things such as mass Covid testing of students. Marr reviewed blueprints and HVAC schematics with the owner of her gym, calculating the ventilation rates and consulting on a redesign that moved workout stations outside and near doors that were kept permanently open. To date, no one has caught Covid at the gym. Li’s university, a school of 30,000 students, has recorded a total of 23 Covid-19 cases. Of course Marr’s gym is small, and the university benefited from the fact that Asian countries, scarred by the 2003 SARS epidemic, were quick to recognize aerosol transmission. But Marr’s and Li’s swift actions could well have improved their odds. Ultimately, that’s what public health guidelines do: They tilt people and places closer to safety.

I mean, my country still has ministries and other bodies fully believing in fomite transmission as the most important, because how else can you explain the fanatical commitment to sanitising every visible surface area? But believing that disinfectant solutions is the best compromise in mass response has also been a key consideration in architecture as well: buildings became more ‘energy efficient’ in the 1970s Peak Oil deflationary economics sense, where the drive to save on heating/cooling costs, was balanced against the risk ofgerms circulating in closed space, with the mitigation being all the bleach and disinfectant and sanitiser application. Meaning, ‘improving ventilation’ will literally cost you serious money and political clout because it’s no longer just a simple matter of cracking open a window on your floor. ETA: our Human Resources Ministry did finally pushed out a guidance note on ventilation, but yo, where’s the actual grant/funds to get it done sis??

Yeah, so that’s the book. Totally recommended.

Reading List

Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America
By Melanie A. Kiechle (ed. Paul S. Sutter) – University of Washington Press, 2019

Covid Delta variant is ‘in the air you breathe’: what you need to know about Sydney outbreak strain [Guardian Australia]

“Fleeting contact” is an accurate descriptor that underlines the airborne nature of the virus, says Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health.

“The spread is more likely if you’re close to the person [but] there’s still a potential for virus particles to be in the air, and breathed in by someone passing by,” she said. This is true of both the original Covid-19 virus and the Delta variant.

After months of growing scientific evidence, the World Health Organization formally acknowledged the airborne spread of Covid in April. It can occur when viral particles remain “suspended in the air or travel farther than one metre”.

Laboratory studies have found particles of the virus can linger in the air in aerosolised form for up to 16 hours.

“Because there was this resistance to actually acknowledge it, we haven’t made the recommendations that we should,” Baxter said.

Prof Raina Macintyre, head of the biosecurity research program at the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute, said airborne transmission in indoor settings can occur even in the absence of fleeting contact.

“Respiratory aerosols accumulate in the same way that cigarette smoke accumulates,” she said.

“In an indoor space where the ventilation isn’t adequate, somebody with the infection could have come and gone, but the virus is still lingering in the air. So if you walk through that area and you breathe that air, you could get infected.”

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