Olfaction and the Primitive: Nineteenth-Century Medical Thinking on Olfaction

  • Anne Harrington
  • Vernon Rosario


In his social history of odor, The Foul and the Fragrant (1986), Alain Corbin notes the extent to which, historically, science and scholarship have been ambivalent in their attitudes towards the phenomena of olfaction. Subtle and not so subtle prejudices against this sensory organ can be traced, among other things, to its association with lust, desire, and impulsive sensuality, its links to the undignified sniffing behavior of animals, the poverty of human language to categorize and analyze the phenomena with which it is concerned, and its apparent relative uselessness in civilized society (Corbin, 1986: 6–7). At the same time, a counterpoint to this main song of disapproval has also left its trace on history: early students of animal behavior saluted olfaction as the primary organ of self-preservation; nineteenth-century men of letters elevated it to the privileged organ of feelings, recollection, and intimacy; it was the organ “capable of shaking man’s inner life more profoundly than were the senses of hearing or of sight. It seemed to reach to the roots of life” (Corbin, 1986: 7–8).


Nineteenth Century Sexual Arousal Olfactory Nerve Olfactory Stimulus Uncinate Fasciculus 
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© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Harrington
  • Vernon Rosario

There are no affiliations available

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