Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 October 2018
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.
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.
1 Report from the select committee on metropolitan sewage manure (London, 1846), pp. 108–9Google Scholar.
5 For more on this, see William Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England: a social sense (forthcoming).
7 Thorsheim, Peter, Inventing pollution: coal, smoke, and culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens, OH, 2006), pp. 16, 208 n. 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Porter, Dorothy, Health, civilization and the state: a history of public health from ancient to modern times (London, 2005), p. 118CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joyce, Patrick, The rule of freedom: liberalism and the modern city (London, 2003), pp. 64, 72, 75Google Scholar; Goldstein, Joshua, ‘Waste’, in Trentmann, Frank, ed., The Oxford handbook of the history of consumption (Oxford, 2012), p. 332Google Scholar; Inglis, David, ‘Sewers and sensibilities: the bourgeois faecal experience in the nineteenth-century city’, in Cowan, Alexander and Steward, Jill, eds., The city and the senses: urban culture since 1500 (Farnham, 2007), pp. 114–16Google Scholar; Atkins, Peter, ‘Animal wastes and nuisances in nineteenth-century London’, in Atkins, Peter, ed., Animal cities: beastly urban cities (Farnham, 2012), pp. 221–2Google Scholar.
8 Corbin, Alain, The foul and the fragrant: odor and the French social imagination (Leamington Spa, 1986), p. 15Google Scholar.
13 Both narratives are identified and summarized in Jenner, ‘Follow your nose?’, pp. 343–6, 338–40.
14 Corbin, The foul, pp. 7–8.
15 Ibid., pp. 15, 111; for the dismissal of smell in late eighteenth-century chemistry, see Roberts, Lissa, ‘The death of the sensuous chemist: the “new” chemistry and the transformation of sensuous technology’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 26 (1995), pp. 503–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
16 Corbin, The foul, pp. 90, 113, 121.
17 Kiechle, Melanie A., Smell detectives: an olfactory history of nineteenth-century urban America (London, 2017), pp. 5, 80Google Scholar.
18 Huang, Xuelei, ‘Deodorizing China: odour, ordure, and colonial (dis)order in Shanghai, 1840s–1940s’, Modern Asian Studies, 503 (2016), pp. 1099–100Google Scholar.
19 Brown, Michael, ‘From foetid air to filth: the cultural transformation of British epidemiological thought, ca. 1780–1848’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82 (2008), pp. 515–44CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Pickstone, John V., ‘Dearth, dirt, and fever epidemics: rewriting the history of British “public health”, 1780–1850’, in Ranger, Terence and Slack, Paul, eds., Epidemics and ideas: essays on the historical perception of pestilence (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 125–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hamlin, Christopher, ‘Predisposing causes and public health in early nineteenth-century medical thought’, Social History of Medicine, 5 (1992), pp. 43–70CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
20 Corbin, The foul; Reinarz, Past scents, p. 162; Kiechle, Smell detectives, p. 80; Thorsheim, Inventing pollution, p. 20; Barnes, David, The great stink of Paris and the nineteenth-century struggle against filth and germs (Baltimore, MA, 2006)Google Scholar; Baldwin, Peter, Contagion and the state in Europe, 1830–1930 (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 128, 148CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
21 Reinarz, Past scents, p. 209.
23 On implicit and explicit sensory archives, see Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England.
24 Palmer, Richard, ‘In bad odour: smell and its significance in medicine from antiquity to the seventeenth century’, in Bynum, W. S. and Porter, Roy, eds., Medicine and the five senses (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 61–9Google Scholar; Jenner, Mark, ‘Tasting Lichfield, touching China: Sir John Floyer's senses’, Historical Journal, 53 (2010), pp. 647–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sir Floyer, John, Pharmako-basnos (2 vols., London, 1687–90)Google Scholar; Hermann, Paul, Materia medica, trans. Strother, Edward (2 vols., London, 1727), i, pp. i, xliv, 73, 29, 302Google Scholar.
25 ‘Hera Vliegen, a woman who lived off the smell of flowers’, early 1600s, print on paper, 18.7x12cm, Welcome Library, no. 1931i; Wanley, Nathaniel, The wonders of the little world (London, 1678), p. 105Google Scholar; Tyson, Edward, Orang Outang (London, 1699), p. 18Google Scholar; Crooke, Helkiah, Mikrokosmographia (London, 1615), p. 705Google Scholar; Ramazzini, Bernadino, A treatise on the diseases of tradesmen (London, 1705), p. 156Google Scholar; Bacon, Francis, The philosophical works of Francis Bacon (3 vols., London, 1733), iii, p. 158Google Scholar.
26 Thorndike, L., ‘Sanitation, baths, and street-cleaning in the middle ages and Renaissance’, Speculum, 3 (1928), pp. 192–203CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Rawcliffe, Carole, Urban bodies: communal health in late medieval English towns and cities (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 116–29Google Scholar; Mark Jenner, ‘Early modern English conceptions of cleanliness and dirt as reflected in the environmental regulation of London, c. 1530–c. 1700’ (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford, 1992), pp. 20–5, 118; Jo Wheeler, ‘Stench in sixteenth-century Venice’, in Cowan and Steward, eds., The city and the senses, pp. 26–38; Jørgensen, Dolly, ‘The medieval sense of smell, stench, and sanitation’, in Krampl, Ulrike et al. , eds., Les cinq sens de la ville du moyen âge à nos jours (Tours, 2013), pp. 301–13Google Scholar; Skelton, Leona, Sanitation in urban Britain, 1560–1700 (London, 2016), pp. 20–54Google Scholar; Jenner, Mark, ‘Civilization and deodorization? Smell in early modern English culture’, in Burke, Peter et al. , eds., Civil histories: essays presented to Sir Keith Thomas (Oxford, 2000), pp. 131–2Google Scholar.
27 Dobson, Mary J., Contours of death and disease in early modern England (Cambridge, 2003), p. 29Google Scholar; Temkin, Oswei, The double face of Janus (Baltimore, MD, 1977), pp. 461–3Google Scholar; for examples of fumigations, see recipe book of Sir Thomas Osbourne, 1670–95, Wellcome Library, MS 3724/63; Lady Frances Catchmay's recipe book, c. 1625, Wellcome Library, MS 184a/6; on pomanders, see Dugan, Holly, The ephemeral history of perfume: scent and sense in early modern England (Baltimore, MA, 2011), pp. 110–11Google Scholar; Welch, Evelyn, ‘Scented buttons and perfumed gloves: smelling things in Renaissance Italy’, in Mirabella, B., ed., Ornamentalism: the art of Renaissance accessories (Ann Arbor, MI, 2011), pp. 13–39Google Scholar; for recipes, see Edwards, John, A treatise concerning the plague and the pox (London, 1652), p. 19Google Scholar; Thayre, Thomas, A treatise of the pestilence (London, 1603), p. 27Google Scholar.
28 However, a new and important sensitivity to smell could be found in areas beyond medicine; see Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England.
29 Jenner, ‘Early modern English conceptions of cleanliness and dirt’.
30 For further discussion of this transition, see Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England; on medicines and efficacy, see Parr, Bartholomew, The London medical dictionary (2 vols., London, 1809), ii, pp. 134, 136, 137, 139Google Scholar; Paris, John Ayrton, Pharmacologia (2 vols., London, 1826), i, Preface, pp. 79–81Google Scholar; Murray, J., A system of materia medica (London, 1810), p. 111Google Scholar; on food, see Hicks, William, Oxford jests (London, 1740), p. 73Google Scholar; ‘Charity tubes to convey the smell from the tables of the rich for the benefit of the poor operatives’, 1830, London, etching with watercolour, 236x346mm, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, 830.01.01.0; ‘Feeding on smells’, Journal of Health, 4 (1832), pp. 173–4Google Scholar.
31 Riley, James C., The eighteenth-century campaign to avoid disease (London, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hardy, Anne, ‘The medical response to epidemic disease during the eighteenth century’, in Champion, J. A. I., ed., Epidemic disease in London (London, 1993), pp. 67–9Google Scholar; Porter, Roy, ‘Cleaning up the great wen: public health in eighteenth-century London’, Medical History, Supplement no. 11 (1991), pp. 61–75CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Ogborn, Miles, Spaces of modernity: London's geographies, 1680–1780 (New York, NY, 1998), pp. 75–114Google Scholar; for the forms of sensory attention behind improvement, see Gwynn, John, London and Westminster improved (London, 1766)Google Scholar; on industry, see Roux, Thomas Le, ‘Governing the toxics and the pollutants. France, Great Britain, 1750–1850’, Endeavour, 40 (2016), p. 81Google Scholar.
32 A detailed discussion will be found in Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England.
33 Yankovich, Vladimir, Confronting the climate: British airs and the making of environmental medicine (New York, NY, 2010)Google Scholar; Golinkski, Jan, British weather and the climate of Enlightenment (Chicago, IL, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crowley, John, The invention of comfort: sensibilities and design in early modern Britain and early America (Baltimore, MA, 2001)Google Scholar; for exemplars of this strain of environmental literature, see Adair, James Makittrick, Essays on fashionable diseases (London, 1790)Google Scholar; Sir Sinclair, John, The code of health and longevity (London, 1818)Google Scholar; Johnson, James, The influence of the atmosphere (London, 1818)Google Scholar.
35 Carmichael Smyth, The effect of the nitrous vapour, pp. 7–8.
41 Forster, Thomas, Essay on the origin, symptoms, and treatment of cholera morbus (London, 1831), p. 60Google Scholar; Copeland, Of pestilential cholera, pp. 68–9; Shapter, Thomas, The history of the cholera in Exeter in 1832 (London, 1849), pp. 177–8Google Scholar; Goss, John, Practical remarks on the disease called cholera (London, 1831), pp. 22–3Google Scholar.
44 Hawkins, Francis Bisset, History of the epidemic spasmodic cholera of Russia (London, 1831), pp. 20–3Google Scholar; Russel, Official reports, p. 60.
46 Gaulter, Henry, The origin and progress of the malignant cholera in Manchester (London, 1833), p. 183Google Scholar.
48 Baly, William and Gull, William, Reports on epidemic cholera (London, 1854), pp. 333–4Google Scholar.
51 Kennedy, James, The history of the contagious cholera (London, 1832), pp. 283, 298, 303Google Scholar.
53 Kennedy, A lecture, p. 26.
55 Pelling, Margaret, Cholera, fever, and English medicine, 1825–1865 (Oxford, 1978), p. 60Google Scholar; Corbin, The foul, pp. 134, 141–64.
56 See n. 26 above.
58 First report of the commissioners appointed to inquire whether any and what special means may be requisite for the improvement of the health of the metropolis (London, 1848), pp. 102, 104, 105Google Scholar.
59 Hamlin, ‘Predisposing causes’; Carter, K. Codell, The rise of causal concepts of disease: case histories (Farnham, 2003), pp. 13–16Google Scholar.
60 Baly and Gull, Reports, pp. 4–5.
62 Chadwick, Edwin, Supplementary report on the results of special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns (London, 1843), pp. 16, 23–4Google Scholar.
63 Hamlin, Christopher, Public health and social justice in the age of Chadwick (Cambridge, 1998), p. 252Google Scholar; Brown, ‘From foetid air to filth’, p. 542.
64 Smith, Thomas Southwood, ‘Report on some of the physical causes of sickness and mortality to which the poor are particularly exposed’, Fourth annual report of the poor law commissioners, Supplement 1 (London, 1837–9), pp. 134–5Google Scholar.
66 Hancock, John, Observations on the origin and treatment of cholera (London, 1831), p. 10Google Scholar.
67 For an Improvement Act example, see 10 Geo. 4, c. 44; on the Public Health Acts, see Lumley, W. G., The new sanitary laws (London, 1859), pp. 98, 107Google Scholar; Hanley, James, ‘Parliament, physicians, and nuisances: the demedicalization of nuisance law, 1831–1855’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 80 (2006), p. 707CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Hanley, James, Healthy boundaries (Rochester, NY, 2016), pp. 29, 35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
68 Le Roux, ‘Governing the toxics and the pollutants’.
70 An examination of the report and evidence of the select committee of Mr. Mackinnon's bill (London, 1843), p. 40Google Scholar.
71 Hale, William, Intramural burial in England not injurious to the public health (London, 1855), pp. 22–4Google Scholar.
72 For a summary of existing work, see Mooney, Graham, Intrusive interventions (Rochester, NY, 2015), pp. 124–9Google Scholar.
74 Pelling, Cholera, p. 61.
75 Burnett, William, A practical account of the Mediterranean fever (London, 1816), pp. xiv, 13–14, 275–7, 335–8Google Scholar.
77 Burnett, A practical account, p. 335.
78 William Burnett, ‘Chloride of zinc, 19th June 1848’, Parliamentary Papers, p. 1.
79 ‘Disinfecting fluid, 30th June 1847’, Parliamentary Papers, pp. 4, 11.
81 ‘A copy of reports on Dr William Burnett's disinfecting fluid, 19th July 1847’, Parliamentary Papers, pp. 1–3.
82 ‘Disinfecting fluid, 30th June 1847’, Parliamentary Papers, pp. 6–7, 10, 12, 15, 23.
83 ‘Disinfecting fluids and metropolitan sewers, 26th June 1848’, Parliamentary Papers, p. 25.
84 Corbin, The foul, p. 124.
88 ‘The relative merits of the disinfecting [deodorizing] fluids’, The Lancet, 2 (1847), p. 682Google Scholar.
91 ‘Ledoyen and Burnett's disinfecting fluid’, Medico-chirurgical Review, 51 (1847), pp. 483–94Google Scholar.
93 General Board of Health, Minutes of information collected with reference to works for the removal of soil water or drainage of dwelling houses (London, 1852), pp. 2–4, 58–9Google Scholar.
97 Agnes Arnold-Forster, ‘Gender and pain in nineteenth-century cancer care’, forthcoming.
98 Sir Gairdner, William Tennant, Public health in relation to air and water (London, 1862), pp. 70–1Google Scholar.
99 Brant, ‘Fume and perfume’, pp. 445–6, 463; Jenner, ‘Civilization and deodorization?’, p. 138; Reinarz, Past scents, p. 210.
100 See Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England.
101 Hamlin, Public health, p. 209.
105 Hamlin, Public health, p. 289.
106 Chadwick, An inquiry, pp. 148, 232; Loveick, Thomas, Report upon the sanitary condition of the united parishes of St. Andrew Holborn, Above the Bars, and St. George the Martyr (London, 1848), p. 12Google Scholar.
107 Gavin, Hector, Sanitary ramblings (London, 1848)Google Scholar; on the role of habituation as a motor of cultural attitudes to smell, see Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England.
108 Reports on the sanitary condition of the labouring population in Scotland (London, 1842), pp. 136, 137Google Scholar.
109 For examples of questionnaires and forms, see Board, Poor Law, Report on the capabilities of the metropolitan workhouses for the reception and treatment of cholera cases (London, 1848), p. 69Google Scholar; Second report of the commissioners for inquiring into the state of large towns and populous districts (London, 1845), appendix, p. 21Google Scholar; Report on the cholera outbreak in the parish of St. James, Westminster (London, 1855), p. 175Google Scholar; Report on the sanitary condition of the City of London for the year 1850–1 (London, 1851), p. 51Google Scholar; Report on the sanitary condition of the City of London for the year 1854–5 (London, 1855), p. 32Google Scholar.
110 First report, p. 63.
111 Chadwick, An inquiry, pp. 5, 433; Hassall, Arthur Hill, Observations on the sanitary condition of the Norland district (London, 1849), p. 10Google Scholar.
112 First report, pp. 65, 115–16, 191, 283, 395.
113 Chadwick, An inquiry, p. 342.
115 It is no accident that one article on sixteenth-century responses to smell and disease begins with Chadwick's quote, see Cazes, Helene, ‘Apples and moustaches: Montaigne's grin in the face of infection’, in Carlin, Claire L., ed., Imagining contagion in early modern Europe (Basingstoke, 2005), p. 79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
116 Sigsworth, Michael and Warboys, Michael, ‘The public's view of public health in mid-Victorian Britain’, Urban History, 21 (1994), pp. 237–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hanley, James G., ‘The public's reaction to public health: petitions submitted to parliament, 1847–1848’, Social History of Medicine, 15 (2002), pp. 393–411CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.
117 This draws on interventions in the history of homosexuality; see Halperin, David, How to do the history of homosexuality (Chicago, IL, 2005), p. 107Google Scholar.
118 The phrase is Jenner's; see ‘Follow your nose?’, p. 344.
119 Brown, Michael, ‘Medicine, quackery and the free market: the “war” against Morisson's pills and the construction of the medical profession, c. 1830–c. 1850’, in Jenner, M. S. R. and Wallis, Patrick, eds., Medicine and the market in England and its colonies, c. 1450–1850 (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 238–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
122 Part of a more general emotional economy described in Trotter, ‘The New Historicism’, p. 47.
124 Hamlin, Public health.
126 For ‘phenomenological analogy’, see Bloom, Gina, ‘Games’, in Turner, Henry S., ed., Early modern theatricality (Oxford, 2013), p. 193Google Scholar; for language and olfactory experience, see Tullett, Smell in eighteenth-century England; Majid, Asifa and Levinson, Stephen C., ‘The senses in language and culture’, Senses and Society, 6 (2011), p. 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dugan, Holly and Farina, Lara, ‘Intimate senses/sensing intimacy’, postmedieval, 3 (2012), pp. 1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
127 For the focus on smell in early seventeenth-century struggles with plague, see Jenner, ‘Early modern English conceptions of cleanliness and dirt’, pp. 20–5, 118; Dugan, The ephemeral, pp. 97–125.