I’ve been reading Alain Corbin’s “The Foul and the fragrant: odour and the French social imagination”, a study into the smells of Paris and their perception. In his introduction, Corbin mentions that one of his inspirations was Jean-Noël Hallé who, as the first chair of public hygiene established in Paris in 1794, was charged with investigating the stink of Paris, which was thought to have a direct link to disease in the city.

In order to do this, Hallé conducted so-called sanitary surveys, and on one of these 10 km walks along the banks of the Seine, he was accompanied by his friend Boncerf. Equipped with maps and their noses, the pair focused exclusively on odours emitting from the stinking mud, the sewer of the Salpêtrière, and the delights of the river itself. The day was mild and a breeze kept the air moving. So far, so good. Until… poor Boncerf turned into the breeze whilst walking along the edge of the water of the “dreadful Gobelin tributary” and… well, read on!

Monsieur Boncerf, who at this point had turned more directly into the south-easterly breeze and had descended to the riverbank, was overcome by a biting, alkaline, stinging, and stinking odour. It affected his respiratory system so badly that his throat began to hurt within half an hour and his tongue became noticeably swollen. Affected by these poisonous vapours, he warned me to return to the road straightaway; because I had remained at the easternmost point of the bank that had been infested by these sediments, and hence with my back to the wind, I myself did not experience anything unpleasant.

(Hallé, “Procès-verbal”, p.lxxxvi)

This just goes to show how risky the business of sniffing can be!

References

Corbin, A. and American Council of Learned Societies (1986) The foul and the fragrant : odor and the French social imagination. Leamington Spa ; New York: Berg.