Today on my blog I am talking about an interview I did with Paola Totaro for my Research Secrets slot In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum #248 26 Oct 2022. She explained how losing her sense of smell during Covid inspired her and her husband to co-write their non-fiction book, On the Scent.
On the afternoon of March 27, 2020, Paolo told me she went to the bathroom and after washing her hands and using her usual scented hand cream, she realised she had completely lost her sense of smell.
“I will never forget the moment because it was so sudden, so inexplicable and so utterly frightening. I’m driven by smell. I walk the park with the dog smelling flowers, the air, rain and being unable to smell anything was an existential shock. I felt as if I’d been put in a bubble and was missing a vital connection with the outside world.”Paola Totaro
This inspired her to read more anecdotal reports of this mysterious, sudden smell loss to find out what was happening to her and what quickly also struck millions of others around the world. She found herself researching the cultural history of smell and how human perception and response to smells has changed over the centuries, from theories of miasma in which smell was said to be harbinger of disease to the use of changes in smell as diagnostic tools.
She told me she must have read hundreds of research papers that were being pre-published during Covid and also interviewed scientists from all over the world -neuroscientists in the US – to specialist ENT physicians in Germany and Switzerland – to philosophers in the UK and Spain.
“I reached out straight away to Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London who happened to have said something on Twitter about smell that day and he, bless him, sent me an incredibly kind email acknowledging just how awful the loss can be. Later, he would also help me onto the path to find the top global chemosensory specialists who might explain what was going on.”Paolo Totaro
Paola revealed she even created a google alert on the word anosmia, which was enormously helpful as science and medicine were advancing at leaps and bounds in this area. She also spent a week immersed with young doctors and scientists who planned to specialise in otorhinolaryngology or olfaction research, at a summer school at the University of Dresden in 2021 run by Professor Thomas Hummel, known in this world of smell as the ‘grandfather of olfaction’.
The resulting book, On the Scent – Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world, is a mix of Paolo’s personal memoir of her journey into dealing with her loss of smell integrated with all the scientific research she uncovered. Much of the book was written in lockdown so many of her interviews were conducted over Zoom. She also interviewed people who had been born without a sense of smell, others who lost the sense to virus or brain injury. Reading the bibliographies and footnotes of other published writers/authors on the topic of olfaction was also hugely helpful and Paolo reached out to some authors who were also helpful and generous.
Paolo explained her husband, Robert Wainwright who specialises in writing the biographies of interesting and important people lost in history wrote about people throughout history who had no sense of smell, such as the great nature poet, Wordsworth who was anosmic. He also contributed the story of INXS frontman, Michael Hutchence, who plunged into depression when he lost his sense of smell. She elaborated Robert was her slash and burn guy as were the editors at Elliott and Thompson.
“Throughout the writing process, I would read aloud to Robert each evening and if his eyes glazed over in the science bits, I’d wind them back. He did the same for me with his people chapters – but he’s much less long winded than me.”Paolo Totaro
The book was written in just six months.
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