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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 October 2018

University of Derby
Department of Humanities, University of Derby, Kedlestone Road, Derby, de22


This article argues that smell's place in nineteenth-century medicine and public health was distinctly ambiguous. Standard narratives in the history of smell argue that smell became less important in this period whilst also arguing that urban spaces were deodorized. The causal motor for the latter shift is medical theories about odour and miasma. By contrast, this article argues that sanitary practices of circulation, ventilation, and disinfection proceeded despite, not because of, medical attitudes to smell. Surgeons and physicians argued that odours were no indicator of disease causing matter and distrusted the use of smell because of its subjective qualities and resistance to linguistic definition. Yet these qualities made smell all the more powerful in sanitary literature, where it was used to generate a powerful emotional effect on readers. Histories of smell need to attend not just to deodorization but re-odorization; the disjuncture between practices of smelling and their textual or visual representation; and chronologies that track the shelving and re-deploying of ways of sensing in different times, places, and communities rather than tracking the de novo emergence of a modern Western sensorium. In mid-nineteenth-century England, smell retained its power, but that power now came from its rhetorical rather than epistemological force.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their very useful comments, which made this an immeasurably better article; the AHRC for funding the research on which this publication is based; the IHR and Past & Present Society for the fellowship during which this article was revised; and Agnes Arnold-Forster, Keir Waddington, and Michael Brown for commenting on earlier drafts.


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