1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Smell

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34502841911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 25 — SmellJohn Gray McKendrick

SMELL (connected etymologically with "smoulder" and "smoke"), a sensation excited by the contact with the olfactory region(see Olfactory Organ, for anatomy) of certain substances, usually in a gaseous condition and necessarily in a state of fine subdivision. The sense is widely distributed throughout the animal kingdom. The lower animals, especially those breathing in water, become cognizant of the presence of odoriferous matter near them without touch, vision or hearing, and we suppose that they do so by some sense of taste or smell, or a combination of both. In such cases smell has been appropriately termed "taste at a distance," by which is meant that particles of matter may be diffused through the water so as to come into contact with the terminal organ, and give rise to a sensation such as would have been excited had the matter from which the particles emanated come directly into contact with the nerve-endings. It is therefore of no great importance whether such sensations in humble aquatic organisms are termed taste or smell. In the higher air-breathing animals, however, the senses are differentiated: that of taste is found at the entrance of the alimentary canal, whilst that of smell guards the opening of the respiratory tract This view assists in the interpretation of various structures met with in the lower forms which have been fairly regarded by naturalists as olfactory organs. It has not yet been decided whether the sense of smell depends, in the first instance, on a chemical or on a physical process. All that can be said is that sensory impulses are excited when odoriferous particles come into contact with the free ends of peculiar rod-like cells found in the olfactory mucous membrane. The free olfactory surface is always covered with a thin layer of fluid, and all odoriferous matters must be dissolved in this fluid so as to reach the rod-cells. There is here an analogy with the conditions found in the sense of taste, where sapid substances must be soluble in the fluid of the mouth. The intensity of the sensation of smell depends on the size of the area of the olfactory membrane affected. No satisfactory classification of odours can be given.

The interior of the nose (see Olfactory Organ and Epithelial and Endothelial Tissue) is divided physiologically into two portions—(1) the upper (regio olfactoria), which embraces the upper part of the septum, the upper turbinated

From Klein's Alias of Histology

Longitudinal section through the olfactory membrane of guinea-pig. X about 400. 1, Olfactory epithelium on free surface; 2, Plexus of olfactory nerve-fibres; 3, Pouches of serous glands containing epithelial cells.

bone, and a portion of the middle turbinated bone; and (2) the lower portion of the cavity (regio respiratoria). The olfactory region proper has a thicker mucous membrane than the respiratory; it is covered by a single layer of epithelial cells, often branched at their lower ends and containing a yellow or brownish red pigment; and it contains peculiar tubular glands named " Bowman's glands." The respiratory portion contains ordinary serous glands. In the olfactory region also are the terminal organs of smell. These are long narrow cells passing to the surface between the columnar epithelium covering the surface. The body of the cell is spindle-shaped and it sends up to the surface a delicate rod-like filament, whilst the deeper part is continuous with varicose nerve -filaments, the ends of the olfactory nerve.

Physical Causes of Smell.—Electrical or thermal stimuli do not usually give rise to olfactory sensations. J. Althaus states that electrical stimulation caused a sensation of the smell of phosphorus. To excite smell it is usually supposed that substances must be present in the atmosphere in a state of fine subdivision, or existing as vapours or gases. The fineness of the particles is remarkable, because if the air conveying an odour be filtered through a tube packed with cotton wool and inserted into the nose a smell is still discernible. This proceeding completely removes from the air micro-organisms less than the â– nnfWTffh of an inch in diameter. A grain or two of musk will scent an apartment for years and at the end of the time no appreciable loss of weight can be detected. Substances exciting smell are no doubt usually gases or vapours. Sir William Ramsay has endeavoured to connect the sense with the chemical constitution of the substance. The following gases have no smell:—hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, water gas, marsh gas, olefiant gas, carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, formic acid vapour, nitrous oxide and ammonia. (It is necessary, of course, to distinguish between the sensation of smell and the irritant action of such a gas as ammonia.) The gases exciting smell are chlorine, bromine, iodine, the compounds of the first two with oxygen and water, nitric peroxide, vapours of phosphorus and sulphur, arsenic, antimony, sulphurous acid, carbonic acid, almost all the volatile compounds of carbon except those already mentioned, some compounds of selenium and tellurium, the compounds of chlorine, bromine and iodine with the above-named elements, and some metals. Chlorine, bromine, iodine, sulphur, selenium and tellurium, which are volatile and give off vapour at ordinary temperatures, have each a characteristic smell. Ramsay points out that as a general rule substances having a low molecular weight have either no smell or simply cause irritation of the nostrils. He also shows that in the carbon compounds increase of specific gravity as a gas is associated to a certain point with a sensation of smell. Take the marsh gas or methane series commonly called the paraffins. The first two have no smell; ethane (fifteen times as heavy as hydrogen) has a faint smell; and it is not till butane (thirty times heavier than hydrogen) that a distinct sensation of smell is noticed. Again, a similar relation exists among the alpohols. Methyl alcohol has no smell. Ethyl, or ordinary alcohol free from ethers and water, has a faint smell; “and the odour rapidly becomes more marked as we rise in the series, till the limit of volatility is reached, and we arrive at solids with such a low vapour tension that they give off no appreciable amount of vapour at the ordinary temperature.” Acids gain in odour with increase in density in the form of gas. Thus formic acid is devoid of smell; acetic acid has a characteristic smell; and the higher acids of the series—propionic, butyric, valerianic—increase in odour. It would appear also that “the character of a smell is a property of the element or group which enters into the body producing the smell, and tends to make it generic.” Many compounds of chlorine, hydrogen, compounds of sulphur, selenium and tellurium, the paraffins, the alcohols, the acids, the nitrites, the amines, the pyridine series, the benzene group, have each a characteristic odour. To produce the sensation of smell a substance must have a molecular weight at least fifteen times that of hydrogen. For instance, the specific gravity of marsh gas is eight (no smell), of ethane fifteen (faint smell), of propane twenty-two (distinct smell). Again prussic acid has a specific gravity of fifteen, and many persons fail to detect its odour. There is a relation between the molecular weight of a gas and the presence or absence of odour. Gases of less than a certain molecular weight are odourless, and it is significant that to some persons hydrocyanic acid, which has a low molecular weight, gives rise to no sensation of smell. It has also been pointed out by J. B. Haycraft that chemical compounds of elements belonging to the same group, according to the well-known periodic law of Mendéleeff, have sometimes odours of a similar character (see article “Smell,” Schäfer's Physiology, vol. ii. p. 1254). T. Graham pointed out that odorous substances are in general readily oxidized. J. Tyndall showed that many odorous vapours have a considerable power of absorbing heat. Taking the absorptive capacity of the air as unity, the following absorptions were observed in the respective cases:—

Name of Perfume. Absorption
per 100.
Name of Perfume. Absorption
per 100.
Patchouli 30·0 Lavender 60
Sandal-wood 32·0 Lemon 65
Geranium 33·0 Portugal 67
Oil of cloves 33·5 Thyme 68
Otto of roses 36·5 Rosemary 74
Bergamot 44·0 Oil of laurel 80
Neroli 47·0 Cassia 109

In comparison with the air introduced in the experiments the weight of the odours must be almost infinitely small. “Still we find that the least energetic in the list produces thirty times the effect of the air, whilst the most energetic produces 109 times the same effect.”[1]

Venturi, B. Prévost and Liégeois have studied the well-known movements of odoriferous particles, such as camphor, succinic acid, &c., when placed on the surface of water, and they have suggested that all odoriferous substances in a state of fine subdivision may move in a similar way on the moist surface of the olfactory membrane, and thus mechanically irritate the nerve-endings. This explanation is too coarse; but it is well known that the odours of flowers are most distinctly perceived in the morning, or after a shower, when the atmosphere contains a considerable amount of aqueous vapour. It would appear also that the odours of animal effluvia are of a higher specific gravity than the air, and do not readily diffuse—a fact which may account for the pointer and bloodhound keeping their noses to the ground. Such smells are very persistent and are apparently difficult to remove from any surface to which they have become attached. The smell of a corpse may haunt a living person for days, notwithstanding copious ablutions and change of clothes.

Special Physiology of Smell.—It is necessary that the air containing the odour be driven forcibly against the membrane. Thus the nostrils may be filled with eau de Cologne in normal saline solution, or with air impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen, and still no odour is experienced if the person does not breathe: When a sniff is made the air within the nasal passages is rarefied, and, as the air rushes in to equilibrate the pressure, it is forcibly propelled against the olfactory surface. When the air stream enters the nostrils, it passes vertically upwards, bends round and sweeps backwards and downwards at the level of the middle turbinated bones towards the posterior nares. There is a motion of the air over the olfactory surface. The olfactory surface must be moist; if it is dry, or is covered with too thick a layer of mucus (as in catarrh), the sense is much weakened or lost. The first moment of contact is the most acute and the sense quickly becomes blunted. The first scent of a flower is the strongest and sweetest; and after a few minutes' exposure the intensity of even a foetid odour may not be perceived. This fact may be accounted for on the supposition that the olfactory membrane becomes quickly coated with a thin layer of matter, and that the most intense effect is produced when the odoriferous substances are applied to a clean surface. The intensity of smell depends on (1) the area of olfactory surface affected, and (2) the degree of concentration of the odoriferous matter. It is said that musk to the amount of the two-millionth of a milligram, and one part of sulphuretted hydrogen in 1,000,000 parts of air, may be perceived. The smell of mercaptan has been experimentally detected when the dilution was I to 50,000,000,000, and it was calculated that the weight of mercaptan so detected in 50 cc. of air was 1/400,000,000 of a milligram (E. Fischer and Penzolalt). If the two nostrils are filled with different odorous substances, there is no mixture of the odours, but we smell sometimes the one and sometimes the other. Morphia, mixed with sugar and taken as snuff, paralyses the olfactory apparatus, while strychnine makes it more sensitive (Lichtenfels and Frölich). There is no evidence that there are in the olfactory region different end organs or olfactory cells for different odours. The sense, however, may be fatigued by one odour so that other odours are not experienced. Thus camphor may so fatigue the sense that ether and eau de Cologne cannot excite smell.

As a rule, we experience odours by the simultaneous use of both nostrils. Stimulation of either nostril would give rise to the sensation, while there is a fusion of sensations when both are affected. If, by means of a tube, an odour is conveyed into one nostril, while an odour of a different kind is directed into the other, there may be either a compound sensational effect, a sort of double-odour, or one odour may so predominate as entirely to destroy the other. The fusion of odours is not complete, and it is similar to the effect of combining, say blue and red, in stereoscopic vision. When one odour destroys the other, the obliteration must take place in the cerebral centre. Certain odours are antagonistic, such as musk and oil of bitter almonds, volatile oils and iodoform, ammonia and acetic acid. It is not unlikely that when one odour predominates among many, this may be due not to any chemical action of one substance over another, but that the missing sensations may be accounted for by their failure to excite the olfactory region of the cerebrum in the presence of a stronger stimulus.

The delicacy of the sense is much greater in many of the lower animals than in man, and it is highly probable that the dog or cat obtain information by means of this sense which a human being cannot get. Odours may excite in the minds of many animals vivid impressions, and they have probably a memory of smells which the human being does not possess. Even in man the sense may be greatly improved by exercising it. A boy, James Mitchell, was born blind, deaf and dumb, and chiefly depended on smell for keeping up a connexion with the outer world. He readily observed the presence of a stranger in the room and he formed his opinions of persons apparently from their characteristic smells (see Dugald Stewart's Works, iv. 300). In some rare cases, the sense of smell is congenitally absent in human beings, and it may be much injured by the practice of snuffing or by diseases of the nose affecting the olfactory membrane. Subjective impressions of smells, like spectral illusions or sounds in the ears, are occasionally, but rarely, observed in cases of hysteria and in the insane. Excessive smoking injures the sense. Finally, it may be observed that the sense of odour gives information as to the characters of food and drink and as to the purity of the air. Some persons are sensitive to certain smells while they do not recognize others, such as hydrocyanic acid or mignonette. In the lower animals also, the sense is associated with the sexual functions.  (J. G. M.) 

  1. Tyndall, Contributions to Molecular Physics in Domain of Radiant Heat, p. 99.