Inhaling deeply, I envisioned the shampoo bottle and logo—a long-haired goddess, tresses decorated with flowers. Did this icon survive the seventies?
I parted the woman’s hair carefully with my gloved hands like a stylist about to apply color. My work paused. The odor created intimacy. Ten years into my career as a Medical Examiner and the scent of botanicals blossomed from my youth.
“Are you okay, Dr. J?” my assistant said.
Was I? The aroma lingered, as on a bath towel in my remote Baltimore home.
“Smell that?” I said.
The technician leaned in and sniffed. “Shampoo?”
“Yes. She recently washed her hair. It’s still damp.”
“Is that important?” His eyes took in the rest of her injured body.
“Every detail matters in a homicide.” Then I added, “In any case really.”
I had an impulse to explain this truth; to elaborate on the science. Instead, we stood respecting the quiet in the morgue amidst this fragrant echo.
A decade earlier, in 1987, my mentor, the Deputy Chief at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, told me to use as many senses as possible during an autopsy. Dr. Kirschner was Jewish but looked Amish with a well-trimmed salt and pepper beard and no mustache. His face along with his balding scalp reminded me of the action figure Dr. Hugo Strange, a nemesis of Batman, except Dr. K maintained a rim of hair around the sides of his head.
He may have looked like a supervillain, but he was my forensic sensei. I had met him while still in my pathology residency, spending every available elective credit to be at the Chicago Morgue.
“What do you mean, use all of my senses?” I asked.
Doctors readily used acuity. He emphasized more than visualization. Rounds had finished. Fifteen bodies waited for us.
“Of course, everyone uses their eyes, but you also need to touch,” Dr. K said. “Feel the organs to determine if they are normal or diseased. Use your fingertips to find abnormalities. Is it soft, hard? Does it break apart easily or is it tough?”
My pathology training at the hospital over the prior three years had emphasized these tactile descriptions of specimens. I inspected tumors removed during surgery—detailing texture, assessing solidity. This was already a part of my regimen. The rest of his advice proved more novel.
“Hearing is important, too. Catching the sound of air or gas escaping from the body,” he said, then raising an eyebrow, “and listening for insect activity.”
I winced. The life cycle of the blowfly became known to me in my forensic fellowship. I didn’t like flies in any of their life stages, but I especially hated their infant forms.
“You can tell how many maggots are in a decomposing body by the volume of the sound when they’re eating.” Dr. K explained tallying numbers on the maggot census.
I abhorred the crunching noise they made.
He tapped the side of his nose with an index finger. “But this right here is the most important tool of all. Use it all the time. Don’t conceal its power like the cops do with Vicks VapoRub. It will tell you where someone has been, their habits, when something is different than expected, even why they died.”
Smells filled the autopsy suite: blood, body fluids, rot, decay. A kaleidoscope of aromas that seemed to require endurance not analysis; odors to be avoided overpowered with orange-scented deodorizer and absorbed with coffee grounds.
Yet he instructed me to go beyond the unpleasantness and unmask what lay beneath.
His words proved salient.
After I finished an autopsy on a middle-aged man found dead on his front porch, my head pounded, and I felt nauseous. Only Carl, my technician, and I were in the Chicago morgue.
“You feel okay, Carl?” I said.
“Yeah. You?” Carl said.
“Not really. Smell anything?”
“The stomach contents smell weird. I’m going to talk to the lab. Why don’t you just cover him up and take a break.”
“Okay, Dr. J,” Carl said.
I headed to the chief toxicologist’s office.
“Knock, knock,” I said at the open door. “Mike, I have a question.”
He smiled broadly, always eager to share chemical and pharmacologic information.
I told him about the case, that I was feeling sick, and the weird smell of the gastric contents.
“What did it smell like? Bitter almonds?”
He unlocked a secure cabinet and retrieved a small brown bottle. He opened the cap and directed me to smell it.
“Yeah, that’s it.” I marveled.
Only 50% of people have the ability to detect the aroma of the deadly poison cyanide. I did but hadn’t recognized it.
“We usually test everyone when they start working here. Sorry we were late getting to you.”
He went on to explain that the first few cases of poisoning in the Tylenol tampering in 1982 had slipped past the noses of the pathologist and technician. Seven people had died. After this, the office ensured that at least one member of any team working on an autopsy had the ability to smell cyanide.
Carl could not smell cyanide and he hadn’t been close to the stomach contents, where the poison mixed with gastric acid to produce the deadly vapors that made me sick. I called downstairs to tell Carl.
Fresh air and time were the tonic I needed; I felt better by dinner.
This nasal ability developed into the early warning system that aided me in six future cases, alerting me long before the sickening effects of the poison.
My olfactory sense found purpose in noticing what a person had eaten, or their state of cleanliness. The more I used it, the more astute it became. I passed this skill to trainees.
Medical students came to my office in Syracuse from Upstate Medical University where I taught them the principles of dissection through performing autopsies. They were naive to nasal potential, like I had been in the distant past.
I held up a container of gastric contents for them to sniff. They looked away. They coughed and stepped back from the gurney.
“Go ahead, smell it,” I said, demonstrating how to waft a hand over the open jar to bring the air particles towards the face. A brave upperclassman waved his hand over the container.
“Beer,” he said, eyes widening. “I thought it would be like puke.”
My nose became my sentry. It gathered information, and calculated behavior. Common scents infiltrated the malodorous background impressing me with their poignancy.
“Look at this,” the technician said.
He pointed to the mouth of an older man. A pink tablet lodged in the teeth and coated the tongue. The wintergreen of Pepto-Bismol reached into my nostrils. The man had taken the medication to relieve indigestion. It did nothing for his heart attack.
The smell transported me to his pain, making visceral his final breath. He expected to feel relief from the stab of discomfort as he popped the tablet in his mouth but collapsed even before he could swallow.
On an average Saturday, I noted a corpse’s external physical appearance. I described the color and size of tattoos, moles, and surgical scars. Lifting the man’s arm, a familiar scent emanated from the pit. Hints of nutmeg and anise captured in dots of anti-perspirant stuck onto axillary hairs.
“What does that remind you of?” I asked my assistant.
Used to my quizzes, he took a whiff and said, “I know it. Um. Wait a minute. Old Spice?”
He nodded without any sense of accomplishment. The olfactory remnant of the corpse’s life sobered us.
I pictured the young man applying the bar of deodorant: one swipe, two, preparing for his day. The pleasing bouquet evoked a time before the car crash, when the only care was unpleasant body odor or shirt stains. The smell lingered after the unexpected interaction with the semi, the exploding airbag, the shattered windows.
I needed air.
The fragrance of sentience entwined with the grave throughout my 25 years in pathology creating a juxtaposition of normalcy and the unforeseen.
Molecules of Chanel #5 rose from the skin of a woman who collapsed at a restaurant. My mother shared that same fragrance as she headed off to a Knights of Columbus dance. The acrid nail polish from a recent manicure floated above a teen overdose. The identical aroma greeted me when I shared a spa day with a friend. Traces of Obsession on a man collapsed at work blended with my husband’s favorite cologne. Vapors of hair spray drifted in the air from a nursing home patient and re-emerged from another can as I fixed my hair before testifying in court.
Everyday smells imprinted in my quotidian catalog of death. The scents traversed the boundary between before and after; crossing the frontier that separates the world outside and inside the morgue. A permeable wall of memory surrounded me.
Bubblegum, popcorn, pizza, orange juice, vomitus, beer, hair gel, body spray, toothpaste, mouthwash, blood, shaving cream, lotions, cigarettes, marijuana, chocolate, coffee, urine, coconut, lemon, cinnamon, lavender, pus, lilac, rose, satsuma, eucalyptus, spearmint, feces, grape, cherry, watermelon, cumin, garlic.