A woman who knows what the nose knows

A book that makes scents of the least understood organ

Marcel Proust once wrote that perfume "is the last and best reserve of the past, the one which when all our tears have run dry, can make us cry again." He was no stranger to the evocative power of scent: the odor of a madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea moved him to write "The Remembrance of Things Past."

And yet, as author Gabrielle Glaser proves, the nose is one of the least understood organs. Even though Americans spend $10 billion a year on smelling fresh, science is only beginning to take odor seriously as a subject worthy of research dollars.

Glaser aims to demystify this much maligned (and realigned) organ. She follows the nose from ancient civilization and primitive operating rooms to the halls of modern neuroscience and aromatherapy sales counters.

The fixation on smelling good reaches back to ancient Greece, where sanitation was primitive, and the resulting foul air – malaria – was blamed for the spread of disease. Hippocrates argued that noxious air influenced physical and mental health. And Romans battled body odor with daily baths and scented oils, available to most everyone but slaves. Smelling good was thus equated with social status.

In the blazing deserts of ancient Israel, where water was scarce, human smells took on powerful significance. Caked with dust and sweat, wearing but one outfit day and night, the ancient Israelite, Glaser says, reeked.

By the same token, pleasant smells came to play a central role in worship for the Jews, as it did with the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In Exodus, God tells Moses to slay a ram, "and turn the whole ram into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord; it is a pleasing odor to the Lord." God then outlines a recipe of myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, cane, and olive oil, to be used to consecrate Aaron and his sons for the priesthood.

Not only was the nose believed to bring man closer to God, it was later used to justify a harsh social order. In the 18th century, the popular pseudoscience of physiognomy claimed that a person's physical beauty derived from moral goodness, and that coarser features indicated dishonesty, laziness, even stupidity.

The public became fascinated with noses. The Roman nose was thought to reveal the most dignity and intelligence, while the pug nose revealed weakness and insolence. In his influential 1854 book "Notes on Noses," author George Jabet advanced the notion of "national noses," which bolstered racist theories against Jews, Africans, Irish, and other convenient targets.

In the latter half of the century, the nose moved into the marketplace. Today, nose jobs are the most common form of cosmetic surgery among both men and women, who shell out more than $1 billion a year. Whether to cure chronic stuffiness or relieve stress, Americans spend tens of billions of dollars to smell good – and smell well. Some 37 million Americans report chronic sinus problems, and while the cause eludes the medical field, the pharmaceutical industry is reaping $45 billion a year on drugs that promise to clear the passages.

Some promising research is under way, Glaser notes, but scientific understanding of the nose is still in its infancy. Theories suggest that the ability of humans to smell was once crucial to their survival. And new research is looking into the way tiny odor molecules prompt us to act, think, and remember.

When it comes to pleasant odors, the consuming nose knows what it likes. Sales in the personal fragrance industry – including perfume and soap – soared from $250,000 in 1950 to $6 billion in 2000.

Glaser follows the rise of the American perfume industry, from Marilyn Monroe's Chanel No. 5, to the earthy patchouli oil of the hippies, to the opulence of Giorgio and Poison. Considered too erotic and expensive for good girls in the 1940s, perfume is now a mark of status and allure.

The ancient art of aromatherapy has made a lucrative comeback from the days when Greek mothers would tuck lavender into their children's beds to induce sweet dreams. In 1994, a group of doctors found that the vanilla scent of heliotrope greatly reduced the anxiety levels of patients about to undergo MRI examinations. Now, store shelves are lined with aromatic candles, soaps, tinctures, and air fresheners that promise to help Americans unwind and feel better.

Glaser was motivated to write "The Nose" after four sinus surgeries left her unable to smell for two years. "I couldn't smell my children, my husband, my favorite lilies, or the food I loved to cook," she writes. "Words, somehow, failed to describe my loss."

At times, she wanders from the topic (a section on inhaled cocaine turns into a history of drugs in America), and some information gets recycled. Those points aside, Glaser draws a thousand scents into a highly readable narrative that's a breath of fresh air.

• Julie Finnin Day is a freelance writer traveling through the United States.

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